Windows RT: Worthless or the future of Windows?

Summary:Ed Bott sees a bright future for Microsoft's mobile Windows OS. But Matt Baxter-Reynolds sees no future at all.

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Worthless

or

The Future

Ed Bott

Ed Bott

Best Argument: The Future

35%
65%

Audience Favored: The Future (65%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

It's dead in the water

When it was announced, Windows RT seemed like a good continuation of Microsoft's vision of a "reimagined" Windows. By removing the ability to run Old Windows, legacy software Windows RT gained focus meaning that device manufacturers were able to focus on building low-cost, low-power, ARM-based devices that only ran software with a user experience optimised for touch.

What the market got has two problems. Firstly, too much Old Windows baggage has been brought forward into the new Windows RT world. Rather than everything being simple and straightforward, some things are but many other tasks are not. Even users with very basic requirements have to contend with the mental challenge of going from a very simple tablet-focused experience and crashing back into Old Windows that's less touch-friendly. And let's forget Windows RT doesn't run normal Windows software.

Secondly, there's the problem that there is space for Windows RT to grow and establish itself because Windows RT devices are too expensive. Surface RT is prices around the average selling price of a normal Windows 8 laptop. Intel is getting better at making their mobility-focused Atom processors draw less power and create less heat making them more suitable for tablets.

Windows RT's proposition at the moment is pay more money for a device that doesn't run normal Windows software, and isn't as simple as a tablet operating system needs to be in order for it to be competition for iOS or Android. Frankly, it's dead in the water.

A bright future

If you want to see the future of Windows, grab a machine running Windows RT, like Microsoft’s Surface. Notice I said the future, not the present.

Windows RT-powered devices have been on the market for less than 90 days. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss RT as a platform if you compare it to mature platforms like Windows (25+ years) or iOS (six years) or even Android.

But what look like weaknesses in the current crop of devices are actually the keys to its future.

Underpowered ARM processor? That’s the key to all-day battery life, which you can’t get with a conventional Windows PC.

No apps? The tight control over apps in the Windows store means malware and crapware are nonstarters on RT.

Limited device selection? The strict specs for RT hardware blocks shoddy, cheap devices and means any device you buy is likely to work properly, right out of the box.

The question is not whether RT represents the future of Windows but how soon that future will arrive.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mic Check

    Are my debaters standing by? I'll be delivering my first question at 11am ET / 8am PT sharp.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Ready to go

    Debater A is ready

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    All set

    Let the games begin

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, first question: Windows RT strategy

    Does the Windows RT strategy makes sense to you and is developing on the ARM architecture worth pursuing?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Great idea

    Strategically, building a version of Windows that would run on ARM is a great idea. Post-PC devices like smartphones and tablets needs what ARM brings in terms of low-power, long-battery life devices that are always connected. Those devices are hugely important from an industry perspective.

    My problem with Windows RT is the execution. If they’d had taken the Windows Phone OS and scaled it up for different screen sizes, and left behind more of the Old Windows stuff and Office -- that would have been a better solution.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    A success story

    Of course it does. ARM has been a success in the marketplace for very good reasons and any technology company that wants to be competitive has to take it seriously. Microsoft’s approach isn’t all that different from what Apple did so successfully: start with your existing kernel and build on that. What you see right now is version 1.0, which has succeeded in delivering both a platform for new apps and a foundation for a future that migrates the best parts of “old Windows” intelligently.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Advantages from ARM?

    Windows RT has its advantages from ARM, notably battery life, but lacks the legacy support. Is this an issue two to three years from now? How about today?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    I'm not concerned with legacy support

    I’m not concerned with legacy support. People don’t necessarily need a tablet to do what a normal PC does, and I think the argument of a single converged device is overblown such that people will generally continue to carry two devices if they need the specialist functionality that each brings. For example, generally people don’t miss the ability to run a full version of Word on their devices.

    We know that Intel are working on reversing their design philosophy from being one focused on “horsepower” and over to more power-conservative design, but I question their ability to ever equal ARM in terms of the power efficiency of their designs. ARM are still progressing and innovating -- Intel remains some way behind them.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    There is legacy support in Windows RT

    Hold on a second. Windows RT doesn’t completely lack legacy support. It has a full file system, multi-user support, and drivers for printers and external storage devices just like x86 Windows. It even has specially compiled versions of Office apps (all but Outlook) so you get almost full access to those legacy apps. No, you can’t install random desktop apps. But in theory, a future RT, two or three years from now, could allow additional apps on the desktop, if they’re written right and recompiled for the ARM architecture.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What could Microsoft have done differently?

