Microsoft invested a lot of time and effort into porting its Windows operating system to run on devices with ARM-based processors as well as computers with x86 chips. The result was the 2012 dual launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT, a stripped-down version of the operating system designed for tablets and other devices with ARM chips.

But there are signs that Windows RT products might not be selling well… and for good reasons. Is it too soon to say that Windows RT was a mistake? Or does it still hold promise for the future?

Asus TF600T

Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, and other device makers all launched Windows RT tablets or notebook tablet hybrids. And all of those devices have seen some serious price drops in recent months.

Computer World interviewed a few analysts who suggest that there could be a few reasons:

  • These devices aren’t selling well, and manufacturers and retailers are lowering prices to help clear our remaining inventory.
  • Maybe they’re trying to clear inventory… but it’s too make room for new products that will launch this fall.

Windows RT has the same look and feel as Windows 8. There’s a full-screen Start Screen instead of a traditional Start Menu. There’s support for full-screen, touch-friendly apps from the Windows Store. And there’s also a desktop mode for Office, Notepad, and some other classic Windows-style apps.

But most older Windows apps won’t run on a Windows RT tablet. They need to be compiled to support ARM-based chips. More importantly, Microsoft only lets users install third party Windows RT apps from the Windows Store, which means that unless you jailbreak your device, there’s no way to install any apps that were designed for desktop mode.

For geekier types, there’s another problem. Windows RT tablets have boot restrictions that prevent you from installing GNU/Linux, Chrome, Android, or any other operating system.

But possibly the biggest challenges facing Windows RT tablets is the price and competition with extraordinarily similar Windows 8 devices.

For about the same price as a Windows RT device you can buy a Windows 8 tablet with an Intel Atom Z2760 Clover Trail processor. It’ll get similar battery life and run every app available for Windows RT, as well as desktop Windows apps.

I get why Microsoft felt pressure to release a version of Windows that supports ARM-based devices. A few years ago it became clear that ARM was becoming the dominant chip designer in the mobile phone and tablet space. Ignoring ARM would have been a bad idea.

But while ARM chips have been getting more and more powerful, Intel has managed to reduce power consumption and bring connected standby to its x86 chips. And that means you can kind of get the best of both worlds with the latest Intel Atom processors… so given a choice between a Windows 8 and a Windows RT tablet there’s almost no reason to choose the Windows RT option unless it’s much cheaper.

And even with recent price drops, that’s just not the case.

Sure, in the Windows RT camp you can now pick up a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga for $500, a Dell XPS 10 for $450, or Asus VivoTab TF600T for $400. But for about the same price you can pick up a Windows 8 tablet with an Intel Clover Trail processor.

For instance the Asus ME400C is available for as little as $450, and you can get an Acer Iconia W510 for just $400 after rebate.

Why would you choose the Windows RT model?

It’s still possible things could change. We could see a surge in amazing cross-platform apps that run on both Windows RT and Windows 8. We could see even lower prices for Windows RT devices, helping differentiate those models from their Windows 8 cousins. And we could see more improvements in ARM designs which will offer better-than-Atom performance and lower-than-Atom power consumption.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It seems just as likely that Windows RT could fade into memory and join Microsoft’s Kin phone and Bob operating system in the annals of failed products.

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25 replies on “Is it too early to declare Windows RT a failure?”

  1. Look at the performance of Windows 8 on a Atom processor vs Windows RT on a ARM chip… there is less load on the ARM chip… allowing the performance levels to be higher than that of the Atom running x86… which would come to a crawl if you tried running anything CPU intensive. Side-by-side… the performance of the chips regardless of which operating system is similar , the Atom being slightly faster. But if you are running x86 on a chip that can barely handle it… you start running into performance issues.

    The only hardware that should be running x86 is the i3/i5 processors or their equivalents, nothing less other wise you would be compromising performance. As is the case with the Atom chips running x86. So bottom line… ARM running Windows RT is the better of the two.

    The only way for Microsoft to succeed in bringing Windows RT to profitability is for it to shell out the initial funds for bringing in app devs to really ramp up the quality/quantity of apps available. Once that happens, there really isn’t any need for Windows 8 x86 applications, unless you are a dev who requires it.

    Also… with the coming of the new XBox sometime this year… you have a platform there itself which would be able to run any app that your ARM processor can’t. Meaning… the whole XBOX and Windows RT combined could become next best thing since sliced bread.

  2. Unfortunately I found the Windows RT to be a failure shortly after purchasing it being an early adopter. Then despite spruiking it heavily to my family (due to guilt at spending so much on another pointless device) it disappointingly hasn’t been adopted by anyone as an alternative tablet. Initially I was happy to purchase knowing it was both ARM and a walled garden. But the reason why it has failed both for me and my family is because nothing has been available from the nursery to grow in the garden. Not only does the tablet feel like a dead-weight it has become one. The one key selling point I was suckered into was the ability to run Office. Jobs hit the nail on the head about this one in that if I didn’t attach my mouse I needed a stylus (as I refuse to resort to sandpaper). But given Office is vaporizing to the cloud and together with no AD integration, this BYOD device (tax offset opportunity) fails as a business device. Without any apps and no resurrection possibility through a Linux installation inevitably it fails as a consumer device. Though it does make a nice coaster on the coffee table.

