Editorial

Boom or Bust: A closer look at the state of Windows RT

Microsoft introduced Windows on Arm (WOA) at CES 2011 and caught many off-guard when they revealed that they had been secretly developing Windows for the ARM architecture. The platform brought with it the hopes and ambitions that ARM was ramping up in performance faster than Intel could scale down and that it would offer new opportunities and options for consumers.

But, since the announcement of the WOA platform, the marketplace has changed, Intel has adapted and WOA's future is not as clear as Microsoft would have likely hoped.

When Windows RT was introduced, it represented a new future for Windows-based devices and new opportunities for companies such as NVIDIA to enter the market and compete against the likes of Intel and AMD. This helped to solidify healthy competition in the chip fabrication business against the larger, entrenched incumbents in the sector - and when you have strong competition in the marketplace, you generally see lower-priced products.

In the beginning, this worked out well as we saw NVidia, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm jump at the idea of WOA. It seemed like a fantastic idea as ARM-based chips have been become synonymous with efficient performance at traditionally lower price points.

There was a lot of excitement around the idea too of Microsoft building its own ARM-based device, the Surface RT. After a press conference that caught many by surprise, Surface RT became the face of the new Microsoft, as it was the first device in the Surface family and the first Windows RT product to hit store shelves.

Microsoft’s move to support ARM was supposed to help create low-cost Windows-based tablets ARM was a great step for the company to help secure its future in the tablet marketplace.  After all, Intel’s Atom chips took a long time to materialize to something of value and because of their relatively weak performance, they contributed significantly to the collapse of the netbook market.

In fact, Intel’s inability to help stabilize the netbook market may have lead to Microsoft’s decision to support ARM to ensure that, in the future, Microsoft would have the ability to support products on the low end of the spectrum.

But with the hopes and dreams of ARM-powered Microsoft devices comes the cold hard truth of reality.

Microsoft did a poor job at defining the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 when both products launched last October. It’s not that Windows RT was or is an inherently bad platform; it’s that Microsoft never successfully explained, in the most simple terms, the differences between the two. Because of this, consumers were cautious of buying something labeled ‘Windows RT’ when products labeled ‘Windows 8’ were next to each other on the store shelves.

Think about it, for the consumer who does not care about what powers their device, only that it works, they will stick with what is familiar sounding, which happens to be Windows 8. If you have Windows 7 at home (or even Windows 8) and you go to the store and see a Windows 8 or RT device, side-by-side, you would likely choose the Windows 8 device based on your existing knowledge of Microsoft platforms. To the uninformed buyer, 8 comes after 7; it's a logical step up. But Windows RT doesn't reconcile with that simple perception.

Even though Microsoft did a poor job at branding and defining the differences of Windows RT, there was still one major advantage to be tapped for the platform: cost. Windows RT devices were supposed to undercut similar Intel/AMD systems, but the problem remains that the price gap never materialized in a way that made consumers choose RT over 8.  The low-cost factor was not helped either when TI decided to back out of the market, leaving only two companies left to build chips for RT devices.

Take a look at some of the lower priced Windows 8 devices with Intel processors inside; they are in the exact same price bracket as those with Windows RT. Why choose a device with limited capability over that with Windows 8 when price is no longer an issue? You could argue that battery life is one reason to choose ARM but Intel is quickly gaining on that front too. 

It's only really become worse for Windows RT, particularly in recent weeks, after Microsoft was unable to sell its own device with RT and booked a 900 million dollar write-down to be able to lower the price of the device. OEMs are pulling back from the platform now too (along with Texas Instruments), as the sales of these devices are not justifying the expenses that have been generated.

Reading the above, you would think that Microsoft would be considering dumping the platform and returning its focus on to traditional Windows 8/8.1Microsoft should not abandon Windows RT. But, for Microsoft, this would not be a wise move.

The company needs to continue to support WOA as the future marketplace continues to shift. Microsoft needs to keep all of its options available, and limiting itself to only Intel / AMD devices, would not be a wise move. For Microsoft, current costs will be off-set by the future dividends of the platform as ARM continues to grow. The future for ARM is strong and Microsoft needs to be able to play in that market so that it does not miss out on another opportunity.

