How Windows RT could Thrive

Tim Bajarin / June 21st, 2013

Microsoft’s decision to create a Windows 8 version for use on ARM processors called Windows RT has become a bit of an enigma in the industry. Windows RT based tablets were launched with much fan fare yet sales of RT based devices has fallen way short of predictions.

In fact, Microsoft is selling their Surface RT to schools now for $100, something that suggests that the Windows Surface RT experiment is pretty much dead. Microsoft has its own self to blame for this. Their decision to include Office minus Outlook was a serious blow for these early models. While newly created Windows 8 apps worked on RT, the fact that it was not backward compatible with existing Windows Apps really added to its lack of allure for most customers

Also their TV ads didn’t help either. Instead of showing people the virtues of Surface they decided to show hip young people dancing and jiving holding RT Surface tablets, something that makes no sense to anyone who wanted to know what Surface really was and why they should even consider buying it. These ads were a waste of money and a big mistake in my book.

Our research suggests that Windows RT in 10-inch tablets and laptops probably will never take off. Mostly because of lack of backward compatibility with current Windows apps, which to a lot of people is still a big issue. While it is true that Windows 8 apps work on RT devices, the lack of Windows 8 apps, especially those long tail apps, will continue to hurt it in these types of models too.

However, there is one device, or area, where RT could be quite welcomed. One of the things you may have noticed is that 7” or 8” tablet prices have come down in price. Over the weekend I saw a 9” tablet for $99.00 at Fry’s. Sure it was a no-name brand but it had Android Ice Cream Sandwich on it and was more than serviceable as a basic tablet. What we are seeing is a race to the bottom with smaller screen tablets and it is becoming harder and harder for any tablet players to compete when prices get this low and they are all pretty much alike.

Gaming and Media

What is needed in the small tablet space is differentiation. Just using a mainstream processor will not cut it if the goal is to be heard above the crowd. It is true that being tied to a rich ecosystem like Amazon and Apple have for their smaller tablets helps them differentiate but for others, especially those betting on Windows 8 for tablets, they have no edge against this onslaught of race to the bottom low-end tablet space.

While CPUs in smaller tablets are important for delivering long battery life, the need for an upscale processor is somewhat minimal. However, one area of content that is important–even in small tablets–is games and video. For games, the GPU will become an important part of differentiating these smaller tablets. Especially since the use case for many of these smaller tablets will lean toward media and entertainment.

This is where RT could be on somewhat equal footing. In smaller tablets, backward compatibility with existing Windows apps is not important. Rather, it just needs to run Windows 8 apps and do them extremely well. But games and video built for Windows 8 could have an advantage when running an ARM processor like Nvidia’s Tegra or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. Both processors which, for the time being, are likely to have a graphics advantage over their lower cost x86 counterparts.1

Nvidia has made the GPU a key part of their mobile processor known as Tegra and to date, Nvidia has had some pretty big wins in tablets because of the robustness of Tegra’s CPU and GPU. Qualcomm, with Adreno, and Intel as well, both realize that the GPU is becoming much more important in mobile and they too have been working hard on developing more powerful graphics processors for use with their mobile SoCs.

Most of Nvidia’s tablet wins have been for use with Android but vendors wanting to do Windows 8 ARM based tablets need to look closely at the role a GPU will have in driving greater differentiation with these smaller tablets. From our research we are finding that smaller tablets are mostly used for content consumption and games and not productivity. Making these smaller tablets exceed consumer’s expectations, especially with games, could allow Windows RT to be taken seriously. An SoC with an emphasis on graphics added to deliver a great gaming experience could help deliver on this use case. And if the graphics and media experience is objectively clear, consumers will pay a premium for this if the tablet is to be used for HD games and video.2

It will be important to watch what happens at Microsoft’s Build conf in SF next week and see how much emphasis they make on creating games for Windows 8. If this is a major part of their strategy, then RT based small notebooks and tablets could thrive in this space even if they are not a bargain based prices.

