Windows RT Grows More Mysterious as Launch Nears

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.

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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.

12 thoughts on “Windows RT Grows More Mysterious as Launch Nears”

  1. “I was particularly struck by this hands-on video from The Verge’s Tom Warren.”

    I have philosophical issues with what Microsoft is doing, but I have really, really been trying to wait to judge their offering until it’s on the market and in the hands of real users. But if that video is a true reflection of what’s coming…wow. Not good.

  2. OEMs stick keyboards on Android devices which are the same as iPads; Office will be mostly for keyboards until we see a full touch version similar to the One Note app. Also I think for ARM and ARM chip makers having the desktop is an attractive proposition because they can move into the desktop space. PS Tom Warren wrote the piece and Ross Miller is the one on the video

  3. It’s like the developers were tasked with so many conflicting features in the new Windows that they got a bit lost, and never quite figured it all out.

  4. “The bigger problem is that this is going to be very confusing for consumers.”

    After looking at the recent videos of RT and Windows 8 in action, I think Microsoft is looking forward to the corporate desktop of the future. It will be touch screen + mouse and keyboard and stylus enabled, and look like a big iPad. Power consumption would be low, on the order of an iPad. Tablets all need to be better at creative tasks. Computers are creative tools.

  5. I have been using the preview for a few weeks now,, to be honest I don’t see what the problem is with windows 8. For starters it is so easy to learn, got the hang of it within a few minutes, and it’s fast as well; installed it on my old PC I was going to get rid off and since then it’s performance is incredible,,,, my feeling is people are just bad mouthing windows 8 without even properly trying it out.

  6. A disaster of the 1st order (not really – just the beginning of the end):

    Computer platforms, like people, have a certain lifespan. I have chased them for 42 years – six of them. Each change was done grudgingly because of the amount of effort involved in making the change. Each time, as the inevitable approached, I would frantically make changes to the old system in order to overcome the advantages of the new platform. It was like I was patching an old tire and at some point I had to realize that what I needed was a new tire instead.

    As I look at the demos and read the comments regarding Windows 8, I get that same old feeling that Microsoft is now in the process of patching the old tire in order to stay relevant. It doesn’t look good because the jarring effect of trying to combine two interfaces which are much different from each other. The main reason that Windows was successful in the first place is that it brought order out of chaos (DOS) in that it provided a common and consistent user interface. This two interface approach defeats much of what Windows succeeded on in the first place.

    The biggest problem is Windows 8 is with the Surface tablets. Here we have really two different offerings with much different software capabilities, the apparent need for keyboards/styli and what appears to be inferior touch capabilities. This is the form factor where Microsoft must succeed in order to stay relevant, i.e. MOBILE. I just don’t see it happening. Of course there was a time I didn’t think Nixon was lying and I didn’t think McDonnell’s could sell breakfast.

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