    The way I see it, Microsoft needed to do something for ARM. What could Microsoft have done differently to bring Windows to ARM without a splinter RT OS?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    A better idea

    I don’t think they could have done it without splintering. As I mentioned above, the better idea would have been to leave Windows on the desktop, and move Windows Phone forward such that it was able to address the needs of both smartphone and tablet users.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Room for error

    Splinter OS? I disagree with the premise of the question. Microsoft has been working on low-power solutions for Windows for years, with nothing to show for it. Development for what has become Windows 8 and RT started in 2009 or earlier, with the goal of having two operating systems that share a single kernel and a common app platform. I suppose it’s possible that Microsoft could have chosen to start completely from scratch and develop an ARM-based OS that would have had nothing in common with x86 Windows. But it sure seems like that would have been the “splinter OS.” It also would have been a horrible mistake.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Clarity or confusion?

    Do you see Windows RT becoming more clear in tech buyers' minds or will it continue to be cause for confusion?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Confusion is expected

    I actually can’t see a world where this isn’t mostly confusing. You have two products, running on devices that both similar and are priced about the same. Yet one is “normal” Windows that you’re used to, and the other looks like Windows but doesn’t run Windows

    Even Microsoft’s own website is sketchy on the legacy app support.Reading the official Windows RT website, you have to know what you’re looking for (i.e. a lack of legacy app support) in order to confirm it and even then you can only find it by digging.

    The difference isn’t necessary anything Microsoft wants to highlight because most buyers would see a lack of legacy support as a problem. (Although I should point out, it’s likely such potential buyers would be happy with an iPad which obviously has zero legacy Old Windows software support.)

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Not an issue

    It’s an understatement to say that Microsoft has done a less-than-perfect job of defining the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. But at this point in the game it’s really only an issue for early adopters, who are perfectly capable of understanding the differences. Look, there’s new Windows and old Windows. Windows 8 runs both of them, side by side. Windows RT runs only new Windows (and Office). Was that so hard?

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's the elevator pitch?

    How should Microsoft educate the masses about Windows RT?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Is it fixable?

    Honestly, I’m not sure it’s fixable. If Microsoft are expending cash on educating the masses, it would be better spent educating around the advantages of touch interfaces and the work that’s been done in that regard in Windows 8 and trying to push more interest in that technology in the consumer market.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Answered

    See my previous response.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Five years from now...

    ...will Windows RT still exist?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    No way

    I’m not convinced it will exist even five months from now.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    It's the future

    Of course it will. Except it will just be Windows. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see a future where the RT portion of Windows 8+n is more important than the legacy portion—a flip-flop of the current situation. Likewise, a future Windows RT can fill in many of the holes in the current desktop (a SkyDrive sync utility, for example) relatively easy. Today, we focus obsessively on apps that were written years ago for the x86 Windows environment because that’s what matters. In five years, those will be far less important.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Orphaned?

    What are the chances that Windows RT will be orphaned if it does exist?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Long-term commitment

    Microsoft doesn’t like to drop support for software that they’ve put out, so I presume that even if they do can it, it’ll remain supported for a long time. In fact, they’ve already pledged long-term support for the platform , ostensibly to make enterprises feel more comfortable.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Four-year cycle

    Microsoft has already committed to a minimum four-year support cycle for the current release of Windows RT, and every new app that’s written for the Windows Store gives it that much more relevance. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Microsoft abandons ARM, unless ARM itself becomes irrelevant.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Samsung isn't using Windows RT in the U.S.

    Does that strategy make sense and do you expect other hardware makers to follow?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Makes sense

    Yes, I think it makes lots of sense. In at least one recent survey, we know that Surface accounts for 82% of the Windows RT devices on the market, and that same survey shows that Samsung’s ATIV Tab only gets 1%. If Surface is selling in very poor numbers, why should Samsung continue to invest? I also expect other hardware manufacturers to follow. Even if they do continue to deliver Windows RT devices, I don’t see a broad range of devices, nor do I see devices being updated frequently. It’ll be more “a tick in the box” rather than anything that has any serious investment.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Correction

    Correction: Samsung isn’t selling its first-generation Windows RT device in the U.S. They’ve decided, probably wisely, that they can let Microsoft deal with the pain and cost of establishing RT in the marketplace. Meanwhile, ASUS and Dell both appear to have planted firm stakes in the ground now. Microsoft is doing a lot of the work of helping them develop and spec the platform, and I don’t see either of them backing off.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    How important are hardware partners to the Windows RT cause?

    At first glance it appears that Microsoft needs the Surface to give Windows RT a long-term shot.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Very

    I think the hardware partners are very important, but they need to be innovating rather than just ramming Windows RT into a chassis better suited to Windows 8. Take the Yoga 11 . That’s actually a great laptop, but it’s not a very good Windows RT device because it’s too big and heavy. The OEM partners need to be building things that are more like iPads, Galaxy Tabs, and Nexus 7s.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Hardware is the problem

    Let’s turn the question around. The biggest problem with the current Windows ecosystem is the hardware. PC OEMs have been in a race to the bottom with hardware for years, cutting corners in hardware design, loading machines up with subsidized crapware, and delivering too many models. For PC buyers, that leads to an awful lot of pain and unhappiness. Windows RT is a much more tightly regulated platform. OEMs might chafe at Microsoft’s strict rules, but buyers (that’s us) should be happy in the long run with fewer choices and more reliability overall.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Ecosystem?