Even though vendor support is plummeting for the Windows RT platform, it’s not time to abandon all hope, yet. WOA provides Microsoft an outlet to keep pressure on Intel/AMD to keep pushing the boundaries on chip design and performance. With ARM up its sleeve, Microsoft now has a viable alternative to its traditional Windows line of products and this makes them a bigger threat, even if it has yet to materialize.

The question is not if Windows RT is worth Microsoft’s investment, but when will it pay off. While it may be easy to say now that they should dump the platform, at this time, that would be a foolish move.

Even though it is off to a rough start, Windows RT, which could in all honesty use a re-branding, something like Windows Touch, keeps the doors open for the Windows platform. It's not that Windows RT is a bad product, it's that Microsoft did such a poor job at marketing the product and allowed it to be placed into a market that, all too often, came too close to Windows 8.

Microsoft needs to confine Windows RT, lock it to a price point and a class of devices, so that that overlap no longer exists, and so that there is a compelling and logical value proposition for the platform. Windows RT needs a niche that Microsoft has yet to define.

But to dump the platform in the face of the competition would be a foolish move and not something we expect Microsoft to do. Windows RT has its place in the market at the bottom end, below Windows 8/8.1 but it’s up to Microsoft to hammer home its full agenda for the platform.

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Can you dare be more specific in what way it is terrible ?

Essentially all three OSes you are mentioning all run the same NT core. It's just the outer shell (UI layer) that is different. So it's not all difficult to combine Windows Phone and Windows RT into one OS.

UI is different (similar, but not the same). APIs are different. There are a lot of nuisances that are different (often better) in Windows Phone 8 than Windows 8/RT. If anything, for consistency they should have simply scaled the Windows Phone UI up to larger devices, then made the changes needed to adapt to larger screens.

Agreed with that. UI needs work. Windows 8.1 hopefully addresses some of the problems. But Windows Phone 8 is 3 years old if you count in Windows Phone 7. So it took 3 years of refinements. On the other hand Windows 8 UI and APIs are less than 1 year old, so it needs a lot of refinements.

Windows RT is not a responsive system. You wait, wait and wait more. Everything about Windows Phone and Windows 8 are about being responsive and fast. Windows RT not only offers a horrible experience but it also taints the perception of Microsoft and Windows as a whole.

Windows 8.1 should help when it comes to performance. They have made a lot of improvement to NGen which should make app startup much faster. Besides when you say it is slow what hardware did you test it on ?

incendy said,
Windows RT is not a responsive system. You wait, wait and wait more. Everything about Windows Phone and Windows 8 are about being responsive and fast. Windows RT not only offers a horrible experience but it also taints the perception of Microsoft and Windows as a whole.

What tablet are you using? My Surface RT never lags.

C#Rocks said,
Windows 8.1 should help when it comes to performance. They have made a lot of improvement to NGen which should make app startup much faster. Besides when you say it is slow what hardware did you test it on ?

My findings are based on using my Surface RT. I also have a Surface Pro, iPad 3 and Nexus 7 which are the devices I am comparing it to. The update yesterday did actually help Surface RT a lot though. Still doesn't open apps as fast as the other 3 but it is getting better.

One of the main reasons for Microsoft making an ARM version of Windows is so they will have an OS for the 64bit ARMv8 based servers that will be arriving at data centers in the next year or two. I can't believe this article didn't even touch on that. As phone hardware continues to advance Windows RT and Windows Phone will merge and the same kernel will be used by the ARM variant of Windows Server. ARM won't replace x86-64 but ARM isn't going anywhere either and it's smart for Microsoft to support both platforms. RT is just a necessary interim step (poorly branded and marketed.) I personally look forward to where it evolves but in it's current state I'm not willing to buy in myself.

It's stupid to limit the OS in capabilities when people have already proven that it's perfectly capable of running desktop apps. Once Microsoft opens it up officially, people will start compiling for ARM and they will start to offer multiple binaries: x86, x64 and ARM.
Just a matter of time now...

