Windows RT Grows More Mysterious as Launch Nears

on August 31, 2012
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Microsoft Surface
Microsoft’s Surface Windows RT Tablet

I expected we would be seeing more clarity on the distinctions between Windows 8 and its Windows RT sibling (for ARM processor devices) as the expected late October launch grows closer. But the picture seems to be growing murkier instead.

I didn’t make it to the IFA show in Berlin where many Windows 8 and RT devices had their unveiling but read dozens of reports. I was particularly struck by this hands-on video from The Verge’s Tom Warren. When Microsoft first announced what was then called Windows on ARM in February, it said Windows RT would have very limited access to the traditional Windows Desktop:

WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, codenamed “Office 15”, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility. WOA supports the Windows desktop experience including File Explorer, Internet Explorer 10 for the desktop, and most other intrinsic Windows desktop features—which have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption.

It seems that the definition of “intrinsic Windows desktop features” is somewhat broader than most of us had expected. For example, Warren found versions of Notepad and Paint included.  Maybe RT will support all of the applications and utilities traditionally found in the \windows\system32 directory. (It would certainly be the most robust utility tool kit on an ARM tablet.)

Isn’t all this extra stuff a good thing? Not really. For one thing, these apps are not optimized for touch and Warren’s video shows how awkward they are when the on-screen keyboard is covering half the display. (This was a chronic problem on Windows Tablet PCs going back a decade. The keyboard was never smart enough to stay out of the way of the programs it was interacting with.)

The bigger problem is that this is going to be very confusing for consumers. If Windows 8 and Windows RT look alike and to a considerable extent act alike, how are consumers going to understand the difference? But the differences are large and important. Whatever classic desktop applications come on the RT versions, those are all you are going to get. Windows RT only allows installing of software downloaded through the Windows App Store. There will inevitably be a jailbreak that allows sideloading of apps, but even if you could load them, they won’t run: Code compiled for an x86 processor simply will not execute on an ARM system.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy was always courting massive consumer confusion and the prospects  are getting worse. Manufacturers are showing keyboard-equipped Windows RT devices that pretty much look like notebooks, At a minimum, Microsoft faces a large-scale consumer education problem.