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

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

Summary: 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.

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Laptops, Mobile OS, Tablets, Windows


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • passed on surface RT...

    will get surface with windows 8 pro as soon as available. I've owned a windows phone for 2 years and have installed exactly zero apps. I need desktop applications.
  • Winders 8 and the surface....

    Jason, you left out a group - CLOWNS.
  • Well

    It seems to me that for most of my daily purposes, the surface does enough to replace my laptop. Web, email, camera tether, Skype, im, music, maps, photos, netflix, and printer support. In fact, it's probably better for music than my laptop, since it has xbox music. Wiki and other search apps (I spotted one for howstuffworks) are just a gesture away, and same with sharing to email, Facebook, twitter, IM.

    So basically it does everything I currently use my iPad for, plus a few other things that usually I'd have to pull out my laptop for. I won't be throwing out my laptop for those rare occasions when I want to use photoshop or something, but I dont want to lug around a device with double the thickness and half the battery life for those 3 times a year that I need more.
    • Wow

      Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online(Click on menu Home)
    • Compatible?

      If you have not already you might want to check about printer compatibility. According to MS Surface device compatibility pages your printer may not be compatible or have "limited functionality". You have to check the MS compatibility web pages specifically for SurfaceRT.
  • Windows rt vs. windows 8 tablets

    there are 2 types of tablets windows 8 tablets with intel atom processors and i5 processors with usb ports and that you can add software and do anything as you would with a pc no restrictions and then there is the windows RT tablets with arm processors which comes with the office and the 2013 preview which you will get the full version for free when it comes out. the windows RT tablet does have the metro look as well as the desktop look as well but you CANNOT add software only apps. SO IF YOU WANT TO ADD software and use the usb ports to hook up devices then get a TABLET WITH WINDOWS 8 they have intel processors (ATOM, i5). SO there u have it 2 types of tablets not laptops or convertible laptops REAL tablets ive played with both already today at first I was against now im gonna buy ONE.

    1. Windows RT tablet ARM processor (limitations but still pc experience) add only apps

    2. Windows 8 tablet Intel Processor Full PC experince able to add soft ware usb ports for devices
  • DOS anyone?

    Did DOS ever completely expire from Windows? Nope, the command prompt is alive and well. Then why would you think they'd ever put an expiration date on x86?

    There are too many Windows gamers, too many companies like Steam who have built their stores around the platform and WinRT isn't powerful enough to run something like Dishonored. There's just no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks that x86 will die within the next 10 years.

    ...and why would Microsoft build an x86 tablet if it planned on phasing that out?
    • Don't confuse WinRT with Windows RT

      WinRt is the replacement for Win32, and it exists on Intel and ARM devices. You might make a case for the ARM processors and the onboard graphics being a little underpowered compared to the Intel devices, but they'll still run all the modern software including games that are ported from Win32 to WinRT and ARM processors have become significantly more powerful.

      You also seem to be confused about x86 devices - they will still run WinRT so any new application you develop using WinRT will run on them as well, so no need to phase them out.
  • I really can't see how anyone can argue with your reasoning or logic, Jason

    If a person wishes to be an early adopter, both you and I give those individuals our blessing. Most everyone reading your blog has been an early adopter of an ecosystem platform at one time or another. Being an early adopter is fun and exciting stuff. And the Surface RT tablet and it's WinRT OS show tremendous potential in addition to realized productivity using the limited software apps available for it.

    I recognize the current limitations of this platform and unfortunately, those limitations do impact my rational for adopting or purchasing a WinRT tablet at this time. I really, REALLY like and admire the MS manufacturing effort behind the Surface RT. Being able to survive repeated shoulder high accidental drops onto unforgiving surfaces is quite impressive and almost, by itself, a reason to purchase this particular tablet, IMO.

