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

| Editorial

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.

Tombstone via Shutterstock.

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Didn’t they have “Windows Mobile”? Bring that back, call it “Windows CE Classic” or “Windows Lite”(sic).

But those don’t have the web in their name so how about “Windows Internet Mobile Platform” (WIMP!)


Seriously, having a RISC port of Windows was confusing? How?

Jacob 1

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

Hmm weird. I could have sworn PCs came with AMD chipsets too. Oh and incase you were too busy not researching things remember that iMacs were also released with Intel-based chipsets in these desktops.

Stupid author is stupid.

Justin Shafer

I would buy one if the thing could at least TRY to emulate x86 on arm. Why not? qemu+wine can.. sort of.. MS could write it..


Jacob 1 - Would you have preferred “for the x86 family of backward compatible instruction set architectures based on the Intel 8086 CPU” instead? “Intel based” covers all manner of x86, IA32 and x64 based CPUs from AMD, IDT, Cyrix, Intel and VIA.

Oh and in case you were too busy ranting to research things, remember that Windows 8.1 can be installed and runs really well on iMacs (and Macbook Pro and Air) with Intel-based chipsets. Thus, “Intel-based desktops and laptops” cover even those that are manufactured by Apple.

Stupid…. naw, too easy.

Oscar Goldman

Microsoft, so out in the weeds.  You knew there was more stupidity on the horizon when they named an OS “Windows Runtime.”  It’s like they don’t even understand their own products.

Then there’s the pathetic UI regressions in their OS, which get worse with each new version of Windows.

It’s clear that there aren’t enough designers available to do the work that needs to be done on these products.

Sal A. Magnone

RT will merge with Windows Phone (WP). WP is ARM based like RT. And RT is very clean design internally with a lot more capability than WP. MSFT needs an ARM based OS because ARM isn’t going away. Most phones are ARM based as are a host of other current and no doubt future low power and embedded devices. So, I doubt it’s going away. It’s only going away as currently packaged.  The new Nokia tablets look pretty nice. These iterations are a requirement when you don’t have a product a space you are trying to break in to. In a very real way it’s already a success because it was hedge (and a scare tool) in case Intel couldn’t make Atom work right.

David Steadson

So my question is -

Why weren’t there all these articles complaining that the iPhone and iPad can’t run Mac Os software?

Pat Fisher

Microsoft has gotten so good at FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), that they are throwing it on their own products.

What this MS executive did was say that they have not been clear about their message.

Well, they are good at that, because, by saying there will not be three versions of Windows in the future, without **being clear**, she has thrown on FUD onto MS products.

They really should not talk about what they are going to do and just do it, then announce it.

You would hope Windows tablet OS would be great so we’d have three competing platforms to choose from.

How many developers are going to throw their hands up after hearing this announcement?


Pat Fisher

It sounds more like MS is going to merge RT and Windows Phone OS. What I hear is that there is a strong change that Windows Phone OS and APIs will take over, since it is more scalable and is portable from it’s Windows NT kernel to whatever they have going forward. And scalable means screens up to tablets.

I guess they will call that Windows Mobile OS for phones and tablets?

They do have a lot of money to keep pumping into this project. I’m sure it could be a money loser for years in order to gain some measure of marketshare. Hopefully.


ken luskin

MSFT will create full Windows that runs on ARM processors.

That is all RT really was…. Then there is no need for RT.

MSFT was experimenting with RT, which was a mistake

Intel will be the big loser, when MSFT creates a full Windows version for ARM.

The new Nokia division will use the mobile version of Windows.

While MSFT will keep the full windows version available for all their traditional OEM partners.

The powerful group of ARM chip manufacturers will produce competitively priced chips for Windows.

Intel has become a REAL problem for MSFT…. 

Intel is charging $37 for Android Tablet version of Bay Trail,  while selling the same chip for $130 to PC OEMs.

Once MSFT opens up Windows to all the ARM chips,  prices will drop dramatically.

Then Windows based machines will be much more attractive option.




