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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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