  1. We can debate all we want the degree of which “good enough” experiences exist, but graphics is still an area where we will continue to observe clearly better visual experiences []
  2. Obviously there are many variables to this, including rich applications and games being developed for Windows RT []

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • def4

    Theoretically, yes.
    In practice, it’s too late because Intel has caught up.
    The window for RT is closing hard and fast.
    When 8.1 and the new Atom ship this autumn there will be no rational reason for anyone to want RT anymore.

  • FalKirk

    1) The problem with Windows 8 tablets is that they are really tablets that want to be desktops. They fill an important niche for some users, but they are not helping Microsoft expand their base into the true tablet marketplace.

    2) The problem with Windows RT tablets is two-fold. First, they are also tablets that want to be desktops, but they don’t even run desktop software. Microsoft thought that Office, alone, would be their “killer” feature – and they were dead wrong.

    Second the immature RT platform is being crowded out by iOS and Android machines.

    3) It might be an exaggeration to say that the RT platform is “dead”, but it’s not at all inaccurate to claim that it’s on life-support. RT is having the same chicken-and-egg problem that all new platforms have. Developers won’t develop for RT until there are enough units in the marketplace to support their efforts and users won’t buy units until there is enough software developed to make the platform valuable.

    Predicting what will happen to RT is almost impossible because it’s entirely up to the whims of Microsoft. They have enough money to keep RT on life-support for as long as they like. But as for RT becoming a self-supporting platform, that’s not going to happen. Consumers have bailed, and developers have bailed, leaving Microsoft the sole owner of a market that exists only in their minds.

    • steve_wildstrom

      The chicken-and-egg problem is a real concern with platforms such as Windows Phone, BB 10, and the late, lamented webOS. The problem with Win RT is that I can’t figure out why it is really worth saving. As def4 pointed out, the power gap between x86 and ARM is closing fast, leaving Windows on ARM a dubious proposition. Tim may be right about 7″ tablets, but wouldn’t they be better off–as I have argued all along–running a scaled up Windows Phone rather than a scaled down Windows. Even in its RT form, Windows is a bloated beast for a lightweight system.

      • David Olson

        Steve, I think you have their solution. wPhone on RT and Windows on an Intel tablet. But I am afraid that their doctrine will prevent them from making the one move that might work for them.

        • steve_wildstrom

          I have been saying that, and telling it to Microsoft, for a long time. They are not inclined to listen.

          • Rich

            You have two groups there. The first group is making products. The second group is a large number of potential customers. The product makers believe the potential customers have made a stupid mistake by buying from the competition; therefore the product makers have spent lots of money to educate the dummies – oops, potential customers – into buying the superior products that the makers have so nobly offered them.

            The makers know they’re smarter than everybody else, so naturally they’re not inclined to listen to anyone who says they’re mistaken, no matter how long the message is repeated.

      • Defendor

        Actually I don’t think there is that much difference. They both share the same kernel now.

        Strip the desktop out of Windows RT, and I doubt there is much difference.

        • steve_wildstrom

          In the same way that iOS and OS X share a kernel. There’s an awful lot of stuff between the kernel and the UI, and it’s not common. Also, while many APIs are common, quite a few are unique to one or the other (actually, three sets of APIs, Win32, WinRT, and WinPhone.)

          • steve_wildstrom

            For clarification, this MSDN page explains the relationship among the various Windows APIs.

        • sgns

          To me that sounds like doing an iOS7-like move, WITHOUT preserving the gestures and usability that people already know.

          Is anybody here intimately familiar with the UI paradigm of Windows 8 apps? Is it really good enough to do well and be popular on its own (if you managed preferences, system management and the other presently Desktop-only functions within it)?

    • Lerxst99

      I think there’s another pressing issue for Microsoft in that they have bet everything on the TIFKAM interface, on phones, computers and tablets.

      To quote my not so tech savvy brother who recently bought a new laptop, he hates Windows 8, and is looking to buy Windows 7 in order to downgrade the OS on his laptop.