Spot on. I can’t believe they ever developed a third OS rather than extending Windows Phone. That was pure insanity. I’m glad they’re finally coming to their senses on the branding front, but it’s really too late. They’ve killed any chance that the RT platform might have had by releasing the “Pro” and by replacing the start-menu with the RT “live tiles.” RT never had an identity of its own, and was made to seem like a poor knock-off of the “real” platform (i.e. full-blown Windows/ Surface Pro). And replacing RT with an enhanced version of Windows Phone isn’t going to help. They may gain more apps, but it won’t matter.


Even after this mess up, Microsoft is still unable to let go of Windows, which is what they should’ve done in the first place. They still want to put desktop Windows on a tablet. This has proven to fail, time and time again. Modern desktop user interfaces do not work on small screens. Netbooks failed. UMPC’s failed. Original Windows tablets failed. The latest Windows tablets will fail as well.

Mobile devices are resource constrained and as such the operating system needs to be written to make sure it is very thrifty and efficient. Desktop operating systems don’t normally have to worry about that, as those products are usually used while not mobile, but sitting and can be tethered to a power source if needed.


Name one bright spot at Microsoft, and why any sane person would want to be their CEO.

Bueller? Bueller?

Lee Dronick

D’monder I suppose that if the new CEO did a good job then he or she is a genious, if not then the place was too far gone to be saved. Anyway, I would bet that MicroSoft could be turned around, but she is a big ship with small rudder, it is going to take a skilled Captain.

A few weeks ago we bought a new Ford Focus Titanium that has SYNCH MyFord Touch which is powered by MicroSoft. It is pretty nice, a pretty good job.


“With Apple, it’s simple. There’s just one Apple App Store for mobile devices.”
But, 2 App Stores for those of us who own multiple (7 in our household) devices.
So, some confusion.
And, inside the mobile Apple App Store, there are, in some cases, an app for phones and an app for pads.
So, not as simple as it should be.


David Steadson:
“Why weren’t there all these articles complaining that the iPhone and iPad can’t run Mac Os software?”
Actually a good point, that proves the gist of the article.
There were a few that grumbled about not being able to run MacOS apps on iOS devices. Those complaints mostly got drowned out by all the shrill whining about how evil a “walled garden” was. (Remember that? Now everyone has one).
More to the point few complained about iOS not running OS-X apps because Apple never said that iOS was OS-X. It had a different name, a different look, and ran on different devices. This is the mistake Microsoft made. They tried to put out something that looked like Windows and was called Windows, but wasn’t. They then rolled out Surface, a tablet with a keyboard, that looked and acted more like a Windows netbook, but it wasn’t. They advertized it as the tablet for productivity but it would not run the same productivity apps the nearly identical looking Windows 8 would run. It was a series of amateurish mistakes that lead them to have to write off nearly a billion dollars this year in unsold Surface RT hardware. It was a project that was mistargeted, misguided, and mistaken from inception. A well run company doesn’t screw up this badly.


I agree, geoduck.

I’m much less down on the Windows 8 concept than most here, but Windows RT looked like a dead end from the start. As long as it required classical apps to be recompiled for ARM processors, it was incredibly misleading to tout a classical desktop.

Microsoft would have been much better off either extending Windows Phone 8 to the ARM tablet space and porting Office to the new interface, or avoiding ARM tablets in favour of Intel’s Atom, which is fully compatible with Windows 8 and increasingly competitive with ARM in the tablet space.


It seems like whenever Windows releases an OS that has a name, it’s terrible. “ME, Vista, etc” XP was the only “named” OS that was good.

John Dingler, artist

No more three, eh? I guess there will be four or more versions, the rationale being, as before, to tailor each one to a specific segment: Consumer desktop, consumer mobile, business desktop, business mobile, NSA business, and NSA mobile.

Stopher kindly reminded us of the very successful Windows Mobile which the new CEO could resurrect. So, based on past MS practices, this should be a winning strategy that will crush Apple on all fronts and completely eliminate Android from the face of the earth.

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