Why Microsoft isn't going to dump Windows RT

Is there any chance Microsoft is going to do a 180 and dump its Windows RT operating system? My bet is no, and here's why.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

In the days following Microsoft's $900 million Surface RT write-down, many have been questioning Microsoft's stated plan to remain committed to Windows RT and Surface RT.


Is Microsoft really going to continue to sink resources into an operating system that's different from its core Windows 8 one, especially given that the new devices and services company made only $853 million (revenues, not profits) from its Surface RT and Pro sales through June 30?

We armchair pundits, Wall Street analysts, Microsoft partners, competitors and employees can keep on wondering all we want about the wisdom of Microsoft's Windows RT ways. It won't matter. I firmly believe Microsoft is not going to do a 180 on Windows RT, like the company did with the Start Button on Windows 8, or the always-on requirement for Xbox One.

Here's why:

What Microsoft has said

Back in March, Microsoft officials insisted that Windows RT, Microsoft's port of Windows to the ARM processor, was a necessary disruption. Corporate Vice President Michael Angiulo said it was Windows RT on ARM that gave Microsoft the ability to offer tablets that were "really competitive with a full-sized iPad." (Keep in mind this was said before the write-down and the eventual appearance of the much-improved anti-iPad ads from Microsoft.)

Angiulo also said that he believed the future of ARM chips was bright. And he played up the value of Metro-Style/Windows Store apps -- installed via the Windows Store and controlled by users -- as being a big selling point. "On Windows RT, the user experience stays consistent over time," he noted.

While Microsoft officials have played up user control of Windows RT devices, the reality is that Microsoft is the one that's really in control of these kinds of machines. There's likely to be less/no crapware, viruses and piracy (in theory, at least) on Windows RT machines because of how they're so locked down. Metro-Style apps are installed via the Windows Store, and Microsoft is the gatekeeper.

Just a couple weeks ago, Microsoft's Surface General Manager Brian Hall reiterated that Microsoft is absolutely committed to both the Surface RT hardware and the Windows RT OS. Microsoft is planning to develop and market both platforms going forward, he said. No ifs, ands or buts.

What Microsoft has hinted

So the verbal commitments are in place. But with Intel's new lower-power, higher-performance Intel Atom and Haswell chips finally coming to market, does Microsoft need to continue to hedge its bets (and risk confusing consumers) with another flavor of Windows?

The ability to run existing Windows apps in the desktop is arguably one of the main advantages that Windows 8 devices have over Windows RT ones. However, on the coming wave of smaller mini/tablets, even with better screen resolutions, running desktop apps is probably going to be a sub-optimal experience. At seven inches, it's going to be especially bad, I'd think.

On mini tablets, a desktop-minimal environment (and maybe one day, desktop-free one) makes the most sense. Microsoft is believed to be readying a seven- or eight-inch Surface tablet. My bet is that tablet could be running Windows RT 8.1 on ARM.

Of course, without more and more-compelling Metro-Style apps, Windows RT makes zero sense. Microsoft's Metro-Style app story is still relatively weak, but at least the current management is acknowledging this and trying to fix it.

On the business-app front, especially, Microsoft has reversed course and is actively courting its .Net developer community to try to get them to build Metro-Style apps. And there are Metro-Style versions of Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint (codenamed "Gemini") in development. Microsoft officials have said to expect Metro-Style Office apps in 2014. I wouldn't be surprised to see them in late 2013 or early 2014, worst case.

What Microsoft hasn't said ... yet

The other not-so-wild card in the Microsoft Windows ecosystem is Windows Phone.

Windows Phone runs on ARM. Windows RT runs on ARM. Both use the NT core. And Microsoft is trying to unify the programming interfaces, frameworks and dev tools across these platforms. Though there isn't a common Windows Store for Windows Phone and Windows RT, there's no reason this will always be the case.

The differences  between a Windows phone, tablet and phablet are diminishing. Will it always be the case that a five-inch phone must run an operating system called "Windows Phone OS"? Or could it run something called "Windows RT"? (Or vice versa?) What if the Windows Phone OS and Windows RT both evolve so they become, for all intents and purposes, one OS that can run on mobile devices without a desktop?

For those who thought Microsoft should have made Windows 8 more of a true desktop/laptop OS that wasn't optimized for touch tablets, and made the Windows Phone OS the operating system for touch-tablet devices, this kind of phone OS/RT convergence might be a belated dream come true....

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