Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure?

Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure?

Summary: Windows RT has 12 months to prove itself, but could smaller tablets provide the breakthrough that Microsoft desperately needs?


The next 12 months will be crucial for Windows RT, the slimmed down version of Windows that Microsoft hopes will help it to break into a tablet market dominated by Apple's iPad and hordes of Android-powered devices.

Windows RT is a trimmed back version of Windows designed to run on smaller devices with ARM processors, and has limited functionality compared to Windows 8: devices build using it can only run applications from the new Windows Store — not standard Windows applications, for example.

The new operating system is best known for powering Microsoft's new Surface RT tablet, but it's a combination that has not made a huge impact since it was launched in October last year.

Indeed, over the past month Microsoft has been offering Surface RT cheap in what looks like an attempt to clear out inventory. For example, it's been offering the Surface RT 32GB for $199 (instead of $499) to schools and universities, while attendees at TechEd Europe later this month can snap up a Surface RT 64GB for £69.99 (retail price £559).

Some other vendors have dipped a toe in the water with Windows RT, but again with limited success: recently Dell cut the price of its XSP 10 RT-powered slate to $299, down from $499 at launch, while other vendors are still to decide whether they want to build RT devices at all.

Around one million RT devices were shipped last year — less than one percent of the total tablet market (roughly 140 million devices). And while analyst house Gartner thinks as many as 3.5 million RT devices could ship this year, the total market for tablets could hit 230 million — which means the RT still has a lot of catching up to do before it's considered even a niche player.

Annette Jump, Gartner research director, said that while Microsoft has huge hopes in terms of RT, it has "struggled to present an image of relevance for many users" because customers remain confused about how Windows RT relates to Windows 8 (the home version of the operating sytem) and Windows 8 Pro (the business version).

It's not just a problem for Microsoft's Surface RT but also for other hardware manufacturers, she said. "Most of them have been a bit disappointing in terms of sales because there's been no clear positioning whether those devices are for consumers or for businesses, so the users were not that attracted. "

Jump told ZDNet: "Based on the enterprise feedback we've had so far, enterprises generally are very interested in Windows 8 Pro tablets. In some cases, they could be used as replacements for iPads or as an additional device for more mobile users. But for RT devices, virtually none of the companies we talk to have indicated that they are considering deploying Windows RT devices."

That's perhaps no surprise. While the Surface RT does come with Office, it's a Home and Student version, so to use it for work you must be the primary user on another PC licensed for Office 2013 Home and Business, Standard, Professional Plus or Office 365 ProPlus.

If the Windows RT tablet is the user's only device, the user or the enterprise must purchase a copy of Office for the device — for licensing purposes only — as it cannot be installed.

Windows 8 confusion

But even worse, according to a research note by Gartner, confusion around Windows RT could actually be causing problems for businesses that want to roll out Windows 8.

"Problems with Windows RT devices could have a ripple effect across the rest of the Windows family. If Microsoft is not drawing a distinction between Windows RT and Windows 8 (x86) in its marketing, any problems users have on either platform could be attributed to both platforms.

"Consumer problems are likely to flow into the enterprise as users ascribe negative feelings they have about Windows RT to the organisation's Windows 8 projects. These notions could create resistance to Windows 8 deployments or initiatives to simplify the infrastructure by converting iPad users to Windows 8."

A lack of apps in the Microsoft Store when compared to Android and iOS has been another factor in poor takeup of the Surface RT, Jump said, as well as limited distribution which means that outside of the US there were few opportunities to buy the device anywhere other than online. "For a new quite expensive device not as many consumers will be willing to do that," Jump said.

The confusion around Windows RT is part of a broader shift in the device market. Most PC manufacturers are still struggling to come to terms with the unexpected, wild, success of the iPad and the rapid decline of the traditional PC market.

As a result, manufacturers are experimenting with form factors and operating system as they try to figure out what works in this new post PC (or maybe PC plus) era.

"Some of the vendors will still experiment with RT for another six to 12 months and I think if the uptake is still as it is now they may look at other market opportunties: if they succeed in the positioning and get the right price point we might see that market take off a bit in the future," Jump said.

Despite a tricky first few months, Microsoft remains committed to Surface (it did not respond to a request for an interview for this story). With Windows 8.1 it will add Outlook to Windows RT devices, and there could be a new Surface on the horizon featuring Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips.

Windows RT is also important to Microsoft because it's another step towards the world of integrated devices and services provisioned via the clould. Taking a step back from that strategy would be a wrench.

Still, with Windows RT and Surface both being new products with uncertain positions in the market, Microsoft has managed to create a very complicated back story to its assualt on the tablet market.

But Windows RT could have one ace in the hole: size. While the initial tablet market was characterised by big screens — the 9.7-inch display of the iPad being the most obvious — as the market has evolved, smaller screens with 7-inch or 8-inch screens have become more attractive to customers.

Windows RT makes a lot of sense as the operating system for these smaller tablets — which are mostly devices for consuming content rather than creating it.

That means the lack of "legacy" apps become less of a problem, but means Microsoft has to get the app ecosystem going a lot faster than it has done so far. It also means it needs to get to pricing right if Microsoft is really going to compete with the $200 Nexus 7 for example — but that's a slightly easier job with Windows RT than it would be with Windows 8, and reports suggest Microsoft is cutting the licensing costs around small tablets.

On a small tablet, Windows RT finally starts to make sense as a bridge — at least in terms of look and feel — between Windows Phone and Windows 8. Now Microsoft has to persuade consumers and business to see it that way, too.

Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Microsoft, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • The future of windows RT surely on phones? If Microsoft is aiming for unified UIs and operating systems across as many devices as possible, what is the point of having two OSs for ARM architecture? Surely the next full iteration of Windows Phone will just be Windows RT with a phone-friendly skin? If that happens, then the Windows Phone Store and the Windows 8 Store become one and the same, at which point Microsoft finally offers a platform to offer to developers... just a thought.
    • merge

      Microsoft should definitely merge windows rt and windows phone together. this would provide many more apps to be shared on windows 8 and windows rt/windows phone, which would give windows rt an edge. While they're at it, they should get more desktop apps ported to the windows store, or make windows rt more open to super compilation of those desktop apps. Come on, Microsoft! BlackBerry paid developers to port their android apps to BlackBerry 10, so should you!
      • They have been paying developers and companies to make windows 8

        and windows phone 8 apps. I wouldn't hold my breath for more desktop apps on windows rt though. It would certainly be nice, but I don't think they want the desktop to be the focus of that OS. If they can get a good version of office running on the winRT runtime, I could see them removing the desktop completely.
        Sam Wagner
      • Win RT is not a phone OS

        You missed the point though. The good selling point of Surface RT or Windows 8 RT is that it not a blow-up phone OS. It is a proper tablet/ PC OS. These bloggers like the above know this, that's why they like the scared mongering. I can't figure out why I will carry a tablet, smartphone and laptop around for work or business when one device can do it all, both at work and home, making my phone be a phone.
      • Re: Microsoft should definitely merge windows rt and windows phone together

        Why do you think it created separate
      • Re: Microsoft should definitely merge windows rt and windows phone together

        OSes in the first place?
      • Re: Microsoft should definitely merge windows rt and windows phone together

        Why do‌ you think it‌ created ‌separate OSes in the first place?
    • WinRT has no future

      If Ballmer hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies! It is an ex-OS, it has ceased to be.
      Alan Smithie
      • Re: WinRT has no future

        It's not dead. It's just resting after a particularly tough reboot.
  • Re: Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure

    WHOA ! If there was ever a title to attract the Linux Trolls in their droves then it has to be this one.

    Granted Windows RT is a lemon but at least it is a Lemon that works. At least it does for me when I am working out on the road and very well it does too.

    Microsoft do need to get rid of the pointless Desktop during the overhaul.
    • Pointless?

      The pointless desktop that almost all businesses use? What a sound decisionn that would be. People need machines that can multitask (i.e. have three or more programs open or on screen at once) and can be customised. That isn't going to totally go away, ever. Nor is the requirement for a device more precide than a finger.

      PC demand will continue to contract as most people just want a communication and browsing device but that won't replace the traditional computer as long as there is demand for gaming, and productivity machines in business and academia. Which in the latter there will always be.
      • Pointless desktop

        On RT, it's essentially pointless. They should make the Office Suite capable of being in the Modern UI. He's not talking about getting rid of it completely, but on RT where it only serves to do a couple of things (update is there for optional, Office is there, there is another IE... I think that's it)
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Deliberate

          It's only pointless because Microsoft has deliberately chosen to make it so. If Microsoft wasn't so concerned that Metro would fail if not forced on users and developers the RT desktop could, in fact, be made quite useful.
          • Agreed

            Windows NT has a HAL that permits you to code a complete Windows implementation on non i86 hardware. We saw this in Windows NT on Alpha and MIPS until NT 4.0.
          • Wrong

            There's no point for Windows RT to have Desktop... because a majority of programs wouldn't run on it anyway. They're x86 programs, not ARM. There's a huge difference between the two.

            As for the HAL, ARM doesn't have the power right now to emulate x86 well.
            Michael Alan Goff
    • Windows 8 will die immediately if MS get rid of Desktop

      May be you don't really do productive works. However, during my work I needs Words, Excel, Powerpoint, pdf reader, email, web browser (and may be a program that connect to the company's system) all opened at the same time. These programs are commonly required for doing many office works in the world. Multi-tasks and a task bar to switch between programs is very important for these office workers.

      If MS get rid of Desktop, many companies and students in the world will just never consider Windows 8.

      These issues are also the major reasons why Windows RT is not selling.
      • Agree

        RT will soon be a tiny footnote in history, much like Microsoft Bob. If people truly need Windows in a tablet, they'll buy a Win 8 tablet, not RT. RT takes away the one thing that makes Windows on a tablet desirable - backward compatibility with existing Windows applications. Personally, if I really needed to run Windows on a portable device (which I haven't,) I'd buy an ultrabook over a tablet. I have no interest in Metro, and Windows desktop just works better with a keyboard/touch pad.
        • Yes, yes, yes!

          Exactly!!!!!!! And there seem to be so few people who get it!!! Going to this amount of trouble to create an all-new product which throws away 30 years of backward compatibility is staggeringly stupid. And the desktop-based GUI has been the standard for decades in all major OS development. And that includes Android, by the way, which is now their primary competitor!

          Metro has gone beyond answering a question that nobody asked. Microsoft has thrown out what it considers an answer, and the won't even reply if you ask them what they thought the question was in the first place. Astonishing.
      • Agreed

        Don't remove it from Windows 8.

        You could remove it from RT, though.
        Michael Alan Goff
        • Re:do need to get rid of the pointless Desktop

          In my statement there may have been some misunderstanding. I was only referring to Windows RT and not to Windows 8 in general.