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XP Starter under the gun

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The addition of a Spanish-language version this week means that Microsoft is now selling Windows XP Starter Edition, a localized adaptation of the full-fledged operating system, in a half-dozen languages in various emerging markets.

Critics say, however, that the software is still not flexible enough to really meet the needs of developing countries and individuals who live there.

To offer Starter Edition for far less than other versions of Windows XP without hurting its existing business, Microsoft imposed a number of restrictions, such as the fact the program can only open three windows at a time.

"I think someone who has any experience with a PC is going to start hitting the limitations pretty quickly," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver.

That, however, gets at one of the toughest things to figure out about Windows XP Starter Edition--who the target customer is.

Microsoft says the software, which is offered only as part of a budget system, is aimed chiefly at first-time computer users--those who have never really interacted with Windows.

But critics say the people in developing countries most likely to be able to afford a computer--even an affordable one with Starter--are middle-income residents who may well use a PC at work. Such customers may be more computer-savvy and less likely to buy a product with limitations.

"Microsoft will make little progress in the market with this product, as indicated by key PC vendors' adoption plans," Gartner analysts Dion Wiggins and Martin Gilliland wrote in a report.

"Ultimately, Microsoft can't limit the functionality of Windows and successfully fight piracy," Gartner said in its report. "The only real options are to lower the price and maintain functionality."

Some say that Microsoft is missing a key point when it assumes that buyers are willing to make those tradeoffs when buying a computer. Although a $300 PC may seem cheap by U.S. standards, for the customers Microsoft is targeting, such a purchase could represent years of savings.

"If I am saving for months and months and months to buy a PC, and I want it to last for years and years," Gartner's Silver said. "I'm going to have outgrown Starter Edition long before I get rid of that PC."

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