    However, if I wish to embrace the Windows 8 experience, I want to embrace the "full" experience. In that light, the Surface Pro makes more sense to me. I'm not saying it is the best choice - battery life better be 7 hours at least - but it is an excellent (on paper, at least) option, non-the-less.
    • "Early Adopters"

      Let's be real. 5000 apps is more than anyone will ever have installed at any one time. Most of the more popular apps are there now. I bought the surface at launch because I knew it would have most of what I would ever want to do on a iPad like tablet device with the added benefit of better hardware and office. Sure there are one or two apps that aren't available yet on the surface but none of which do things that can't be done on the web anyway. This thing does have the web and the best web experience ever to boot. For example, there is no FSNB bank app in the store like in ios and android, but heck I can still bookmark my banks mobile site...infact this typically is more reliable than the mobile app counterpart. My point is you don't need to be an "early adopter" or developer to use this tablet and have a great experience...you simply need to know how to use a web browser and not have the need to install 250000 apps at once. I think that accounts for most people. Fan boys please stop trying to blur the lines with sensationalistic rhetoric.
  • How could it ever be too early?

    "It's that at this juncture it's really just for early adopters and software developers."

    How could it ever be too early?

    Early adopters are - well, early adopters by definition. They know the risks of a new platform, and are willing to accept them.

    Developers HAVE to do early adoption, otherwise the software they create won't be compatible with the new platform.

    Chances are, developers will buy separate machines for testing on Windows 8 anyways. A good developer NEVER has only one platform, as software generally needs to be tested on a very large range of devices.
    • And I misread the artice. . . where's the edit button?

      And I misread the artice. . . where's the edit button?
  • Agreed and ...

    ... the Surface RT is rather like a netbook: it doesn't quite do the job. A PC can be miniaturised ... but my fingers ... not so much. I think Jobs was right - the usage cases are ultrabook and touch tablet. All these tablets-with-keyboards-and-docking, just means you shoulda brought your laptop.

    Also the vendors have been very shy about pricing for Windows 8 tablets - because they are far too expensive.

    Surface PRO isn't going to cut it either: the device will be too heavy and even more expensive. What we want, what Windows users have wanted ever since the iPad; is a light, long battery life 200-300$ x86/x84 tablet running, you know, WINDOWS!

    MSFT will get there in a generation or two but until then I pass.
    They have to watch out though. The new 27" all-in-one iMac is beginning to look like a real Surface ... a big tablet. Now that's what I really want!!
    • Less Than a Netbook

      Up the ram on a netbook and you can still run a lot of native Windows apps.
      Can't do that on RT ....

      But in a way, yes, the RT reminds me of the netbook era ...
    • Dell is doing a 27" all-in-one with touch screen

      If a 27" all-in-one Mac is your idea of a big surface tablet, then take a look at the Dell 27" all-in-one running Windows 8. It's a 27" touch screen!!!
  • Author sounds like a complainer/whiner...

    Based on the article, it sounds like the author of this article has been complaining/whining for about a year... only to change his mind later... over and over again. Why should any of us take you seriously? Some people just like to complain. Whatev.
    • And you are whining to whining why?

      To prove a point that people simply love whining by nature, don't they?
      Those who don't - are either stinking dirty shills, or stinking dirty illiterate neanderthals, or ETs, i.e. non-humans.
  • Wow, just wow, you are a journalist?

    so instead of reporting this article seems more like a defense of your pre-cognitions. Your views from well over a year ago. And I will admit to not reading any of your prior posts and based upon this "journalism", I won't be anytime soon.

    First you defend your own wariness at sweeping changes. But you got issues when MS abandons the legacy for RT? can you really have it both ways?

    The cost of training for Win8 would not support your assertion that MS "Desperately need an environment..." Most would love the status quo. NOT change. Is IOS and Android really the model for a desktop OS? Even apple still sells OSX, no? Macbook air, mbp, and now you love the all in one.

    Suffice to say, you miss MS's intent. RT is a companion device, that works just like the rest of its ecosystem.
    • I'm as much a journalist...

      As Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are serious political analysts. I write an opinion column (editorial) that covers subjects within the realm of Information Technology. I am not a reporter nor do I delve into investigative journalism. My opinions are strictly my own and I have never, ever represented myself as a "Journalist". I am a writer, period.
      • Standard copout clause

        writing opinions does not exclude you from the requirements of journalism. Unless you want to put yourself in the class of "pull it out of my $$$" opinion writers, and I don't think you want to be in that club.