I've had a love-hate relationship with Windows RT ever since Microsoft unveiled a prototype at CES in January 2011. But with its future now on shaky ground I can't help but feel that Microsoft is itself hammering the nails into the operating system's coffin, and that this may be huge mistake.
In theory, I like the idea of an ARM-specific variant of Windows. Windows on the x86 architecture has become a horrible bloated mess, dragging behind it years of legacy, and offering a never-ending supply of footholds for malware to enter your digital fortress. I'd long held the hope that the Windows could be saved and bought into the 21st century, and saw Windows RT as a roundabout way of doing that. After all, Windows RT is more secure, better insulated from driver and third-party software headaches, and required a lot less futzing about with than "full-fat" Windows.
It is, in essence, what I'm looking for from a modern platform.
But the problem with Windows RT (ignoring the high price of the hardware, which can't have done much to generate enthusiasm for the platform) is that it didn't live up to the "Windows" part of its name. Calling the operating system Windows RT would have been like Apple calling iOS something ambigious and confusing like iOS X or something. The "Windows" brand implies certain features, specifically the ability to run Windows applications.
Windows RT was essentially DOA because Microsoft couldn't see or think outside of the Windows box. The marketing types at Redmond felt compelled to market the operating system as a Windows operating system. This, in turn, resulted in a great deal of confusion among both buyers and retailers (some of which were bundling or upselling software for devices that was incompatible with the operating system), and a high level of returns from disappointed buyers for those selling Windows RT tablets.
Julie Larson-Green, Executive Vice President of Devices and Studios, speaking at the UBS Global Technology Conference last week, admitted that the message was confused.
"I think we didn't differentiate the devices (Surface RT vs. Surface Pro) well enough. They looked similar. Using them is similar. It just didn't do everything that you expected Windows to do. So there's been a lot of talk about it should have been a rebranding. We should not have called it Windows. How should we have made it more differentiated? I think over time you'll see us continue to differentiate it more," she said.
Now the future of Windows RT is uncertain. "We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows," said Larson-Green before adding, "We're not going to have three."
This means a horrible period of uncertainty for all involved. While there are no OEMs selling Windows RT devices (Microsoft is the last man standing), there are customers who might be thinking about updates, and a raft of developers who have invested time, money, and skills into brings apps to the platform. Many of the apps developed are unnecessary on full-blown Windows systems, and aren't applicable to the Windows Phone.
So where does this leave Windows RT? My guess – and this is a guess since everyone I've talked to as Microsoft is being close-lipped – is that Windows RT will be assimilated with the Windows Phone platform and the project will move forward in that direction, focus on on smartphones and phablets rather than tablets. After all, all data points from my sources within OEMs suggest that Windows RT devices failed to take off, and that sales were poor and returns astronomically high because the platform didn't do what people expected of it.
Essentially, it's over for the platform for the forseeeable future.
The only proven mass market for a tablet continues to be the iPad.
But I still think that there's room in the market for Microsoft to bring out a tablet operating system. After all, Windows RT is the operating system that many people want but don't know that it exists. It was familiar, easy-to-use, required little in the way of hand-holding, used an app model that people are now familiar with, and didn't need users to mess about with security software. It's a good platform.
It's just not Windows. And it should never have be marketed as Windows.