Microsoft may have warehouses packed to the rafters with unsold Windows RT-powered Surface tablets, but there may still be hope for the platform.
The reasons why Windows RT, and the Surface RT tablets in particular, failed are many and varied. There was lashings of brand confusion as consumers struggled to figure out the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. There was the shock that Windows RT wasn't the Windows that people knew and loved, and instead a body-snatchers style clone couldn't do many of the things that people expected from Windows. There was the lack of compelling apps. Office was bodged to work on the platform, rather than being designed specifically for tablet usage.
There was also stiff competition from the iPad and the myriad of Android-powered tablets flooding the market.
And, to top all that off, the price being asked for the tablets was stratospherically high.
The problems, it seems, came down to the fact that Microsoft didn't understand how the PC hardware business worked, despite being at its core for several decades. Microsoft is used to dealing with software, a product that spends years in development and then sits on shelves for several more years bringing in license fees. Once Microsoft has put the effort into developing products like Windows and Office, it can print off product licenses as and when it needs them.
It's a long term game.
Hardware is different. Cycles are much smaller, and the product's profitable lifespan is scarily short, and beyond that the product becomes a liability. You can't just make one tablet and then clone that in response to demand. Manufactures build them in batches, in the millions. Rumor has it that some 6 million Surface RT tablets were made, which suggests that either Microsoft was staggeringly optimistic, or the OEM that built them wanted to maximize profits and somehow negotiated a deal that was favorable to them. The manufacturer, after all, doesn't care whether they sell well or languish on shelves, they get paid either way.
But all is not lost. I still think that there's room in the market for Windows RT, as long as Microsoft is willing to put the effort in.
- Rebrand the sucker – Who came up with the name "Windows RT" in the first place? Seriously, guys. I know Microsoft has come up with some real branding stinkers over the years (Kin, Zune, Azure …), but this is probably one of the worst because it took an existing product (Windows) and tacked on a suffix that means nothing. "Windows Tablet" or "Windows Tablet Edition" seem the most logical to me.
- Firesale the old hardware – Yes, that's going to mean a loss, but the Surface RT tablets are getting older – and more obsolete – with each passing day. Holding onto them isn't going to make them rise in value, unless the accountants at Redmond are planning to wait for them to become antiques.
- Focus on the benefits of Windows RT – I see this as the familiarity of Windows combined with the robustness of the iPad. The key benefit I see in Windows RT is that it is a no-nonsense platform that can't be trashed by poorly written apps and drivers. It's Windows without the fuss of Windows.
- Get more apps into the App Store – If third-party developers aren't willing to gamble on the platform, then Microsoft needs to put its own developers at work.
- Get the price right – Surface tablets don't have to be a premium product. In fact, unless Microsoft want's to go head-to-head against the iPad (something which I don't think Microsoft is in a position to do so right now) then it is better going after the budget to mid-range markets. This means budget to mid-range price tags.
- Sell. Sell! SELL! – Products don't sell themselves these days (why do you think Apple runs all those ads).
There's still a chance for Windows RT … but not while it is called that, and certainly not at the price Microsoft has been trying to foist it onto consumers for.