The Curious Case of Microsoft Windows RT

The Fate of Windows That Is Incompatible with Windows

by Anton Shilov
03/16/2013 | 05:01 PM

Microsoft Corp.’s Windows RT operating system was born under unusual circumstances: for the first time in many years the company started to lose market share to competing consumer platforms, Apple iOS and Google Android. That was not the only unusual thing about the OS. Over time, Microsoft platforms traditionally gained support from hardware partners, Windows RT may be early in its lifecycle, but it is already losing such support. But is everything that bad about the new platform? Or maybe it can be fixed?

Windows and ARM


Even though Microsoft had ARM-compatible Windows Mobile operating system for years (since 2000), it took years to develop fully-fledged Windows operating system compatible with ARM architecture. The Windows RT looks and feels exactly like Windows 8, it has the same user interface and it can run Microsoft Office applications. Perhaps, Metro user interface is not the best one possible, but it is the same as on desktops, notebooks, smartphones and now tablet PCs. Not everything is rosy with the platform, it actually has two main disadvantages that may destroy all of its benefits: it is incompatible with applications developed for Windows x86 and x86-64 and it does not have a pool of programs enough to satisfy any consumer’s demand.

Indisputable Trump: Microsoft Office

While Windows RT platform provides virtually all essential tasks that consumers and businesses need, it faces massive misunderstanding among the end-users due to its incompatibility with traditional Windows programs. As a result, numerous PC makers decided not to launch Windows RT-based media tablets. Moreover, Samsung Electronics, a major consumer electronics company, not only did not start sales of Windows RT-based Ativ Tab in the U.S., but ceased shipments of the product to Europe as well this week.

Excluding Microsoft with its Surface tablets, there are only Asus VivoTab RT, Dell XPS 10 and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 based on Windows RT OS available. But Microsoft seems to have a weapon that many praise: Surface RT media tablet. While a lot of consumers would rather buy an Apple iPad, there are things that Surface RT (along with other WinRT-based tablets) does very good: productivity application and proper security technologies.

“Surface RT will (and does) fill a need other ARM-based tablets do not, and cannot address. Having workable compatibility with MS Office is a big plus. Aside from the annoyances of Windows 8, a familiar UI, with proper mouse controls, file structures, and inter-network capabilities makes the Surface RT a real productivity machine that can be safely and comfortably used by SMB and enterprise. It may or may not be successful in the consumer space for the very reasons it will be successful in the commercial space - it's not IOS or Android. Samsung is a consumer supplier and its lack of embracing the RT is not significant unless MS hopes to make the RT a consumer device (which they probably do),” said Jon Peddie, the head of Jon Peddie Research.

1.1 Million Surface RT Sold, but Windows 8 Is More Popular

Still, consumers do not seem to be interested only in productivity software. They need a software library for their everyday tasks. As it appears, the world’s largest software company only sold about 1.1 million Surface RT media tablets as well as 400 thousand Surface Pro business-oriented slates, according to a report from Bloomberg news-agency, which cites people with knowledge of Microsoft's sales. Microsoft started to sell its Surface RT tablet in late October, 2012, whereas the Surface Pro only hit the market in mid-February, 2012. Despite of higher price, it looks like the latter is in much higher demand than the former.

The reason of higher demand for Windows 8-based tablets is simple: there are many programs that run on this OS. By contrast, there are only several thousand apps designed for Metro UI/NET Framework 4.5 that run on Windows RT natively. 

Microsoft Windows RT Needs Software

“If you want to sell a consumer device then apps and an easy to use friendly apps store is essential. MS has in the past been very good about getting apps ported to Windows if they did not have an in-house version,” said Mr. Peddie.

In fact, Microsoft has approached numerous companies, which products are installed onto smartphones and media tablets, and proposed them to finance port of their Apple iOS and Google Android apps to Windows RT (Metro) platform. While some agreed to port their applications using a third-party studio, a lot of companies decided not to port, given the fact that the market of Windows RT is very limited at this stage.

There are fundamental reasons in the weakness of tablets based on Microsoft Windows 8 and Windows RT platforms: the number of apps is lower compared to the number of apps for Apple iOS and Google Android operating systems, the prices for Microsoft Surface family of tablets are rather high and the Metro user interface is still too unfamiliar for the majority of end-users.

“Some of the reason is Windows 8’s awkwardness and compromise in trying to bridge the two platforms and some is that it will take time to deliver more compelling form factors and lower prices and a richer ecosystem of developers and apps for the Microsoft store. There is room for skepticism after the sluggish start so far with Windows 8, but there is also reason for optimism about the second half of calendar 2013 when several improvements converge,” said Rick Sherlund, an analyst with Nomura Equity Research.

Major Transformation at Microsoft

The market is in its inflection point: we are transiting to always on online computing everywhere, which demands new software and hardware. Based on sales figures, it is obvious that Microsoft’s initiative of OS and UI unification is facing problems.

“Microsoft is in a major transformation – the snake is shedding its skin to become a new snake, and that is a very painful and sometimes time consuming process. The only real success Microsoft can point to in the consumer space has been the Xbox. Zune, although a lovely device that worked and worked well, was abandoned. We now know why – Surface and phone. However, Apple still sells iPods, so there is a market for pocket-sized players, Microsoft just does not understand it. Microsoft seems to think, as many do, that a smartphone is all you need,” said Jon Peddie.

Quo Vadis, Windows RT?

It is obvious that the interest towards Microsoft Windows-based tablets is high because people want to run their favorite programs on a new form-factor PCs. The issue is that Windows RT is a Windows that does not support applications developed for traditional Windows, a major problem that can be solved and will be solved. Perhaps, Microsoft comes up with an x86 emulator for ARM, perhaps, it will do something else.

Given the current situation, Microsoft will hardly regain support from its partners when it comes to Windows RT in its current form given modest demand from the end-users. What it will gain is the experience needed to address consumers in a tablet PC form-factor. The latter will probably allow the company to develop a much better operating system that can run different apps. With that said, it looks like the next OS from Microsoft with ARM support is destined to have a proper emulator to run existing Windows apps.


Will this actually happen? It is unknown. But Microsoft is learning and it is learning fast. The company has a track record of “learning” products and “winning” products: the original Xbox was mediocre, but the Xbox 360 has won the current generation of game consoles when it comes to revenues.

“Microsoft has proven time and again that if they don't get it right on the first or even the second try, they will keep on trying until they succeed. That's one of the things I admire most about the company,” concluded Mr. Peddie.

Life can only be understood backward. It must be lived forward. Good luck, Microsoft.