Editorial: Windows RT is Microsoft's biggest mess

This is Windows 8. It's also Windows RT.

Out of all the products Microsoft is going forward with, Windows RT is undoubtedly the biggest mess. Xbox continues to see strong sales, Surface packs impressive hardware, Windows Phone 8 is gaining traction, Office is soon to see a new release and Windows 8 is selling millions of licences. But Windows RT? It's all over the place.

It's not surprising that Microsoft wanted to bring Windows to ARM-based devices, after all, the iPad is doing so well and Android already has a wide range of devices on the market. ARM-based devices can be cheaper and more accessible than their x86 counterparts, allowing more consumers to enjoy Microsoft software in the home and office.

The product Microsoft came up with is Windows RT: an OS that looks and feels like Windows 8, but really isn't. Sure it may have a very similar code base, and very similar features including the Start screen and the desktop, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. As Windows RT is for ARM devices, and Windows 8 is for x86 devices, apps for one cannot work on the other without recompiling. This means that the huge x86 Windows desktop app catalog is incompatible with Windows RT.

And so we have the first mess: because Windows RT looks exactly like Windows 8, but lacks the fundamental ability to run existing desktop apps, it creates confusion in the market. There has been several times where, in a store selling Windows RT devices, I have overheard customers ask if they can run standard Windows programs on a Windows RT tablet. A typical exchange goes something like this:

Customer: Can I run my Windows apps on this tablet? Like Photoshop?

Salesperson: No, because it's running Windows RT, which is different to Windows 8 and can't run standard apps

Customer: But it looks exactly like Windows 8! Why won't the apps run?

Salesperson: It isn't Windows 8 though, and it can't run the apps because it runs on different hardware

Customer: Well that's confusing...

Consumers are told that they can't do something on one Windows tablet, but can do it on another. They look the same, so naturally one begins to ask questions, questions that don't need to be asked for Android and iOS because consumers know exactly what they're getting in to.

Supporting ARM tablets has actually put Microsoft in an interesting predicament that you don't get with iOS or Android. Both Google and Apple have two separate OSes: one for desktop and laptop computers (Chrome OS and Mac OS X respectively), and one for tablets and smartphones (Android and iOS); Microsoft has three: one for desktops, laptops and x86 tablets (Windows 8), one for ARM tablets (Windows RT) and one for smartphones (Windows Phone 8).

This is Asus VivoTab RT

Microsoft supports two entirely different hardware types, and so two different operating systems, on the same form factor (tablets). They can't simply choose one of their existing OSes - either Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 - to run on all tablets, so they've had to cobble together this confusing combination of two similar-but-not-the-same OSes for the biggest growing sector. It's created a mess which starts and ends with Windows RT.

Theoretically, Windows RT differentiates itself from Windows 8 in pricing and features. Windows RT machines are cheaper, more portable and have a longer battery life; while Windows 8 devices are more expensive but more powerful and come with more features. In reality, these differences are not as clearly defined as you might think, which again adds to the mess and causes confusion.

Windows RT devices generally speaking come in the same price range because hardware does not differ greatly, with most devices on the market currently starting at $499 including the Surface, Asus VivoTab RT and Dell XPS 10. Higher-end models will set you back more cash, with examples being the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 starting at $799.

On the other hand, Windows 8 tablets start at a wide range of prices because of the wide range of hardware that you can put in them. Manufacturers can choose to include a full blown Intel Ivy Bridge processor like in the Surface, or a lower power consuming Intel "Clover Trail" Atom CPU (like in the Samsung ATIV Smart PC), or an AMD "Hondo" tablet-specific chipset.

Lower-powered Atom Windows 8 tablets start as low as $500, like with the Acer Iconia W510 and Dell Latitude 10, bringing them right into the arena of Windows RT devices. Even though this is just two devices, it shows that it's actually possible to bring the full-powered x86 Windows tablets into the price realm supposedly dominated by ARM. Of course if you want more power you're perfectly entitled to shell out the money for a Core i5 machine or similar, but with Atom you've got the Windows RT low-price advantage covered.

The Windows 8-powered Acer Iconia W510 is only $499

In the current generation of Windows 8 tablets, portability is of the biggest concern when comparing them to their ARM counterparts. The Samsung ATIV Smart PC currently weighs 744 grams, which is definitely on the heavy side for a 10-inch tablet, while Dell's Latitude 10 is 10.5mm thick - not exactly slim for a tablet. The good news, though, is that with an Atom processor inside, x86 Windows 8 tablets can last as long as ARM tablets; Engadget tested the ATIV Smart PC and it lasted as long as Microsoft's Surface RT.