Bamsebjorn said,
It's stupid to limit the OS in capabilities when people have already proven that it's perfectly capable of running desktop apps. Once Microsoft opens it up officially, people will start compiling for ARM and they will start to offer multiple binaries: x86, x64 and ARM.
Just a matter of time now...

I agree 100%. I wouldn't have bought my Surface RT if it weren't for the fine folks at XDA developers forum that wrote the "jailbreak" script to allow unsigned desktop apps to run.

Based on IDC numbers, Windows RT numbers are horrible in terms of marketshare. Why would I spend more than a cost of a Nexus 7 or a Samsung Chromebook or a iPad Mini when I still can't install programs on a Windows RT device?

You "can't" install just as many programs on a Surface RT as you "can't" install on a Nexus 7/Chromebook/ or iPad.

Otherwise, the Chromebook is a different form factor, and the Nexus 7 is very limited compared to the Surface. The iPad certainly competes, but it probably depends on whether you've bought in to the OSX or Windows ecosystem already.

Nothing to do with Ecosystem. Price is a major factor. There is a reason why people are not buying RT devices. Manufacturers don't want to do them anymore and are moving to focus on Chromebooks. So much for Ecosystem theory.

As I said, the Chromebook is a different form factor. For $250, some people want a full laptop without a touch screen instead of a tablet. They're also great if you're already using Gmail and Google docs.

Most people already are in the Google Ecosystem and don't know it.

Gmail, Search, Image Search, Calendar, Contacts, Maps, YouTube and maybe Chrome. Just because you use Windows or Mac doesn't mean squat.

Personally I bought a Chromebook and a Nexus 7. $450 total value. And I could have spent more on a Surface RT. That's not too smart now.

If you ask me, the problem was always having the desktop on RT. This was obviously because Metro Office wasn't anywhere near ready to be released, so it was a necessary evil. Had this been ready, had RT devices been sold with NO desktop whatsoever, nobody would have misunderstood: this PC has no desktop, only modern software, gives you crazy battery life and is super light. This other PC has desktop, you can install anything you like, but is heavier, hotter and has less battery life.

That way, the choice becomes: install old stuff or just the new stuff? Easy peasy. I'm convinced the moment Office is ready for metro, the desktop will disappear in a second on RT.

Xabier Granja said,
If you ask me, the problem was always having the desktop on RT. This was obviously because Metro Office wasn't anywhere near ready to be released, so it was a necessary evil. Had this been ready, had RT devices been sold with NO desktop whatsoever, nobody would have misunderstood: this PC has no desktop, only modern software, gives you crazy battery life and is super light. This other PC has desktop, you can install anything you like, but is heavier, hotter and has less battery life.

That way, the choice becomes: install old stuff or just the new stuff? Easy peasy. I'm convinced the moment Office is ready for metro, the desktop will disappear in a second on RT.

And if/when that happens, I sure hope they have a Windows 8 Pro for ARM ready for those of us that want the desktop (and an unrestricted one at that) on our ARM devices.

Why doesn't MS just use the RT for their 9in or less tablets? I mean the licensing fee is less than W8, which could make the smaller form tablets cheaper and more competitive. Plus for a student to have free MS Office and if they add that stylus feature available on the pro its a no brainer.

So I bought an RT less than a week ago... I really love it so far.

Jailbroken I can run a few handy desktop apps like Filezilla and 7zip, I'm working on porting the open source dev environment I use a lot too... battery life's awesome... Metro is incredible with a touchscreen... I only wanted it as a pure entertainment tablet but with the type cover on it really has become something I can do basic work on

heres my take on this. Microsoft is an expert in long game strategies they plan decades ahead.

I think come windows 9, windows rt and windows phone will have merged because they are essentially the same, rt has some legacy stuff like networking and printers, that they should keep, and all unneeded desktop features and 'legacy ui' will be dropped, I know rt looks like windows 8 but under the covers its basically windows phone on steroids.

