Microsoft has two different operating systems that run on ARM-based chips: Windows Phone and Windows RT. So far Windows Phone has been designated as a smartphone-only platform, with Windows RT running on tablets and notebooks.

But there might not be as much of a distinction in the future. Speaking at a Financial Analyst Meeting this week, Microsoft VP Terry Myerson hinted that the company sees a  more of a unified platform for the future, with software that can run on a range of devices.

Microsot Surface RT

Does that mean Windows RT and Windows Phone will merge? Or that the distinctions between the two will be trivial? It’s not exactly clear at this point. But it seems likely that Microsoft wants to make it easy for developers to write apps that can run not only on x86 or ARM devices, but also on phones.

You might still have separate operating systems for phones, ARM tablets, and x86 devices in the future — but it might not matter which OS you’re running as long as you have the same user experience across devices.

Of course — that was kind of the promise of Windows RT in the first place: It’s just like Windows, but it runs on ARM. Unfortunately there’s a big difference between Windows and Windows RT: the latter doesn’t support third-party desktop apps, which means that the vast majority of software written for Windows won’t run on a Windows RT device.

As more developers latch onto the new “Modern” style apps that can run on both Windows RT and Windows, it makes sense to extend support to Windows Phone… and to enable apps written for Windows Phone to run on devices with larger screens.

But you probably still won’t be able to run classic DOS games on your phone… not without a DOSbox emulator, anyway.

Microsoft’s vision of a more unified platform makes a lot of sense — and it could theoretically give the company an edge over offering from Apple or Google. Both companies continue to offer separate operating systems and app ecosystems for desktop and mobile devices.

But it’s still not entirely clear why anyone would buy a Windows tablet with an ARM-based processor these days, whether it’s running Windows RT, Windows Phone, or something else. The main advantage ARM-based tablets had up until recently was low power-consumption (which enabled long battery life and thin and light designs).

These days, tablets with Intel’s new Bay Trail processors can run for 10 hours on a charge and offer thin, light, and fanless designs — plus support for full Windows software. And they sell for Android tablet-like prices. So why choose an ARM tablet that can’t run legacy Windows apps?

via ZDNet and The Verge

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17 replies on “Thin line between Windows RT and Windows Phone could get blurry”

  1. how can you even write a headline like this?

    There’s nothing that will ever be blurry about windows software support and basically no software at all on RT.

    And for those folks blathering about Windows software being unable to run on ARM, Microsoft already had that working just fine, but the feature was pulled because Intel pulled strings to avoid having to compete with the horde of ARM manufacturers and keep their profits up.

    This rendered RT a zombie from the start, and no developer so far has written anything for RT unless Microsoft paid them money to do it, because sales are so poor.

    Just Microsoft is trying hard to “blurr” the line now, by not calling it RT anymore, basically, to fool less informed customers into buying something that isn’t what they think it is. And the limitations remain, you might as well buy a computer based on BeOS.

    Don’t be fooled, boykott Microsoft’s tricks.

    Or have you forgotten the multi-year government lawsuit against Microsoft, trying to protect consumers and competitors from Microsoft’s disgusting tricks and unethical business practices? Do you think for one minute they have changed? Remember all the customers who lost their purchased and paid for music, cause Microsoft one day decided to just turn off their DRM servers, without compensation?

    Microsoft’s corporate strategy is to get as many tollbooths installed as they can to allow them to clip your wallet on a monthly basis.

    And RT is their big Trojan horse for that. They couldn’t care less if this was actually useful for you, just so long as you please please buy into it and leave as much money with them as possible.

    Along the same lines of utter carelessness towards its customers, their tablets got one of the worst iFixit scores ever, meaning they are nigh impossible to repair.

    Now, this doesn’t automatically make all the other manufacturers golden, but with this one, you had better watch out.

  2. Don’t confuse “Windows RT” with “WinRT” either. These are entirely different things. WinRT is the guts behind the Metro/Modern UI and Store Apps. The path forward is to deprecate the desktop further and further over time.
    This is a bit of a nightmare for software developers, particularly those not developing for the consumer Store or large enterprises. Once the desktop is basically “gone” on all Windows platforms you’re kind of screwed. Even those who jump aboard with excitement 2 years ago are beginning to dread where this is going. Ignoring the “newness” and “change” issues you run into numerous issues due to sandboxing and application deployment obstacles.
    If you develop for small/medium business, are a hobby coder, etc. you face some nasty obstacles. I’ve found that far too many programmers have been ignoring WinRT and what it means and a painful day of reckoning is ahead for them.

    1. Programmers should not ignore WinRT, they should do all they can to fight it and prevent Microsoft from rearing its ugly monopolistic head.

      We can be thankful that Microsoft totally botched the whole launch, by making the garish tiles a forced feature instead of optional. This created enough resistance to give the rest of the world a chance to foil Microsoft’s strategy, which is only good for Microsoft and detrimental for everyone else.

      1. WinRT is pretty good, why should programmers fight it ? WinRT should be extended to consume the Win32 API. WinRT and Windows RT should consume the desktop.

  3. @Brad Linder:
    The desktop runtime environment is fully implemented in Windows RT but is disabled for third-party applications. You have to jailbreak Windows RT to unleash the Desktop Power. Visual Studio (Microsoft developer tool) provides a compiler flag to cross-compile for ARM. So, the infrastructure is ready.

    But, Microsoft does NOT want you to benefit from their GREAT OS. Why is beyond my comprehension.
    Whoever has been the author of the “closed system” idea at Microsoft should be fired!

