Windows RT, not Windows 8, is Microsoft's tablet future

At Microsoft’s shareholder meeting last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, “Sometimes getting innovation right across hardware and software is difficult unless you do both of them.”

He’s right, of course – innovative software is set up by equally innovative hardware.

Microsoft exemplified this when it released Surface RT a little more than a month ago. The tablet itself had unique features (such as its kickstand and optional keyboard covers), and the new Metro interface is drastically different from the interfaces of iOS and Android.

That’s why it’s so perplexing that Microsoft is relying on a tablet strategy that’s anything but innovative.

Microsoft's Metro interface lends itself to touch-based devices such as the company's own Surface tablets.

Windows 8’s biggest selling point when compared to Windows RT is the fact that it runs software from previous versions of Windows. For desktops and laptops, this is vital. But for tablets, it’s another matter entirely – there’s nothing innovative about shoehorning old software into new hardware.

Many ardent Microsoft supporters have proclaimed they’ll wait for the Windows 8 version of Microsoft’s Surface tablet, Surface Pro. These claims come despite the past failures of tablets running x86 versions of Windows, however. Granted, those previous Windows versions were using an interface that didn’t lend itself to touchscreen devices, but at the same time those tablets partially failed because people aren’t looking for the same thing out of tablets that they are computers.

Windows RT is the solution to these problems. Though it certainly hasn’t gotten everything right – yet, at least – it’s a far better bet for the future of Windows on tablets.

I’ve never been a big believer of the traditional Windows interface on tablets, but that’s only a minor aspect of the issue at hand. Just like the Windows interface isn’t well-suited for tablets, legacy applications aren’t well-suited for tablets either. Some would argue the lack of legacy application support on Windows RT is a bad thing. But is it?

There’s little reason to use an application if it’s nearly impossible to use. Trying to use Photoshop on a tablet’s touchscreen is enough to put the most rational person in an insane asylum. Application interfaces could always be modified to have some sort of touchscreen support, but that compromise has already been proven ineffective.

The Metro interface is where most tablet users will spend their time on Windows 8 or Windows RT.

Office RT’s touchscreen interface is clunky and cumbersome, despite the larger buttons Microsoft added to make touch input easier. By comparison, the Metro-style OneNote app works great on touchscreen devices because it was designed specifically for them.

The Metro-style OneNote app still incudes the majority of features present in its desktop variant, but it refines and simplifies them so it’s easier to do the main task – type notes – without displaying unnecessary options. OneNote’s more specific options can still be accessed, but through a radial interface that isn’t apparent until a user selects it.

Obviously OneNote isn’t the most demanding Office application, but it still shows the distinct advantage the Metro interface has for tablets compared to the traditional Windows interface.

Other apps show the depth possible when creating Metro experience as well. The recently released ESPN ScoreCenter app, for instance, provides an experience unmatched by the company’s ScoreCenter apps on other platforms. Teams have their own dedicated areas in the app that display pertinent information such as news, rosters, schedules, stat leaders and more.

So what does this have to do with the advantage of Windows RT over Windows 8, since they both have access to Metro apps? The fact that desktop apps are almost entirely unnecessary on tablets, making Windows 8 on a tablet almost entirely unnecessary as well. Sure, some professions may take advantage of desktop apps (such as those that require use of specialized database software), but it’s a feature most consumers don’t need.

There’s even been information suggesting these exact issues are what led to Microsoft's decision to make its own hardware in the first place.

A New York Times report earlier this year stated HP’s failed Windows 7 tablet, the Slate 500, was unsuccessful at least partly because HP “fumed at Microsoft” for not creating software better suited for touchscreens, and Microsoft was equally mad at HP for using an Intel processor that made the device hot and bulky in comparison to ARM-based Android and iOS devices. While Surface Pro is using a more recent Intel processor that’s more advanced than what HP was using at the time, the same problems persist.

Apps such as ESPN's ScoreCenter provide functionality unavailable on other tablet operating systems.

Most Windows 8 tablets are still going to suffer worse battery life than their Windows RT counterparts – something that’s important for almost anyone considering a tablet. The fact that Surface Pro was recently revealed to have a much shorter battery life than its ARM-powered sibling should come as no surprise, as ARM architecture has an inherent advantage over more powerful x86 architecture in terms of power consumption. Some still seem shocked, yet it was an inevitable announcement.

That may not a problem for some people, but having a relatively short battery life essentially defeats the entire purpose of having a tablet instead of a laptop. It’s a major aspect consumers have come to expect from their tablets.

Intel recently released its new line of Atom processors based on its Clover Trail platform, which provides longer battery life, however. Clover Field comes at the cost of performance, though it offers more power than Surface’s dated Tegra 3 processor. It’s worth noting, but those looking for an x86 experience likely won’t be satisfied with an Atom processor, and Windows RT was specifically designed to optimize energy efficiency by limiting what applications are allowed to run in its desktop mode.

When Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft’s Windows Division, announced last year that the company was working on a version of Windows for ARM processors, he was quick to emphasize that power usage would be a major advantage of the then-unnamed ARM version of Windows.

“Our job is to allow the power, the flexibility and the choice of [the ARM] architecture to shine through,” he told the audience at CES on Jan. 5, 2011. “If a processor package uses less power, the role of Windows is to let that reduction in power shine through.”

People will likely continue to tout the fact that Windows 8 tablets support previous Windows software while Windows RT tablets are left out in the cold. But in reality, this isn’t an advantage. It’s an unnecessary tether to software and hardware that wasn’t designed for tablets in the first place.

Again, it may be a necessity for some professions – and possibly even some people who don’t mind the fact that they’ll be stuck with significantly shorter battery life and software that essentially requires a mouse and keyboard.

For the majority of users, however, Windows RT is more than enough.

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