Also the windows phone and windows rt metro ui will merge and will look similar to xbox one and windows 9, along with 3rd party app development which will be consistent between xbox one, windows 9, and windows phone. Silverlight and xna will be phased out in favour of the current windows 8 development parameters plus directX. Allowing for a combined metro app market across three platforms, windows 9, xbox one, and the combined windows rt/phone. these new apps will be write once run anywhere and and have three ui modes. developers can target specific platforms out of the three. I think the store should be very strict in what kind of apps it allows to use more than one type of platform and be particularly stringent on xbox one.

The new combined widows rt/phone devices will be anything below 8 inches, all will cost less than $400 for the base model, and compete directly with ios and adroid be it on phones or tablets. all will have sim card capabilities and be able to make mobile phone calls( yes even on 8 inch devices), they will ONLY run the new upcoming metro version of office ( kinda silly to run full office in desktop mode on a device smaller than 8 inches) they can be connected via hdmi(or similar) for full screen apps ( metro) and be capable or running one app on less than 5 inches, two apps between 5-8 inches and upto 4 on greater screens through hdmi ( max of 6 apps open at once using two displays 2 on mobile display and 4 on tv or monitor).

this would make windows far more seemless. windows for desktop, windows for xbox, windows for mobile. work - play - connect.

Microsoft made the right choice by slimming the windows core down to a mobile os this is the core of BOTH rt and phone and they should be merged into one which would compete directly with ios and adroid. is seems retarded that Microsoft has two operating systems which although look different behave the same competing with ios n adroid with different approaches

seeing as Microsoft has merged the windows phone and windows 8/rt divisions and put the head of windows phone incharge of windows 8 I hope to God this is what they're planning. the long game. I think Microsoft used windows rt as a pawn just as it did zune and windows phone 7, they're just testing the water they can afford to take there time windows is still king. even though windows 8 was 'poorly received' windows 8 is still selling by the millions. they had the same strategy with the shift to nt, I think things will get very interesting in the next two years.

ps: windows 9 will have a min screen size of 8 inch, and obviously only run on intel or amd processors wheras windows rt/phone will only run on arm. this will prevent confusion and prevent windows 9 and windows rt/phone from competing with each other like winodows 8 and windows rt currently do.

sorry for crap spelling and punctuation.

Edited by Attiq, Aug 13 2013, 6:44pm :

RT will not sell. It is too little too late type of product. Windows Pro with real start menu on the other hand will be top seller.

It's not that RT can't sell - it's that consumers are basically trying to force RT into the ring against Android - not iOS. From a hardware standpoint, RT hardware (not alone SurfaceRT, either - but all the RT hardware, even that of Acer and ASUS) stomps Android hardware flat. In terms of capabilities, RT - hardware and software - stomps a bloody hole in iOS and iPad - even most iPad fans grudgingly admit that. Why is none of that valuable? SurfaceRT costs less than iPad - and SurfaceRT is at the higher end of the RT price scale. Most RT OEMs are pricing under SurfaceRT, which puts them even further under iPad. Instead, there is an insistence on only two pricing models - that of Google, and that of Apple, and Apple alone can use the Apple pricing model (which is NOT trademarked, copyright-protected, or even copyright-protectable). Microsoft is using Apple's pricing model against Apple (against the iPad specifically), and whacking it hard in terms of both features AND price (their current run of ads) - and, for some reason, that's not enough. DaveBG - are you an Android-only developer? Do you write apps for any non-Google platform? If you are not tried inextricably to Google, what is YOUR reason for trying to throw RT under the bus?

1 - RT uses ugly interface.
2 - RT is closed and limited even more than iOS.
3 - RT hardware contrary to what you thing is crap.

Also i have not seen the price to be that low as you are spreading FUD here. It is way higher than most Android tablets.

I said compared to iPad - not Android. Yet you insist on comparing RT to Android - why? If RT hardware is crap, what does it say about Android hardware? (RT hardware is Android hardware scaled up - the same CPUs run Android and RT; the GPUs are also either identical or nearly so, with RT requiring higher-spec hardware.) Android has lower requirements than RT - that much isn't in dispute. Basically, you and I are in agreement - the decision in favor of Android is entirely based on price/cost (OEMs) and/or app count (users) - nothing else.

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