In mid-2004, reports surfaced that Microsoft would soon ship an entry-level version of Windows XP, dubbed Windows XP Starter Edition, to customers in emerging markets such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia and India. Those markets, Microsoft said, needed locale-specific PCs that were easy to use, support, and sell.

The response from tech press and analysts was immediate and damning. Reports referred to XP Starter Edition as "cut-rate," "cheap," "crippled," and even "futile." All of those reports, however, are completely wrong. And it's a sad statement on the state of modern tech reporting and analysis that so many people could be so cynical about a product they have never seen and don't know a thing about.

When Microsoft first announced Windows XP Starter Edition, I asked if I could review the product. However, because it is available only in certain language versions and is designed to run on inexpensive, low-end hardware, and be presented to users with absolutely no computer experience, Microsoft declined my request. However, the folks responsible for XP Starter Edition were nice enough to speak with me at length and, in December, separately demonstrate the product to me in person so that I could get a feel for what the company was doing. In this case, the truth about Windows XP Starter Edition bears little resemblance to what you may have read in the tech press. So here, for the first time, I believe, is the true story about what Microsoft hopes to accomplish with Windows XP Starter Edition.

The genesis of XP Starter Edition

As an international corporation with the dominant operating system and office productivity suite for PCs, Microsoft has been working with various governments for decades. Over the past few years, the company has expanded its relationship with certain governments by instituting programs that improve citizens' access to technology. These governments, for the most part, are largely in second- and third-world countries that wish to move their populations into the computer age. And they've told Microsoft that what's needed is computing resources that address two main issues. First, computing must cross existing language barriers and be accessible. Second, users in emerging markets need education and skills training: While using a mouse and keyboard may be second nature to you and I, to people living in remote areas of the world, computers are mysterious and unknown.

"We never had a Windows product that was designed for the unique needs of first time users in developing tech markets," Mike Wickstrand, the Group Product Manager for Windows XP Starter Edition told me. So in mid-2003, the company began working with the Thailand IT Ministry on a program to get 1 million low-cost PCs into the hands of disadvantaged Thai citizens. "We committed to partner with them \[on that program\], and also partner with them on the definition and development of a \[software\] product that is more appropriate for the needs of modest income new PC users in emerging markets."

In fall 2003, Wickstrand and other Microsoft representatives spent time in Thailand and other similar markets, visiting the homes of people who had just gotten over the hurdle of getting their first PCs. These users were completely new to computers, and were generally in over their heads because of the complex software and hard-to-understand interfaces afforded by modern operating systems.

"We really wanted to understand the environment," Wickstrand told me, "and their motivations for getting a PC. There is a place for a product that is unique to emerging markets, and is quite different from Windows XP Home Edition. We want to make sure that product has the features and functionality that are appropriate for first time users, and can do all of the things they want to do. We also wanted to make sure that product shipped without the more advanced and confusing functionality that they don't need."

After being overseas, the team returned to Microsoft and began developing the product that later became known as Windows XP Starter Edition. By mid-2004, they had something that they could test with target customers in emerging markets. That product was based on the needs of the governments in the participating countries, the consumers who will ultimately use XP Starter Edition, the PC makers that will sell it bundled with new computers, and various non-profit organizations that are trying to improve technology access around the world. "We've spoken to over 6,000 consumers and over 500 PC makers, from the largest to the smallest, so far," Wickstrand said. "We really wanted to understand what the needs were."

"Part of the vision of each of the Information and Communications Technology Ministries in each participating country typically includes how to get PC technology to their citizens that don't have it," Wickstrand told me. "We met with each of them to understand their goals, and the barriers that were preventing people from getting their first PC. Then we took the consumer input, the industry input, government input, and non-profit input, and used all that to shape the XP Starter Edition offering."

The XP Starter Edition pre-beta begins

Microsoft was ready to test Windows XP Starter Edition in the field. Because of the magnitude of the project, the company did something it had never done: It seeded 600 families in Thailand and India with PCs containing pre-beta versions of XP Starter Edition. "These were the people we'd identified through research that we felt would be great target customers," Wickstrand said. "They live in these countries, have modest incomes, and want a PC. They are articulate about their needs. They know what they want." In addition to the Starter Edition PC, these customers were also given an Internet connection, and a printer.

