Windows 8, Windows RT, and Surface: A Strategy Emerges

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 25th, 2012

Microsoft SurfaceMicrosoft has begun the tough job of answering three questions vital to its future: Why Windows? Why Windows RT? And why Surface? The arguments given at the Windows 8 launch event in New York on Oct. 25 won’t close the deal, but they mark the emergence of a strategy out of what has sometimes seemed a muddle

Why Windows
Microsoft has clearly been watching Apple and learning. It understands that when customers buy iPhones, iPads, or Macs, they aren’t just purchasing hardware; they’re buying into an ecosystem of products, services, apps, and content where everything works together.
Microsoft has long had the pieces, but lacked the integration. Now it is putting them together. Content moves seamlessly from your Xbox to your PC to your tablet to your Windows Phone. The new Xbox Music brings a Spotify-like music service to all devices. SkyDrive lets you share your files easily and all the devices have access to some form of Office. Clever Windows 8 apps connect to Bing services. Windows users will be able to “plug into the largest ecosystem anywhere,” says Windows chief Steven Sinofsky.
How well this all works in practice remains to be seen. Microsoft, with its deep experience in enterprise back-end operations, has a considerable advantage over Apple, which has stumbled often with network-based services. For once, it is Apple that is stuck with the legacy of iTunes, which Microsoft is starting clean. And the Microsoft offering leaves Google, which has tons of stuff but none of it very well integrated, in the dust. Neither Apple nor Google was mentioned by name in the lengthy presentations, but I got the sense that Google, which has left an opening by failing to exploit its early advantage in cloud services,  may be the primary target.
Microsoft isn’t forgetting the enterprise, but for the moment, at least, it seems to be taking it for granted; the messaging at the Windows launch was nearly 100% consumer. Except for tablets (Microsoft seems to have given up on the idea of calling them “slates”), the company has no illusions of large-scale enterprise adoption of Win 8 any time soon. But corporations remain wedded to Microsoft and these days, the company makes more enterprise revenue from  servers and tools than from desktops and laptops, or even Office.
Why Windows RT
Windows RT, the version designed for tablets based on ARM processors, is a tougher proposition. At the launch, Microsoft started the hard job of differentiating between the two new versions of Windows. The selling point for Windows 8 is fairly simple: Although the new user interface will require a fair amount of learning by users, the operating system remains compatible with the vast array of existing Windows software. If you want to run Autocad or Photoshop or even Microsoft Outlook, you need the legacy support of Windows 8.
But that legacy also brings a lot of cruft with it, and if you don’t need to run these desktop programs, you may be better off with the lean, clean Windows RT. Windows has made great leaps in security since XP, but a traditional operating system that gives programs full access to system resources is always going to be vulnerable
Windows RT is much more locked down and only allows installation of apps through the Windows Store. This should provide an environment that is resistant to both malware and the complex problems caused by software interactions that plague tradition Windows and, yes, Mac OS X
The troubling question is whether users pf RT-based tablets will be able to get the apps they need. As of today, the answer is no. I had hoped that launch day would see a sudden profusion of apps on the barren shelves of the Windows Store, but it hasn’t happened. There have been some very welcome additions, such as a client for the SugarSync cloud synchronization service and a Kindle reader, and a Twitter client is sad to be coming soon. But the Windows Store remains deeply impoverished compared to the iTunes App Store or even Google Play
The preloaded Microsoft apps are a mixed bag. The biggest issue is the awful mail client, which lacks such basic features as a consolidated inbox and support for POP mail services. Microsoft has promised improvements, and I hope that either they come soon or that someone steps up with a third-party offering. Having major components of Office–Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and One Note–certainly distinguishes RT  from other tablet OSes, but the allegedly touch-optimized applications still aren’t very touch-friendly. Their use pretty much demands a keyboard and a touchpad or mouse.
Why Surface
It’s clear that Microsoft regards Surface, its first plug into computer hardware, as an entirely new type of device, neither a tablet nor a PC or, more accurately both.  Microsoft offers it without either of its two keyboards–either the flat $100 Touch Cover, which looks unusable but actually works quite nicely, or the $129 Type Cover, with keys that actually move a little–both to hit a $499 price point and to avoid a profusion of SKUs. But if you are buying a Surface, don’t even think about getting it without one of these keyboard-plus-touchpad covers.
Apple considers the iPad a post-PC device. Microsoft considers the Surface a kind of PC. Thee difference was summed up, in hyperbolic language, by the respective chieftains. Sinofsky describes the Surface as “not just a tablet but the best tablet I’ve ever used. Not just a laptop, but the best laptop I’ve ever used.” But Apple CEO Tim Cook, who hasn’t actually seen it yet, dismissed it as “aa fairly compromised, confusing product…. I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don;t think it would do any of those things well.”
Surface is in many ways a more ambitious device than the iPad because it can do everything most consumers want from a PC. Sinofsky even makes a big deal of its ability to work with printers and other peripheral devices through a USB cable (personally, I don’t want to think of connecting a tablet to anything except over a wireless link.
It will be interesting to see how the market shakes out between the ARM-powered Surface and the Surface Pro, which uses an Intel Clover Trail processor and standard Windows 8. The Pro version will be heavier and considerably more expensive. It will truly be a PC in a new design: lighter than an Ultrabook and less capable, though probably capable enough for most uses
To the extent to which enterprises go for the Surface, they are going to choose the Pro (expected to ship some time in Novmber), both for software compatibility and because it, unlike the regular Surface, can be centrally managed like a PC. IT managers may see the Surface Pro as an way to stop the creeping invasion of iPads, giving executives the tablets they want while retaining the manageability IT desires.
Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to sell Windows 8. It’s biggest immediate challenge ia to set customer expectations for Windows RT correctly to avoid a wave of returns of Surfaces (and RT tablets from Lenovo, Dell, and Asus) by consumers who did not understand the software limitations. But Microsoft is off to a good start. It’s good to see the tablet battle finally fully joined.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • http://twitter.com/qka qka

