In late 2004, Microsoft announced that it's working with the IT ministries in several developing countries to develop a special low-cost version of Windows XP, called XP Starter Edition. XP Starter Edition will let consumers in those countries—most of whom have never seen a mouse, let alone used a PC—more easily move into the computer era. Unfairly criticized in the press as "XP Lite," XP Starter Edition was designed with the cooperation of the governments in the countries where it will be sold so that the OS will meet the unique requirements of their populaces. And although XP Starter Edition likely won't affect your business this year or next, the expansion of Windows-based computing to countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, and Thailand means that you'll soon have enormous new markets from which to garner employees and customers. Here's what you need to know about XP Starter Edition.

How It Happened
XP Starter Edition is the result of years of work with governments around the world, many of whom aggressively sought Microsoft's cooperation in addressing the needs of users on the other side of the digital divide. XP Starter Edition addresses some core concerns that many of us take for granted. Many people can't access technology simply because of language barriers or a lack of education and skills training. If they do get access to technology, it's foreign to their experience because they didn't grow up around computers or other electronic devices.

In mid-2003, Microsoft began working with Thailand's IT ministry, which wanted to see 1 million of its most disadvantaged citizens gain access to low-cost PCs. After committing to partnering with the ministry, Microsoft began examining user needs in that market. Other countries came on board, and the idea for the XP Starter Edition pilot program took shape.

Research showed that XP—even the consumer-oriented XP Home Edition—would be too complex for these first-time users. Instead, Microsoft would need to add features and functionality that were more appropriate for inexperienced computer users and remove potentially dangerous or confusing functionality that they wouldn't need.

While testing XP Starter Edition, Microsoft worked with more than 6000 consumers and 500 PC makers in the target markets. The company also worked with nonprofit organizations, the information and communications technology ministries, and IT ministries in each country to outline a technology roadmap for XP Starter Edition.

Make the OS Appropriate for the Target Audience
XP Starter Edition is localized and tailored to each market. So, for example, each version includes customizations—wallpapers, screensavers, and icons—that are specific to the Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Russian, or Thai market. The product includes a completely revamped and simplified help system called My Support that concentrates on beginning topics such as using a mouse and is presented in the appropriate languages. XP Starter Edition is secure by default, with XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) features such as Windows Firewall, but presents a much simpler UI than XP Professional Edition or XP Home Edition.

Additionally, XP Starter Edition supports only three concurrently running applications. According to Microsoft's international partners, most XP Starter Edition users won't be familiar with multitasking and would be confused by the ability to run multiple applications. XP Starter Edition also limits the screen resolution to 800 x 600 and doesn't support home networking or printer-sharing features. These functional limitations are consistent with the types of machines that will run XP Starter Edition and the skills of the people who will use them.

Keep Core XP Features and Functionality
At its heart, XP Starter Edition is still XP and therefore compatible with a wide range of software titles and hardware devices that third parties ship worldwide. XP Starter Edition also supports key XP features such as Internet access, XP SP2 security features, Windows Messenger Instant Messaging (IM), digital photography acquisition and management, and Windows Media Player (WMP).

Recommendations
Although XP Starter Edition has been unfairly criticized as being crippled, the truth is that this version of Windows meets the unique needs of the target markets in which it's being sold. Whether XP Starter Edition is successful remains to be seen: Microsoft says it will continue honing the system according to feedback and real-world experience and that other countries might come on board as well. Typical XP Starter Edition-based PCs cost about $300 and feature an Intel Celeron or AMD Sempron processor, 128MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard disk. By the time you read this, PC makers in all five pilot countries should be selling these XP Starter Edition PCs to consumers, jump-starting a new generation of computer-literate users, programmers, and administrators. Regardless of your business outlook, that's good news for everyone.