Where we’re all headed with Windows RT

Woody Leonhard

Last week, Microsoft released Windows 8 RTM to MSDN and TechNet subscribers and companies with volume licenses and Software Assurance.

So a lot of people are getting a look at the final Windows 8 version. However, we’ve not seen much about its lighter compatriot — Windows RT.

A refresher on what exactly Windows RT is

In short, Windows RT is the version of Windows 8 that doesn’t run Windows programs.

Okay, so I’m being a little snarky — but not very.

As mentioned in my previous Win8 coverage, Windows RT is the version of Windows 8 that runs on lightweight, battery-friendly, ARM processors. It’s based on the Windows 8 Metro interface.

(Yes, I know Microsoft doesn’t use the term “Metro” anymore. But Microsoft has used “Metro” since Windows Phone 7 days, and now it’s firmly stuck in our mental catalog of Win8 terminology. And all the alternative nomenclature proposed to date for the nondesktop half of the new OS seems silly or inaccurate. So until we get a definitive alternative, you’ll forgive me for sticking with Metro.)

In addition to the Metro interface, Windows RT also has a Windows 7–style desktop. Presumably, as in Windows 8, you can access it through a desktop tile. Unlike Windows 8, though, you can’t install your own apps to run on the Windows RT desktop. At this point, the only apps that will run on the RT desktop come from Microsoft — such as the variant of File Explorer (formerly known as Windows Explorer). Whether it will run Internet Explorer 10 is not clear, but the browser is definitely a candidate.

It’s unlikely we’ll see third-party browsers on Windows RT when it’s released — a shame, because Google Chrome on Windows 8 works like a Metro app should.

We do know that Microsoft will release a “preview” version of Office 2013 Home &amp Student that will run only on Windows RT. The preview reportedly won’t, however, support standard Office macros, VBA applications, and add-ins — not much of a surprise, because they’re all potential sources of security holes, significant battery drain, and other problems.

RT potentially offers more than Win8

For almost a year now, I’ve used various versions of Windows 8 — on desktops, laptop, and even on a touch-enabled tablet. Having dug deeply into the OS for my upcoming Win8 book, I think I know how consumers will react to new Win8 machines.

Unlike Windows XP and Win7, Windows 8 isn’t going to take the computing world by storm. PC users having thoroughly mouse- and keyboard-centric work styles aren’t going to like the eye-jarring shifts to the Metro Start screen.

On the other hand, anyone who prefers the Metro touch-screen interface won’t want to lug around a tablet that’s close to a laptop in weight and battery life. Yes, there will be specific situations where an individual or a company might want the full Windows 7–style desktop on a touch-sensitive machine, but it will most likely be a niche market.

Windows RT doesn’t have Win8’s split personality. It’s aimed directly at the tablet sweet spot — the iPad. If Metro apps rise to the same quality and appeal of the iPad’s built-in apps (a huge “if” at this point), Microsoft should do well in the consumer market. Then it’s only a matter of time before Windows RT tablets move into business, as users haul their shiny new machines to the workplace and demand “bring your own device” support. If that eventually leads to corporate sales, Microsoft has a huge win.

One thing that hasn’t changed: Few outside MS have held a Windows RT tablet and ventured to talk about it. In other words, what we know for sure about Windows RT is what Microsoft wants us to know. The company’s Surface RT, announced June 18, will reportedly arrive on October 26; don’t expect to see much in the way of product leaks before that.

Windows RT is now in RTM, according to Microsoft — though “RTM” in this case is splitting semantic hairs. Unlike Win8, RT is a bundled-only operating system — it will come only on new devices. Remarkably, Microsoft stated in a Building Windows 8 blog that it has “achieved our goal of one Windows binary for all Windows RT SoC platforms from Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.” If that’s truly the case, it’s an amazing feat of engineering.

With RT, MS goes up against its own customers

On the marketing side, Microsoft’s showing its black-widow tendencies again. It plans to roll out Windows RT Surface tablets in October and Windows 8 Pro Surface tablets in January, which will place it in direct competition with its main Windows RT OS customers. As Acer CEO J.T. Wang put it bluntly last week in an interview with the Financial Times (registration required), by manufacturing and selling its own tablets “Microsoft will create a huge negative impact for the ecosystem and other brands may take a negative reaction. It is not something you are good at, so please think twice.”

There’s no question that Microsoft thought about it at least twice. As Sony and other tech companies learned the hard way, competing with your customers is rarely a solid marketing move. But given that high-end tablets are effectively a one-product market, this might be a horse race of a different color.

Microsoft is committed to the October 26 release of its Surface RT. But it also stated there’ll be forthcoming Windows RT devices from ASUS, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung — though exactly when is unknown. BloombergBusinessweek reported that Toshiba — one of the prominent Windows RT partners listed in the MS announcement — canceled plans to make Windows RT devices because of delays in getting components. HP and Acer say they’ll make Windows 8 tablets, but details about their machines are at best sketchy. It wouldn’t surprise me if most OEM tablet manufacturers decided on a wait-and-see approach to Windows RT’s success before going device-à-device with Microsoft.

Much of the success or failure of Windows RT will hinge on pricing — another spec that’s short on details. Microsoft’s assertion that Surface RT will be “competitively priced” is rather vague. Tablet manufactures would prefer a U.S. $500 to $800 range that’s in line with iPads. But there are rumors that Microsoft is considering an entry-level Surface RT at just $199 — which could be another deal-breaker for its tablet-manufacturing “customers.”

It’s hard for me to believe that any consumer, with a similarly priced Windows RT tablet in one hand and an iPad in the other, will opt for the Windows device. I’m not saying that Microsoft should buy its way into the market by virtually giving away the Surface, but price is probably its best bet for making Windows RT successful. Third-party tablet manufacturers are not going to stick their collective heads out until they know they can make a profit on RT devices. Microsoft, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to lose a significant amount of cash until it succeeds (as it did with Xbox and probably will do with Windows Phone).

Microsoft seems to be fighting this first round by taking lessons from Apple. Arming itself with its own software and hardware could be Microsoft’s ultimate game-changer.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2012-08-23:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.