    What needs to happen for Microsoft to create a vibrant Windows RT ecosystem?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Both platforms

    Software-wise, I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction between the work that’s happening for Windows RT and Windows 8 -- i.e. the development of Windows Store apps. In this regard, Microsoft is doing a good enough job to get ISVs to develop apps for both platforms.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Adopting the best of Windows 8

    Apps are one key, obviously. The other is a robust set of services that work as well on ARM-based devices as they do on conventional PCs. Microsoft is well on its way to delivering the second of those goals with Office 365, SkyDrive, Outlook.com, and its Xbox entertainment services. Getting app developers fully committed, so that people can reasonably expect to find the apps they need to be productive, is the bigger challenge. The smart part of Microsoft’s strategy in this respect is that it can leverage the much bigger installed base of Windows 8, where success in turn will lift the prospects of Windows RT.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Do you expect more sales of Surface with Windows RT or Surface Pro with Intel?

    Why or why not?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Surface Pro

    I expect Surface Pro to sell well, as I think a lot of individuals who are keen on Microsoft and the individual design of Surface generally are holding out for Surface Pro. I’m not convinced Surface Pro is a particularly good laptop though

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Surface Pro

    Initially, at least, I think it’s reasonable to expect the Surface Pro to do better. It’s a PC, whereas Surface RT is a PC-like device that requires a certain level of acceptance of its limitations. Surface Pro looks like it will be an excellent high-end business machine, capable of fully replacing a laptop and working in situations where a tablet is better suited. Surface RT can’t fully replace a portable PC, which removes it from consideration for many business buyers.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, gentlemen: Final question...

    Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, which we all know is 20/20, what could Microsoft have done differently with the Windows RT launch?

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

    Not enough new

    As per my point above -- Windows Phone would have been a better baseline operating system. It’s simpler, and already had straightforward developer support.

    The biggest problem with Windows RT is the amount of the Old Windows world that’s carried over. This does nothing but increase the complexity that the user has to deal with, which is the last thing you want on a tablet. Tablets are supposed to be basic, simple devices that never go wrong and never cause a fuss. Windows RT is the wrong class of operating system to address that objective.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for Worthless

    Partner issues

    There’s an awful lot we don’t know about what went on behind the scenes with the development of Windows RT. It appears that Microsoft counted on having a couple of chipmakers and a handful of name-brand OEM partners on board at launch time. They didn’t count on HP, one of those original partners, being a complete basket case and having to drop out because their entire PC business was a mess. Nor did they count on TI deciding to unexpectedly exit the ARM business in September 2012, which took Toshiba out of the running. Those events make the Surface development effort look very smart indeed.

    Ed Bott

    I am for The Future

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thank you, Matt and Ed

    And thank you readers your votes and comments. Please check back tomorrow for our debaters' closing arguments, and again Thursday when I deliver my verdict.

    Posted by Lawrence Dignan

Closing Statements

No room in the market

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

I’m all for innovation and clever new ways to thinking about old problems. Our society is changing to take greater advantage of the opportunities afforded by devices that are always there, always have power, and always have connectivity. The PC has to change in the face of that change, and it is changing.

The problem that I have with Windows RT and why I pitched my tent in the “Windows RT is worthless” camp is as follows -- the way that it’s been done, there simply isn’t room in the market to allow Windows RT to thrive. The price points are too close to normal Windows laptops. The central proposition of Windows RT -- “It’s mostly like Windows, but you can’t run most Windows software on it”, is broken. There’s nothing compelling about devices that are based on Windows RT that creates any form of market. And that is why I think it's worthless.

No crystal ball required

Ed Bott

It’s easy to take potshots at Windows RT, version 1.0. But it takes only a bit of vision to look two or three years into the future and see its path to success.

My worthy opponent argues that Microsoft should have started with its phone operating system and scaled it up.

The trouble with that strategy is that you end up removing some of the most important bits of what a secure, robust mobile platform should have, including a real file system, support for multiple user accounts, and the ability to shift effortlessly between consumption and creation on a single device.

Today, Windows RT is admittedly an early adopter’s product. Oh, you can do a lot today with web-based services and first-gen apps like the Kindle reader and Skype, and Office 2013. But in a few years Windows RT will be the mobile version of Windows. As ARM technology continues to evolve and developers (including Microsoft) ship more robust apps for the platform, it’s easy to see a future where the RT side of Windows is more important than the legacy side.

Maybe then we’ll be debating whether it’s time to retire that old, quaint legacy version of Windows.

The future, but...

Lawrence Dignan

I'm inclined to think that Windows RT will be orphaned so was predisposed to go with Matt's argument. However, Ed made some valid points and Microsoft's sheer will means that RT will stick around for a bit. Most likely outcome will be some sort of RT meets Windows 8 merger. I'll give Ed the win that Windows RT is the future (in some form) although I'm shaking my head as I render the verdict.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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