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Why Windows RT is crucial for Microsoft despite sagging sales

Brad Chacos | July 9, 2013
Don't shed a tear for Windows RT, the neutered operating system cursed to be the red-headed stepchild of the Windows family (to Windows Phone's great relief). While the OS's rocky birth has since led to an even rockier childhood, its very existence is a clever ploy for the future by Microsoft--even though you can't give Windows RT tablets away today.

Don't shed a tear for Windows RT, the neutered operating system cursed to be the red-headed stepchild of the Windows family (to Windows Phone's great relief). While the OS's rocky birth has since led to an even rockier childhood, its very existence is a clever ploy for the future by Microsoft--even though you can't give Windows RT tablets away today.

Body blow after body blow
It's all too easy to feel bad for Windows RT. Designed specifically for use with mobile-focused ARM processors rather than with thex86-based chips that traditional computers use, Windows RT devices can run onlyapps designed for the touch-friendly modern UI. Classic desktop programs simply won't work on Windows RT.

But beyond those technical restrictions, the OS has suffered from an astounding level of neglect. The Windows Store--the very lifeblood of Windows RT and the entire modern UI--still fails to impress. With few stellar apps to attract users and no ability to run desktop software, Windows RT hasn't been a hit with consumers. IDC estimates that just 200,000 Windows RT devices shipped in the first quarter, and most of those were Microsoft's own Surface RT tablet.


A tablet with the Windows Store open, sitting on a big, empty expanse-now there's an appropriate visual metaphor.

Unable to sell Windows RT slates, many manufacturers have stopped making them altogether. Software developers aren't exactly lining up to support the modern UI, either. Big-name game studios have turned up their noses at the Windows Store's walled garden. Apple recently dismissed the idea of porting iTunes to Windows 8/RT. The OS was shunned at CES, Computex, and Microsoft's own Build 2013 keynote.

The hits just keep coming for Windows RT. But here's the thing: Even though ARM-powered tablets have flopped on the market thus far, they've already had a huge impact on Windows tablets overall, and their role can only increase going forward.

Sipping power
"For Microsoft, Windows RT is a long-term, strategic play," says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst of Moor Insights and Strategy.

That long-term play is already paying dividends in the short term, however. Part of the reason ARM is so successful in the mobile realm is because the reference chips it designs and licenses to manufacturers are absolute wonders of energy efficiency.


Dell's Ivy Bridge-based XPS 12 was a wonderful hybrid-but compared to tablets, it delivered atrocious battery life.

Battery life isn't everything to smartphones and tablets, but it's definitely at the top of the list--and the x86 processors that Intel and AMD traditionally made weren't competitive on the power front. The Intel Core processor-powered hybrids available at around the time of Windows 8's launch struggled to reach 5 hours of battery life. (See: Microsoft's Surface Pro, Dell's XPS 12, Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 13, and many more.) That's decent longevity for an Ultrabook, but it doesn't cut it for a tablet. Stand-alone Android and Apple slates routinely last longer than 8 hours on a single charge.

 

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