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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