    I recently received a flyer from my warehouse club advertising, among many other things, a Toshiba laptop, with “Windows 8″ and an ARM processor, for $400. No mention of RT, and the restrictions that come with vs. the Intel PCs advertised either side of it. I can’t but imagine how many people will buy it on price, but will return it when they discover all that it cannot do.

    Also: Steve, please turn on your spell checker. This article had so many spelling errors that it would be an embarrassment to a school boy. I understand you were on a deadline, but they were so many as to reflect poorly on your professionalism.

    (Or are you still learning to use the Surface Touch Cover? ;) )

    • steve_wildstrom

      First, sorry about the typos. I didn’t type in on a Touch Cover–it was worse, I wrote it using Evernote typing on a Zagg keyboard on an iPad on a train in bad light. And by the time I got home and pasted it into WordPress, I was too tired to see straight.

      If it was a Toshiba laptop, it would run full Windows 8, not RT. Toshiba is not even offering an RT product. But I would caution anyone against trying to run Windows 8 on a cheap older laptop, or even most expensive older laptops. Windows 8 is an awful experience on a laptop that lacks a touchpad optimized for it. Some older touchpads can be upgraded through software so that they’ll do a satisfactory job, but most Windows laptops, especially cheap ones, come with dreadful pads that will fail badly on Windows 8.

      • http://twitter.com/qka qka

        Re-read product specs. It’s an AMD, not ARM processor. I guess you weren’t the only one up late last night. Same flyer was also advertising an Asus TF600 Windows 8 RT tablet. Available today, 10/26. No mention of any keyboard.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I believe the Asus VivoTab RT (a/k/a the TF600) comes with a keyboard dock for $599.

  • Defendor

    Real (x86) Windows 8 on a decent convertible like Lenova Yoga might make sense.

    But Win RT seems at a double disadvantage:
    1: It is a subset, it runs about 4000000 less applications.
    2: It runs on weaker ARM processors. Even an Atom is much more powerful.
    Run less software and run it slower. Yay?

    On Surface HW Specifically:
    That keyboard setup is not even close to being as useful as a real laptop. Can you use it in your lap? An airplane tray? Can you use it while carrying it? And $100 for a Membrane keyboard. We ridiculed those on cheap computers in the 1980.

    I really have a problem with reviewers that applaud something for being new and different when in reality is pretty far behind what we already have.

    • steve_wildstrom

      The plusses for RT: Cheaper, lighter, probably better battery life. Number of apps isn;t the issue, but the right apps have to be available and right now, they aren’t. We also don;t know how well a lot of heavyweight traditional Windows apps will run on Clover Trail/Atom. It’s a lot more powerful than the Atom processors that turned in such disappointing performance on netbooks, but still, it’s no i5.

      You have to consider the Surface a new form factor, neither tablet nor laptop. Yes, you can use it on a tray table and, somewhat surprisingly, your lap. What wasn;t clear from the pictures I had see is that the kickstand runs the full width of the device, making it possible to balance it on your lap.

      The keyboard is not membrane. It’s a new technology and I was surprising by how easy it was to type on. And there’s also the Type Cover, with real, if somewhat limited travel, keys.

      • Defendor

        It remains to be seen if the RT devices are cheaper/lighter/battery life than Win8 Atom devices. The Acer W510 is $499, and weighs about the same as the RT devices. So those claimed advantages aren’t materializing yet.

        On the stability versus a real laptop, you only have to look at it, to realize that on anything but a large flat surface it is not contest. It strikes me more as a novelty that has worse real world usability. Review do back that up:

        http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/23/microsoft-surface-rt-review/

        ” A Surface with a Touch Cover barely fits on most airplane seat-back
        trays; it doesn’t work at all on the trays that pull out of an armrest.
        That’s a problem. This design makes it very hard to use the Surface with a Touch Cover
        anywhere but a tabletop. It needs a 10-inch deep flat surface. I could
        not use the Surface with a Touch Cover sitting in an armchair, walking
        around, or laying on my back in bed. ”

        http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/23/3540550/microsoft-surface-review
        “It’s also not very useful on your lap — unless you like to struggle.”

  • Grwisher

    Regarding: “But Apple CEO Tim Cook, who hasn’t actually seen it yet”
    As Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci), in “My Cousin Vinny” would say – “Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?”

  • http://decidebuddy.com/ Consumer Reviews Online

    It looks like Intel forced Microsoft to bundle MS Office with Windows
    RT, thus greatly increasing the cost and hence killing the product.
    Source :- http://decidebuddy.com/tablet-pc/product/microsoft-microsoft-surface/readreview

    • steve_wildstrom

      Why (and how) would Intel have done that? RT doesn’t even run on Intel processors.