I love Windows 8, but Surface RT is for early adopters and developers

Surface RT has too many limitations to make it practical for me to own an ARM-based Microsoft Windows Tablet today. But that will change over time.


Windows 8 has now been unleashed on the world. Many of us have been using it for up to a year in pre-release form, watching Microsoft's latest OS evolve into a finished product.

I was wary at first of the sweeping changes that Microsoft was introducing all at once. I even had some legitimate concerns that the Redmond software giant was setting itself up for failure because what it was attempting to do was simply just too radical.

Obviously, if you've been reading any of my most recent material, I've mellowed out since writing these pieces.

I've had a lot of time to test Windows 8, to put the desktop operating system through its paces, to make sure that legacy Win32 software runs on it just as well as Windows 7, and to verify that it performs even better than its predecessor and even represents significant value-add.

And I've also made the argument that if you are running an older version of Windows on your PC today, the time to upgrade is now.

So I fully endorse Windows 8 for personal and business use, I believe the product represents a significant milestone in Microsoft's history, and it is a very worthwhile upgrade.

But what about Windows RT and the Surface, the ARM-based little brother to the x86-based Windows 8 and the answer to Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems on tablet computers?

Well, I'm not gonna sugar coat this. I got issues. Very conflicting issues.

In one sense, Windows RT is an important step that Microsoft needs to take because the future is in low cost, commodity computing devices with heavy cloud enablement rather than expensive PCs and "Fat Clients". I've said this in numerous articles over the past few years and I'm not going to change my view on this anytime soon.

The future for the Intel platform as it applies to desktop and personal computing is a grim one. It has an expiration date, and there is no denying this.

Microsoft also had to introduce the WinRT APIs and a "Modern Windows User Interface" (what we previously referred to as "Metro") because the Win32 programmatic model was 20 years old.

They desperately needed an environment that was better suited towards rapid application development and embraced more modern software development methodologies, with lightweight and Cloud-enabled apps that more resembled what Apple was doing with iOS and Google was doing with Android. 

The introduction of "Metro", or "Windows Store Apps" was a necessity in order for the company to move forward and not get mired in the past.

Similarily, porting the Windows kernel and core operating system to the ARM architecture was also something that needed to be done.

The future for the Intel platform as it applies to desktop and personal computing is a grim one. It has an expiration date, and there is no denying this.

I said just over a year ago that legacy Windows applications written in Win32 would not be able to be simply recompiled and run in Windows RT. The new ARM-based port of Windows 8 would only run "Metro" or "Windows Store" apps.

Few people wanted to believe me back then. I was mocked for even suggesting it.

Well, I was mostly correct. Windows RT can run recompiled Win32 apps, but only Microsoft has access to that programmatic environment. The Surface RT and OEM Windows RT tablets come preloaded with Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student Edition which runs on the "Desktop" UI and shares a lot of Win32 code with the x86 version that runs on Windows 8.

For software developers, the Windows RT Desktop UI represents a sealed box that nobody but Redmond can touch. It's unobtainium.

My friend and ZDNet colleague David Gewirtz wrote an excellent summary of what this means for the average end-user who goes out and buys a Windows RT-based system today. Like David, it's jarring and it's ugly. Unfortunately, it's also completely on the mark.

There are a lot of reasons why I would like to own a Microsoft Surface RT or another competing Windows RT device, such as Lenovo's IdeaTab Yoga 11, the Samsung ATIV Tab  or the Dell XPS 10.

I love the idea of embracing a new, power efficient systems architecture for Windows PCs, experiencing the new Windows Store apps, and running real Office on an ARM platform. And the Surface RT is definitely one sexy and very well-engineered piece of hardware, made out of a strong magnesium casing that can even endure abuse from software company executives masquerading as skateboarders.

I was initially angry at the company for throwing its OEMs under the bus, but now I'm starting to understand a bit more why Microsoft did what it did. It wanted to create a reference standard for platform excellence that it expected its partners to emulate.

Whether these partners can compete on pricing, build quality and features when Microsoft has a home court advantage is going to be the big question, one which only market dynamics can truly answer.

But my problem with Windows RT is not with Microsoft going into the hardware business. It's that at this juncture it's really just for early adopters and software developers.

The bottom line is that there just isn't enough Windows Store applications to go around. At launch, there are about 5000 applications that can run on the new UI. That's not a whole lot to choose from.

While there are a few key developers on board such as Amazon and Netflix who have already ported some popular applications to the OS, Microsoft has a very, very steep hill to climb before there is enough software to make the platform attractive as well as useful to the majority of end-users who already have two compelling tablet OSes to choose from in the form of iOS and Android. And that group of end-users includes myself.

The situation isn't that dire. Many of the existing Windows Phone apps, of which over 120,000 exist, can be quickly ported to the new UI because the code is easily re-useable, as it shares many similarities with the APIs in Windows RT.

My problem with Windows RT is not with Microsoft going into the hardware business. It's that at this juncture it's really just for early adopters and software developers.

Games which are written in native C++ for other mobile OSes like Android and iOS can also be ported fairly quickly, since they execute as native code and won't need to be optimized much for launching in the Windows RT environment.

I expect that within a year, there will be something on the order of 30,000 to 50,000 apps for the platform. If development accelerates, and adoption of Windows Store apps on Windows 8 becomes popular, it might even reach 100,000. That's a good amount.

These are good reasons for an early adopter or a software developer to buy Surface RTs. They aren't good reasons, however, for the average consumer and business user.

As an end-user, if I want to watch the progression of how native Windows Store apps evolve, I can simply run them on my existing laptop and my desktops that I recently upgraded to Windows 8, which has the benefit of being completely backwards compatible with existing x86 Windows software.

Next year, there will be much better, updated, and perhaps even more price competitive Windows RT hardware for me to run those apps on.

And I really want to see how this entire Office on ARM licensing issue shakes out with the general public. Today, as it stands, if I want to use Windows RT at work, I need to purchase a dedicated, full-retail license of Office 2013.

I can't re-use or extend the license of Office 2010 running on my existing home PCs. I'm also a little leery of a BYOD situation where I bring a Surface RT to work, and then ask that my employer or custormer extend a volume licensing agreement to me so I can use my tablet for business purposes. I don't see how that's gonna fly.

So we're talking an additional $210 premium. I might as well buy a new, full-blown x86 Windows 8 touchscreen ultrabook or convertible, transfer an existing copy of Office 2010 to it, and buy a cheaper upgrade license to bring it up to date.

I could also use Office RT in a business environment under violation of Microsoft's EULA. Not.

Or, I can just use iWork on my iPad. It isn't "real" Office, but it gets the job done. Apple has no such restrictions on where you use their productivity suite with their tablets, and it only costs $30. I don't see how Microsoft can let Apple eat their lunch indefinitely, they are going to need to find a better solution.

So for now, I'm going to pass on the Surface RT and Windows RT. Next year, when there's more apps and some sense is made out of the BYOD quagmire, I might jump on a ARM-based Windows tablet.

But Windows 8? I'm all on board. Sign me up.

Are the limitations and lack of applications giving you pause in a purchase of a a Surface or other Windows RT tablet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.


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