To deliver the PCs to these families, Microsoft partnered with local PC manufacturers. Wickstrand and his coworkers on the XP Starter Edition team also made frequent trips to Asia to visit with the families and see how things were going. Those users, of course, agreed to be recorded so that their reactions to new PC experiences could be better gauged. This stands in sharp contrast to the way Microsoft usually beta-tests software. "Typically the people testing software are not new users," Wickstrand said, so the quality of feedback is pretty low, because they already know what they're doing. In Thailand and India, however, the participating users gave tremendous feedback, because it was all so new to them.

"I have a team of product managers that goes out and meets with these families periodically in Thailand and India," Wickstrand told me. "We also have a professional research firm we're working with that goes out and touches base with these families periodically to find out how they're doing. They ask a set of structured questions so we can learn about what they're using their PCs for, how their experience is, and things they'd like to change. Their PCs are actually instrumented so that we can get really good data in terms of how often they're online, and how they're using the machines."

Based on this feedback, Microsoft added numerous help videos and getting started guides that walk users through such seemingly simple tasks as using a mouse. "These are the types of things that we tend to take for granted \[in the US and other computer-savvy nations\]," Wickstrand told me. "But these things are not obvious to people who have never seen a mouse before. There are lots of people like that in the world. And they aspire to learn what computers are all about." Other videos teach users about the desktop, the Start menu, files and folders, Microsoft Paint, and Internet Explorer. "They're pretty basic," Wickstrand added.

Piloting XP Starter Edition to success

Microsoft worked with the five governments to establish a timeline and goals for the XP Starter Edition project, which is being phased in as a pilot program that will be reevaluated next year. The first versions, for the Thai and Malay markets, were completed in 2004, and the others will ship in early 2005 in four-to-six week intervals. "There are five countries in the pilot program," Wickstrand said, "and those countries are where the need is great, and where the government is deeply invested and committed to implementing technology."

Because it's a pilot program, XP Starter Edition will change and improve over time as Microsoft garners even more feedback. The program will possibly expand to additional countries in 2005 as well. And if you're worried that XP Starter Edition is a flash in the pan, and may suddenly disappear like early subscription-based versions of Office XP, I've been told by people on the Longhorn team that they are now building test versions of Longhorn Starter Edition. My guess is that the product will be around for a while. However, XP Starter Edition will not be made available as a standalone product. Instead, it will only be bundled with new PCs that are localized to the markets Microsoft is targeting.

Like XP Starter Edition itself, the pilot program has been widely misunderstood by the tech press. Wickstrand, hoping to set the record straight, told me that Microsoft has four goals for the initial XP Starter Edition pilot program. First, the company wants to make sure that first time PC users in new markets have the right product at the right price, on the right hardware, and with the right features. Second, the product must help Microsoft's government partners--the tech ministries in these countries--help middle and lower class citizens gain access to technology for the first time. Third, this product should help grow the business for PC makers and help them reach a new segment of customers. And finally, from Microsoft's perspective, the company will gauge how XP Starter Edition is performing relative to their expectations.

"We rolled out a massive research effort to make sure we're delivering the right product," Wickstrand told me, "and we'll do more after the product is broadly available \[in those markets\] to capture the learning and make decisions \[about the future\]. We're purposefully starting in those countries where the need is the greatest. In some of these countries, PC penetration is less than 2 percent. That's where the opportunity is."

Answering the critics

Here, things get inspirational and take a marked turn from the cynical reports you may have seen elsewhere. "I look at what has inspired my team, and I can tell you that we've spent an incredible amount of time in the homes of customers, and meeting with local partners and government officials. Our inspiration--our passion--is to get the product right and help \[users\] understand what a PC can do for them. \[When they first get a PC,\] their eyes are open for a week. These are adults and young boys and girls with no technology exposure at all. It's addicting when you can see the impact you can have on people's lives."