    1. There’s a couple of reasons, opening it up for example means allowing for non-optimized code that could effect the rest of the system and general performance. Desktop apps are also both heavier and not optimized for mobile usage…

      Mind that ARM based devices have only recently rivaled the performance of the older ATOM processors, but still means we’re basically talking about performance range that’s still in what would be considered the netbook range for running a full desktop OS and the more resource intensive desktop apps.

      Along with more limited storage capacity options that desktop apps would have quickly used up…

      The target user base for RT devices is also primarily to general consumption and the desktop was mainly there because ModernUI still lacks any good apps and we’re still a fair bit of time before MS can provide a ModernUI version of Office.

      They could have just gone with a tablet version of the WP8 OS but they have long term goals in mind and wanted to be able to leverage RT for both mobile and the rest of the W8 ecosystem… Since ModernUI apps would work for both RT and W8 devices…

      Having a mostly closed system also means they could maintain better quality control, better avoid malware, and present a more optimized user experience…

      MS also was worried about first impressions, though they did mess up anyway, but keeping the OS experience as smooth as possible on the limited ARM hardware was a motivating factor.

      Things are getting better hardware wise now, but it remains to be seen whether MS is ready to change their policies on RT but they should, I agree…

      1. This isn’t about optimizing performance. This is about installing Tollbooths and locking down the platform. As you can see with their BIOS efforts, they even prevent people to run another OS on the ARM hardware they purchased.

        I would tell Microsoft to go die in a fire, but I don’t have to, they are hard at work dismantling themselves.

        1. You do know locking down hardware is something regularly done on ARM devices too!

          Mobile devices aren’t really intended to run other OS… they’re not even intended to be used for more than a year or two as mobile devices have rapid end of life cycle!

          This is the nature of the market MS is trying to get into!

          Besides, it’s not like there are no trade offs for however they set up the platform… Android for example may be pretty open but it’s also more vulnerable and less optimized.

          One of the reasons hardware specs are pushed a lot harder for Android is because it generally requires more performance to run well… The hardware fragmentation especially makes it harder to optimize Android for all devices.

          The opposite extreme with iOS provides a well optimized OS for the hardware it runs on and so they run well despite still having generally lower specs for most of their devices.

          WP8 and RT hit somewhere in the middle between those extremes, leaning closer to how Apple has it set up of course. But it means performance is better optimized for the hardware, which for running anything as heavy as a desktop OS on limited mobile hardware can be considered a must.

          Really, the Tegra 3 that was used in most RT tablets was never really considered a high end ARM SoC even when new and even the Clover Trail ATOM beat it for CPU performance… and the 2GB of RAM limit and slow eMMC storage at the time also was pretty limiting.

          MS really just needs to develop a better balance and as long as they don’t give up then there’s always a chance… even if it’s a little unlikely but even MS has been known to surprise every now and then…

  4. A lot of the issue is not that Windows RT is a bad OS, but that Intel has done a good job at getting their chips to a point where ARM chips no longer have that much of an advantage in price, power consumption and heat. One day, however unlikely it sounds, there could be an ARM chip that lets devices run for a week. One day Intel could raise their pricing too high. There could be an increased CPU and GPU performance battle. Many things could happen where suddenly Windows RT would look like a reasonable option again. It’s good to have both options available.

    RT is a good OS as long as you don’t mind ditching the desktop. I think it would still work out on 7 or 8 inch tablets. I haven’t see many 7 or 8 inch tablets using Intel yet.

    I do hope that Microsoft pulls it off and allows developers to easily create “write-once-run-anywhere” Modern UI apps for Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone without abandoning anyone like they did when going from WP 7.5 to 8.

  5. It is probably too late for RT. Public opinion has already been made. It doesn’t matter if MicroSoft can “fix” what is wrong with RT. The masses will not buy it. They would be better off leveraging Windows Phone into larger products and blurring the lines between Windows phone and Windows 8.1. Windows phablet anyone?

    1. As Brad said, there really isn’t a need for an ARM version of Windows (tablet/desktop) at this point. Intel finally got serious about power management squeezed those transistors into unbelieveably small sizes.

      1. Why would MS make the same mistake of only supporting x86 again? Why only rely on Intel? Are you 100% sure Intel’s SoCs will beat ARM SoCs forever/at all?

        1. They should forget ARM for now, instead focusing on Intel from their phones through their desktops, while unifying their platform across all of them (definitely re-branding Windows RT, that brand is dead).

          Assuming the unified Windows platform is still a runtime that can easily hop over to ARM, in the future a transition to ARM or any other processor if necessary would then be seamless from the perspective of the app store, assuming by then most legacy Windows apps would have been ported to the unified Windows platform.

    2. I feel like microsoft is keeping RT around just in case ARM starts overtaking intel. There isn’t really a need for windows on ARM, but there’s a chance that there will be in the future.

    1. Those are about as blurred as they can be. It’s pretty much the same operating system, but older apps that aren’t compiled for ARM simply can’t run on ARM.

      The two things they could (and maybe should) do are open up support for installing third party apps from outside the Windows Store, and allow devs to write desktop-style apps.

      1. I was hoping for being able to run any desktop app that’s targeted for Windows 8. I don’t mind not being able to run Windows 7 and older apps. Desktop software written in C# or use .NET aren’t compiled to machine code but into some intermediate code (think Java). So MS would need to fully implement the desktop run time environment. For non-C# and non-.NET based software, it would be nice for MS to provide a compiler that can produce both ARM and x86 binaries.

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