      So when people like him is looking to buy a new phone (and now that Windows 8 has been almost 9 months in the market and should be relatively well-known among consumers) or tablet and walks into a store and see the same interface on phones and tablets, chances are that he and many like him (he’s not the only one, judging by the general consumer interest and feedback), will walk out with a Android or IOS device rather than a Windows 8 device.

      In my opinion Microsoft has failed completely with it’s Live Tiles strategy. Even though Windows 8.1 fixes some of the problems originally introduced, it’s still equipped with the same interface that users arguably do not want, and while we wait for it, the competitors are revving up their engines and continue to wedge their way into Microsoft’s territory, something which seemed completely unlikely only ten years ago.

      But as always, great insight by the columnists at tech.pinions.

      • steve_wildstrom

        That’s an interesting thought–that Windows 8 could be hurting Windows Phone. I think the tile interface is very interesting on a phone or a tablet, but it really does not work on a conventional PC. I’ve just started using what I think is my fourth touchscreen Windows 8 PC and I actually like it less the more I use it. It just makes everything harder.

        • Rich

          I’d say selling an OS that people like less the more they use it, is probably not a brilliant move in the same class as the iPhone.

        • sgns

          I also think this is an interesting observation. It makes me think that the Live Tiles is yet another case of a bad implementation of a promising idea.

    • Defendor

      I agree with a lot of what John and Tim have said here.

      Windows RT has been a complete flop in it’s current form, and it was completely predictable, which doesn’t say much for Microsoft product planning.

      Moving it to 8″ or less make the most sense if there are plans to keep RT alive.

      I think two necessary (not sufficient) conditions for survival in this smaller form factor are:

      1: Ditch desktop mode completely. This mode becomes more pointless in small sizes. This needs to be touch first device.
      2: Drop the license price to Phone levels ($10-$15) so it can be competetive with other small tablets.

      As long as it has similar pricing and a desktop mode/orientation, there is no reason not to get a more powerful x86 version, that has a massive desktop mode advantage.

      The lack of the desktop mode can be a justification for the low license cost. Another necessity if they are going to compete with smaller Android tablets.

      If I don’t see ~$200 8″ RT tablets, I think it is well and truly dead.

      Even with competetive pricing, Windows RT is still going to be a tough sell.

  • love the idea though…

  • Rich

    I’m not sure how games can turn an OS that is widely rejected, into a success. But even if that happens, Windows 8 as a game platform is a long way from Microsoft’s original intention to create a replacement for the enterprise OS known as Windows 7.

    MS would be wise to continue selling Win 7 until they can come up with a new major OS that’s an actual improvement. If that requires several years of development, well, you can’t make an error of the magnitude of Windows 8 without consequences.

    They would also be smart to ditch the ancient “Windows” moniker permanently. Ford may have kept calling their cars “Model T” for 20 years but somebody needs to tell Ballmer that’s not the way to go in 2013.

  • When I first looked at RT and Pro, I figured one of them would have to go. There wouldn’t be room for both. I figured that Pro would likely be the success. But apparently not that either.
    So in fact, MS may have missed the boat here with an opportunity. Maybe it would have been RT that could have been the winner – if they had cut it loose from “legacy” and Windows.
    It might have been MS’s iOS, for small form-factor mobile devices.
    If they had optimized it for what it did best, and the actual usage model of these sorts of devices. As a portal to Windows and Office, that was never a runner, and I have trouble understanding how they ever thought it would be. The power of wishful thinking I guess.
    Unfortunately for them, the …window… of opportunity, has likely closed now for any chance at repurposing of RT.

  • diddler

    RT was dead the minute they announced there would be an x86 tablet which the genius’s did at the same time. RT should have been launched at least a year before the other Surface and not included the desktop mode. I find it shocking that they couldn’t produce a proper touchscreen Office version.

    • FalKirk

      “I find it shocking that they couldn’t produce a proper touchscreen Office version.” – diddler

      Strategy tax. Creating a version of Office that worked on touch screens would be proof positive programs made for touch were wholly incompatible with programs made for pixel specific input devices. And since Windows monopoly and all of their developers are in the latter category….

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