"People talk about XP Starter Edition in a derogatory manner," he added. "They say it's crippled, or insert your favorite word. You have to look at it like this. We've done the research. We know the unique needs of these people. We've tested instrumented versions of Windows XP Starter Edition that were distributed during the beta. We have incredible data on how these people actually use the PCs. There are factual and logical inconsistencies in the reports I've read that are not backed up by any research at all. They cannot justify the position they've taken. I've spoken to those who came out strong against the product. There is no research."

"If you're speaking to an IT professional who rolls out desktops in an organization of 20,000 people and ask him if he would roll out Windows XP Home Edition, he'd say no," Wickstrand continued. "He'd roll out XP Pro or Windows 2000. But he wouldn't describe XP Home as crippled or say that it sucks. It's just not the right product for their needs. Extend that thinking down to someone with modest income, and no technical experience, and then compare that user to a power user in their home. Is that \[power user\] going to be happy with XP Starter Edition? No. That's not a product that's made for a power user. It's made for a person that hasn't ever used a mouse before. We need to break some ground here. For power users to say it's crippled ...."

"The feedback we got from governments was simple," he said. "They want us to meet the needs of their citizens. It's a fundamentally different view of a product that's designed for first time PC users. They want a product that meets those needs and is customized for them."

"One of the best parts about the job has been going and visiting families and seeing exactly the experiences that they're getting," Wickstrand said. Maybe some day, some of the XP Starter Edition critics could do the same.

Making it meaningful to users

One of the guiding principles of Windows XP Starter Edition is that it be localized and customized for the markets in which it will be sold. That is, the Thai version of XP Starter Edition should look and feel like a Thai product. Today, XP Home and Professional Editions don't even have help that's been localized into languages like Thai and Hindi. For a more advanced user, that's not necessarily a problem. But for the typical XP Starter Edition customer, that kind of thing is tremendously important.

"What we heard was that they wanted it to have a local feel, one that XP doesn't have today," Wickstrand said. "This customer segment feels that's very important. So we have screensavers, wallpapers, and other imagery in the product, which carries though in the help system, that ties the system to the particular locale. The features are simple to use, and the ones that they need to use the most, and nothing else. These customers have repulsion against advanced features."

Another requirement that likely won't be familiar to most Western users is a societal need to keep family members together. "These customers really value having their children at home," Wickstrand noted. "A shared-use scenario at school or the library is OK, but a PC at home means there's no rush, and it's more convenient. As the children grow up, parents are concerned that they're away from home unsupervised. We're hearing this over and over in all the countries. In many cases, the only other solution for these kids is an Internet caf? in the evening, and that's unsupervised. They want \[their children\] at home. XP Starter Edition can access the Internet, play music, help with homework, and play games. The product can run three programs at a time. For those families, this is exactly what they want. That's a great experience for them."

Here's another unobvious way Microsoft worked to make XP Starter Edition more acceptable to the target markets. During early testing in Thailand, users complained that they didn't like the female voice in the help videos, because it sounded too much like a cranky, older teacher. They asked for a younger, friendlier-sounding voice that was less intimidating. So Microsoft changed the voice.

Using XP Starter Edition

Windows XP Starter Edition is designed--and, incidentally, licensed--to run only on the inexpensive, low-end PCs that will be sold in the target markets. Today, those PCs feature a 233-to-300 MHz Intel Celeron or AMD Duron/Sempron processor, 64-128 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a CD-ROM or DVD drive, and an 800 x 600 SVGA resolution display. "We made sure that XP Starter Edition worked on the hardware that that was appropriate," Wickstrand said. "It aligns with the hardware that was rolled out \[recently\] in government programs \[in those areas\]. XP Starter Edition doesn't make sense on 3.2 GHz Pentium 4." These PCs, incidentally, typically cost about $300. So they're still a pretty hefty investment for most customers. But in an interesting move, the hardware won't be XP Starter Edition-specific. Customers can choose which systems to get and Microsoft will see how Starter Edition fares in the market.

In use, Windows XP Starter Edition visually resembles XP Home Edition, but in Classic mode (Figure), with no theme or color scheme support. Certain complex features, like the ability to unlock the taskbar, are removed, as they would just confuse new users. Others, however, like Security Center, are present. That's because the product does include the security features from Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2).

