Early reaction to Windows 7 is that it's a winner. Could the successor to Vista be Microsoft's last gasp, or does open source have a formidable new rival to Linux?
The word that has had Microsoft most worried over this past year was not "Linux," but "netbook," Or, rather, it's the rise of the netbook that has forced Microsoft to a) extend XP's lifespan and b) make future editions of Windows run that much leaner to avoid losing present and future market share to Linux.
One of the advantages of insuring that Windows 7 runs well on netbooks is that it guarantees much more performance on less-than-state-of-the-art computing hardware. I have a desktop machine, a hand-me-down from the family, which sports an AMD Duron processor and 1GB of RAM; next to it, a Sony VAIO notebook, a single-core Centrino also with 1GB of RAM. Windows 7 (Beta) runs quite decently on both, although for the best possible performance I turned off most of the visual effects. (The AMD machine, but not the VAIO, supported Aero Glass.)
Linux has, in a sense, always existed in something akin to a "netbook edition," thanks to the presence of any number of versions designed to run well on less powerful computers: Xubuntu (or Ubuntu Netbook Remix Edition), Puppy Linux, DSL, and so on. But even with what constitutes the "low end" of computing these days -- like the machines I mentioned above -- the more conventional distributions also work splendidly.
Xubuntu on a netbook. Note the smaller visual elements.
The most recent Ubuntu and Fedora incarnations run without a hitch on those two machines; the VAIO even lets me use desktop effects (although, again, it makes more sense to turn them off). So while both Linux and Windows now work better on more modest hardware, it's easy to forget that the definition of "modest hardware" has moved up incrementally even since the first netbooks appeared.
To be scrupulously precise, though, the best definition of a netbook edition of any OS would mean something that's not only been tuned to run well on minimal hardware, but also has its interface and visual styles set up to support a smaller display (and perhaps also a smaller keyboard and less accurate pointing device).
As of Beta 1, Windows 7 doesn't really have an out-of-the-box theme for a smaller display -- if anything, most of the effort in recent releases of Windows has been on making larger displays more useful. Desktop gadgets also do not appear to be freely resizable, which makes them somewhat less useful on a smaller display. But there's nothing to say that a netbook-friendly theme won't be available with Windows 7 eventually, and it's not all that difficult to create one from scratch.
Linux, on the other hand, has both entire distributions and desktop environments designed for modest hardware including lower-resolution displays. Work in this field is ongoing, such as this post which instructs how to make Android run on an Asus Eee netbook -- since, as it turns out, the way Android handles displays is a pretty good match for the smaller display habitually found on netbooks.
The tradeoff for all this flexibility is that much less visual consistency between incarnations. Although, the same could be said (incrementally) of XP vs. Vista vs. 7 -- and, in all cases, once you figure out where things are it's one less thing to worry about.
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