With new and upcoming low-power CPUs from both Intel and AMD, this is only set to get better while bringing more power. Intel's "Bay Trail" will bring "all-day battery life" to a quad-core Atom SoC inside 8mm thin devices, and AMD's Temash APUs are set to provide similar benefits while also being x86 and Windows 8 compatible. While ARM SoCs will also advance along including the release of Tegra 4 and Snapdragon 800, they are losing many of the clear advantages they once had.

In the near future it will end up with Microsoft competing against themselves: Windows 8 vs. Windows RT; x86 vs. ARM, with very similar advantages to each hardware group. Except, of course, that Windows RT machines can't run the full library of Windows apps, whereas x86 Windows 8 machines can. The mess is only going to get worse when this happens, and Windows RT will become increasingly hard to sell.

Here is the part where I was going to suggest to ditch ARM and Windows RT completely, but even that would create problems because a) ARM Windows RT tablets are already on the market and b) ARM products are still going to be competitive against x86. A better solution is that Microsoft should change how they define Windows 8 and Windows RT, so that it fits better in the market and so there's less confusion. Here's my proposal regarding Windows RT/Windows 8:

  • Windows 8 should remain the full-featured, desktop-touting edition for high-powered x86 machines. This would include desktops, laptops and high-end tablets.
  • Windows RT should remove the desktop entirely, and be installed on all ARM tablets and low-end x86 (Atom, for example) tablets.

The solution can be akin to SKUs of Windows - Windows RT simply becomes the SKU that does not include the desktop for form factors where it's not needed. Even though the back-end for Windows RT on x86 machines and ARM machines would be technically different, because there is no desktop and consumers would only be installing apps from the Store, end-users wouldn't be faced with the confusion. With Modern UI apps being developed for all sorts of tasks, and if Microsoft ports Office into this UI, the desktop would not be missed on these low-power devices.

Meanwhile you could spend more money on a higher-end device that includes the desktop and Windows 8, because the power gain would facilitate the use of apps in the desktop environment, such as PhotoShop, AutoCAD and Premiere, as well as full-blown PC games. There would be a clear difference in price, capabilities and performance, and all would hopefully be well.

The question remains as to whether Microsoft will actually do anything to rectify the mess they've created with Windows RT, because as it stands it facilitates nothing more than confusion and a half-assed attempt to enter the market with new products.

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The entire "Windows-8 ecosystem" is a mess. A messy set of compromises, doing nothing very well. Microsoft, trying to do way too much has lost focus and squandered valuable resources and time. They need to come up with an OS for tablets and an OS for laptops and desktops (which can't be equally good for both platforms). Concede that Windows-8 is really for tablets. Then, come up with Windows-9 for laptops and desktops; or at the very leas,t a major rework of Windows-8 that will be equally good for laptops and desktops. Blatant pandering to the tablet set was not a good move.

Maybe not a new OS, but apps that differentiate them maybe. They definitely need an iTunes like app for Phone and Tablets.

Most people I would say 80% of all the people in the USA have no clue what so ever what RT is and when you tell them to get a pro version that number increases to 90% it's a steaming pile of a mess Microsoft has

TurboShrimp said,
Most people I would say 80% of all the people in the USA have no clue what so ever what RT is and when you tell them to get a pro version that number increases to 90% it's a steaming pile of a mess Microsoft has

Your wrong, people want something cool and does the basic things in a tablet, but this one also has office as well.

I own a Surface tablet and I do believe the desktop has its usage, like installing printers not on the list of rt printers. I was able to install several different printers by using a basic driver already included with my surface that was close. Currently using an HP Photosmart 7200 series for my cp7280 printer but, the 4250 and the 5100 also work.
For me the Surface does everything I want in a tablet, runs Netflix, downloads apps and has office built in oh and BTW, has usb hdmi and memory card. I think the reason the Surface has taken so long to catch on, MARKETING.

To all the people who claim Win8 is a mess and blah blah, I bet you don't own any of the products you talk crap about, which is why I don't talk crap about the ipad just apple the company.

Microsoft should did/do these:
1; for ARM devices: Don't call it Windows RT, call it Metro or anything else, don't use "Windows" for the name
2; Desktop should not be there . it only run Metro Apps
3; for intel devices: Windows 8 should not have Metro UI, win8 should retain windows desktop with start menu and all, BUT win8 can run Metro apps !!!

My opinion:

Microsoft should open up WinRT desktop development. A great number of desktop apps would cross compile over perfectly fine. Many others would require only minor modifications (e.g. fixing endian issues, writing C versions of inline assembly functions).

Then, create a WinRT-compatible logo program to encourage developers to do so, as well as opening the Store to all desktop applications (both x86 and ARM).