The Starter Edition desktop is limited to 800 x 600 resolution, and the desktop icons are large and friendly looking (Figure). For the most part, navigating around the XP Starter Edition Start menu and file system is very familiar to the same experiences in XP Home Edition, based on my short test drive with the system. The features that differentiate this product at a very basic level, however, are the Getting Started Guide (Figure) and the instructional videos. The videos help walk you through an introduction to the PC, using a printer (Figure), and even, as mentioned previously, explain basic mouse use (Figure).

As for localized features, XP Starter Edition is obviously presented fully in the language of the local market. Wallpapers, screensavers, and other graphics contain local imagery. "It's localized, easy-to-use, and approachable," Wickstrand said, as I moused around the Thai version of the XP Starter Edition desktop. "You'll notice it has a feel that is distinctly Thai. The set of wallpapers you can select were picked by Thai citizens as being appropriate and representative of their country. There are localized screensavers as well, with the Thai flag and some local Thai arts and crafts. We put some traditional Thai designs in there as well. The other place where the imagery shows up is in the area we call My Support. In Windows XP Home and Pro, it's called Help and Support Center." Wickstrand noted again that customers stressed how important the local imagery was to them. They wanted to feel that it had been made just for them and made in their country.

My Support is an interesting feature (Figure). Through its quantitative and qualitative research, and through beta testing, Microsoft looked at the issues people were typically having using the system and built some new content from scratch that would help them succeed. Unlike the Help and Support Center most XP users know, My Support has more in the way of walkthroughs. These walkthroughs describe a process, like making tea, and explain how that relates to accomplishing certain processes on the PC. "One of the things our research has found is that some people like to learn by reading, while others like to be shown what to do," Wickstrand told me. Microsoft accomplishes the former with text-based My Support content and the latter with video. XP Starter Edition also comes with a supplementary CD of additional XP Starter Edition Getting Started videos.

I viewed a few of the Malay versions of these videos during my short stint using the product. There are 12 lessons, and the first, somewhat humorously, explains how to use the Getting Started videos. The second lesson is, what is a computer? "These are the types of things we obviously take for granted," Wickstrand added. Other lessons cover such topics as email and digital music. I also got to see some of the early Thai videos, which used the school marm-ish voice that's since been replaced. And sure enough, she did sound a bit angry.

One of the big criticisms about XP Starter Edition is that it can run just three applications simultaneously, so I was curious to see what it would do if you attempted to launch more than three. In this case, the system displays a notification window telling you that you can only run three applications. The notification roughly reads as, "With Windows XP Starter Edition, you can run three programs at a time. To open a new program, please save your work, close one open application, and open the new application again."

"You can think of it like this," Wickstrand explained. "In terms of the program and window limits, we look at the target customers and understand how they're using their computer, and we created a product that's tailored to their specific usage scenarios. And clearly, that's a feature where more experienced users would feel the limitation, but for a first-time user who's never touched a mouse before, it's quite sufficient."

XP Starter Edition also does away with advanced features such as home networking. "It's designed for a client-only machine," Wickstrand said, one that will typically connect to the Internet but not directly to other machines. Given the expense of a computer in the target regions, and the scarcity of such technologies, this limitation, like most other XP Starter Edition limitations, is quite understandable.

Conclusions

Speaking with Wickstrand, and to a lesser extent actually using the system, provided me with a much clearer perspective about Windows XP Starter Edition, which is not the crippled dog that critics have described it as. Indeed, Wickstrand's story about the XP Starter Edition team and its dedication to actually meeting the needs of real users in disadvantaged parts of the world is quite inspiring. Far from its reported destitution, XP Starter Edition is, in fact, a triumph of cooperative product design, one that simultaneously meets the needs of users, governments, PC makers, and Microsoft itself. In my book, that's a win-win. As for the future of XP Starter Edition, I guess we'll have to wait and see how the pilot program performs. But from this point in time, with the pilot program just two-fifths of the way through a multi-month rollout, Windows XP Starter Edition looks like it has a bright future. It's just too bad that the ivory tower critics can't see beyond their own insular worlds to understand that truth.