And Then There Were Two: Microsoft Prepares to Kill Windows RT

Referring to Windows RT, Microsoft's executive for devices Julie Larson-Green recently said: "We should not have called it Windows." And so it goes with Microsoft's recent confusion about OSes and branding with its mobile devices. The good news is that some clarity appears to be emerging -- as soon as Windows RT dies.


Microsoft currently has three versions of Windows, and it's creating a major headache for the company.

Three Blind Mice

Of course, there is the original Windows, now at version 8.1, for Intel-based desktops and laptops.

Windows Phone 8 is an OS for ARM-based smartphones. It replaces the previous Windows CE generation and is based on the Windows 8 kernel. Andy Patrizio at Network World, told me that it shares a lot of code with Windows 8 including networking and disk access. It has been shackled, until recently, with its inability to work with displays considerably larger than a typical smartphone.

Because Windows Phone was not suitable for a tablet with a large display and because Microsoft wanted to have a low-power, ARM-based tablet, the company developed a variant of Windows for ARM, called Windows RT. The first product to use it was the Surface RT tablet, now in its second generation as the Surface 2.

Confusion Abounds

Microsoft's Julie Larson-Green recently explained the original motivation for Windows RT, according to The Guardian.

"So the goal was to deliver two kinds of experiences into the market, the full power of your Windows PC [on the Surface Pro], and the simplicity of a tablet experience that can also be productive. That was the goal. Maybe not enough. I think we didn't explain that super-well. I think we didn't differentiate the devices well enough. They looked similar. Using them is similar. It just didn't do everything that you expected Windows to do. So there's been a lot of talk about it should have been a rebranding. We should not have called it Windows."

In order to brush the commercial failure of the Windows RT/Surface RT tablet under the rug, Microsoft renamed the second generation ARM-based Surface tablet the Surface 2. (The Intel-based Surface is the Surface Pro 2.) There is similarity in names, but the two are quite different animals.

Then, in order to compete with Apple on price, Microsoft has shown a preference for pitting the Surface 2 with its relatively low price against the Apple iPad in TV ads. Why not? They're both ARM-based tablets. The problem is that the customer soon discovers that the Surface 2, running Windows RT, can only run ARM binaries designed for Windows RT, downloaded from Microsoft's app store, and there aren't many of those. Their favorite X86 binaries, of course, won't run on the Surface 2.

In other words, the very specific strategic thinking that Microsoft developed, the notion that customers would want a Windows-based tablet with a keyboard that runs productivity apps was completely undermined by a hedge bet with the Surface RT/2 tablet series. And so, it flopped.

But there's more.

The version of MS Office that came with Windows RT wasn't quite as capable as the full package available for the Intel-based Surface Pro 2 -- until Outlook was included. And it was slow in the first Surface RT. If you want the full X86 version of MS Office for the Surface Pro 2, which starts at US$899, you'll have to pay several hundred dollars more on top of that. (Or $99/yr. for Office 365.) Suddenly, the investment for what you wanted in the first place, what you thought you may have thought you were getting with a Windows RT/2 tablet, skyrockets.

Another big problem is that Microsoft has had to maintain two app stores, one for the Windows RT tablets and one for the Windows Phone 8 smartphones. This is also a source of confusion. With Apple, it's simple. There's just one Apple App Store for mobile devices.

Sometimes, no matter what a company wants to do, it is constrained by the public perceptions of what the market leader has already done. That's a penalty for being late to market.

Finally, along the way, Microsoft's OEM partners haven't been enthusiastic about introducing products based on Windows RT.

The Path Forward

In recent remarks, Ms. Larson-Green showed that Microsoft has come to realize the pickle it's in. At the recent UBS Global Technology Conference, she said:

We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We're not going to have three

Windows RT will go away, but the irony remains that Windows Phone is an odd name to apply to a tablet. Ultimately, its name may have to change as well.

Because Microsoft didn't have a crisp vision of what a tablet ought to be, other than a vehicle to propagate Windows and MS Office into the Post-PC era, the company got into a bind. Or perhaps it thought there was  a crisp vision, thanks to Steven Sinofsky's Windows forever philosophy. Where was Steve Ballmer's sanity check and adult supervision? And, as cited above, Windows RT should never have been named "Windows" and Windows Phone 8 should have been architected to take over the mobile phone and tablet duties.

That appears to be the direction Microsoft is now taking.

These kinds of corporate decisions appear to be symptomatic of disorganized power, agenda and turf-building. In contrast, Steve Jobs was always adamant about making sure that no powerful vice president ran amok and destroyed a clear customer-directed vision. As a result, Apple was able to create a clear path for what a modern mobile device should be and developed a single OS, called iOS, to serve that purpose.

No Holiday for Microsoft

Back in October, I analyzed the appeal of these Surface tablets as holiday gifts and found them wanting. "Mac Observer Microsoft’s Surface Strategy Will Flop with Holiday Shoppers." The analysis boiled down to this: Apple (and others) have struck a chord with tablet buyers because they have developed and refined a modern notion of what the essence of a tablet should be. Microsoft delayed, then went orthogonal to that vision - at great risk.

Despite the fragmentation of Microsoft's vision to date and the attending customer confusion, the company recently projected that it would sell 16 millon Windows tablets over the holidays. It will be a soon-forgotten headline. The actual sales are likely to be a small fraction of that and may well be surpassed by the Amazon Kindle Fire, at least for the holiday quarter.

Amd even if, by some miracle, the Surface 2 were to sell well, how would Microsoft handle that product's future support with an orphaned OS? It's a mess.

The good news is that Microsoft will soon have new leadership, and its current thinking is that the company needs to have to have just two OSes, Windows 8.x and a mobile OS with one integrated app store. It only took 30 months to get that sorted out, but the company now knows what it has to do. Execution will be the final step.


Windows RT logo via Microsoft.

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