In my opinion Microsoft should've allowed Windows Phone Apps on RT to try and balance the huge x86 App advantage till Windows 'Blue'. Everything in the desktop also needs to be metrofied, including Microsoft Office (Office MX) - and remove the desktop completely (2 stop ppl assuming they can install their regular apps). Finally, it needs to be renamed to something like Windows Lite/Light... that the average consumer can easily understand (RT doesn't mean anything to an average consumer).

I think a few people called this earlier when they said Win 8 and Win RT are going to confuse people... I've already fielded a few calls about it!

Microsoft is trying to hawk a toy as some kind of "serious" PC. If they had stuck with the expensive philosophy, there wouldn't have been the disappointment of serious users/businesses thinking that the RT could actually some serious work. However, the "dirty deed is done," now MS has to figure out some way to get out of the mess. Part of this "damage control" involves a major UI revision to Windows-8 so it is (truly) laptop, desktop friendly; instead of just pandering to touch-centric devices.

I agree.

And I know from experience, I have jumped head first into the wild world of Windows.

My PC is Windows 8 Pro.
My phone is a Lumia 920.
My tablet is a Surface.

The dream was to have 3 interoperable devices. The reality is very different. I knew this going in and the hope is that MS figures it out because I like the concept of running the same (or similar) platform on all my devices.

I also have a Xoom and a Playbook... just to tout my credentials with tablets.

deck said,
I agree.

And I know from experience, I have jumped head first into the wild world of Windows.

My PC is Windows 8 Pro.
My phone is a Lumia 920.
My tablet is a Surface.

The dream was to have 3 interoperable devices. The reality is very different. I knew this going in and the hope is that MS figures it out because I like the concept of running the same (or similar) platform on all my devices.

I also have a Xoom and a Playbook... just to tout my credentials with tablets.

Same, also hoped that things would go well together, unfortently Windows 8 with metro enabled is a bitch when it comes to development of programs that operate at system level.
On top of that I found it resetting the TCP autotuning level back to default after I used netsh to disable it, a few downloads halt cause of it, my router isn't compatible, neither is the companies security appliance.
So might even revert back to Windows 7 until MS get their **** sorted.
I use the start menu as well, metro / start screen isn't bad but a tad slower to use, I use windows keyboard shortcuts as often as possible thou.

They shouldn't remove the desktop on Windows RT, rather they should add the ability to sign code compiled for ARM processors that can run on the desktop. That's the only thing stopping people.

I believe Microsoft will "unlock" that aspect of the OS eventually, and they are only blocking it now to encourage app development rather than simple recompiles to support both platforms and potentially trash the battery life of ARM tablets by overtaxing them.

pickypg said,
They shouldn't remove the desktop on Windows RT, rather they should add the ability to sign code compiled for ARM processors that can run on the desktop.

Accept more than Microsoft signatures on signed code is more like it.
Top Tier ISVs should have the opportunity to integrate their certificates into the Certificate Store.

Agreed, that's my intent by giving the ability to sign code. Clearly they already do it, but third parties need the ability to do so, even if it has some hoops to jump through like the rest of the app Store.

You wonder why Win8 isn't selling as well as it could, look to Bestbuy.com. the Acer Iconia W510 is sold there, but in one option (64GB) and without any keyboard on the product page as an option to buy.

Microsoft needs to rake Bestbuy over the coals. As well as some OEMs and Intel in particular who couldn't get these Atom PCs to market in good supply at launch.

If a keyboard is critical to your device, why not buy a laptop? Those were designed to have one. A surface with keyboard is just a two-piece laptop with a steep price for the "wow" factor.

Sorry, I'll have to disagree with most people on here. I work for a large school system in IT and have had different iPads for 4 years. Don't get me wrong, I love my iPad but always wished and tried to get it to do a little bit more. Since I've had the Surface RT, I've left the iPad at home and totally switched to using the RT.

The ability to print to virtually any ip or usb printers in the district, including large copiers, is a revelation in and of itself. The ability to use RDP to connect to and make changes to servers using the desktop rdp client is another. Looking at network shares and modifying settings on the fly, using real Office with a mouse and keyboard, doing an nslookup, all using a familiar desktop is fantastic. Also, being able to download a device driver, or piece of software can easily be done with the RT and copied on to a usb drive, then moved to a broken desktop computer to fix. And all in a 1 1/2 lb device with 9 hour battery life means I don't have to carry that 4 lb laptop with me.

I don't need the legacy support with me at all times. I can now do it all with a single RT device. There was no confusion as to it's capabilities. All a salesman needs to say is it's a tablet that can do a little bit more.

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