    1. I think it’s possible to install linux there – if the device has SD Card reader inside, it possibly can boot from it. There is Ubuntu phone os, which can run all linux apps (LibreOffice, Gimp, etc) on your phone/tablet. They also have app store for free and non-free applications.

  3. It was obvious from the start that moving away from x86 would be difficult for Microsoft. For too long they’ve depended on leveraging the huge installed base of software on Win/x86. As the world moves to mobile devices, the vast majority using the ARM architecture, Microsoft has lost this advantage. In fact, by starting late they had a distinct disadvantage. We’re likely seeing the end of Windows.

  4. It was just too really for Windows to be ported to ARM and that’s how it’s seen, a port. The result was just a gimped version of Windows 8 due to the limitations of ARM systems.

    I definitely would get an ARM device if it ran Windows 8. No need for running software compiled for older Windows versions. Too bad that’s not possible on an ARM platform right now.

    If I wanted a limited OS, I’ll get any of the mobile OS based tablets.

  5. My thoughts on it are as follows: Windows RT itself was not a bad idea, and they did a few things really well. But then they did a few really stupid things:

    1) No one had expeirence with the new-not-Metro app world. They would have been better served not forcing it as a paradigm in the first place, or releasing windows 8 FIRST then releasing Windows RT months after.

    2) They didn’t allow CLR apps (which ran in CE, on worse processors) to run in the desktop even though they could have been allowed quite easily. They focused on fostering a new app ecosystem from scratch, and sank any organization that had spent years writing CLR.NET applications in the process.

    3) Despite the move to block CLR they are still paying a huge technical debt by not having rewritten the kernel from the ground up for mobile, and removing all the stuff that didn’t make sense, like PCI controllers, etc. That’s all overhead that hobbles the performance of an already limited processor, and impacts battery life even though they did a marvelous job of covering that up. Also it’s why the base installation is so freaking huge. This may make it easier to keep it aligned with future Windows development, but is bad since it is so artificially limited that it really should be it’s own thing.

    4) They burned their Phone developers badly with the switch from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8. Look at it from the developers perspective: They spent months or longer crafting apps for a OS that MS abandoned and made incompatible in less than 2 years. Worse they announced the death way ahead of time to completely chill the market for the OS, and hence the pool of customers they had to draw from. Then they made it impossible to simply and easily rewrite the applications. After all that they decreed the Metro only thing.

    5) By forcing everything through an unproven Windows Store, they really removed any advantage aside from a familiar programming tool suite for .NET developers. They have to go through the same hassles as iOS developers, who have it worse than Android developers, even if the average iOS user spends more on apps per device than Android users. At the end of the day learning a new language, even Objective-C makes as much sense, and has a MUCH larger install base to sell too, so looking at it logically, they don’t have a huge advantage to offer devs.

    6) A lot of the above decisions seemed to be dreamed up by the corporate strategy and marketing folks, and weren’t limitations imposed by the processor switch. This I assume was done for market segmentation reasons because CLR apps ran under Windows CE on ARM processors previously. Those same people then went and hosed that up by NOT separating the two OS’s more from a branding perspective making it hard for normal users to determine what they were buying, and hence alienating the market they were trying to reach.

    7) They screwed over their OEM’s by coming out of nowhere with a device, after ‘collaborating closely’ with their partners. This pushed a number of OEM’s to avoid the market entirely, and double down on making Surface killers using full Windows 8 licenses and ATOM processors. The shame is that they could have been up front and not alienated everyone in the process.

    8) They screwed the distribution chain by selling directly instead of through the chain.

    9) They came really late to the game thinking the Windows Brand was a trump card, and have been roundly panned in the media since. Which has to be confusing to them, but would have been obvious if the same marketing and strategy folks who forced the limitations onto the OS paid attention or didn’t look at the world through rose colored glasses.

    Basically Windows RT, especially in the form of Windows Surface RT, is a master class thesis for some MBA student out there, on how to not deliver a product. I don’t see it overcoming those limitations. After releasing Surface, they effectively killed OEM support, so if Micorsoft is going to turn this around, they’re going to have to do it essentially on their own, or by bribing OEM’s to make competing products. So it will all depend on if they can light a big enough bonfire under a large enough sum of cash to get the public’s attention, which seems unlikely since so far their marketing moves are to mimic Apple. Which incidentally should have been number 10 on that list.

    It’s just a tough place to be in when your product costs you more to make, wasn’t first to market, and has the technical debut issue to overcome.

    In many ways Surface is a wonderful product. In so many others it’s just out of time, and was brought into this world in such a ham fisted way I can’t see it overcoming the birth pains.

    1. By shutting down WinMo so fast they left users like me high and dry long before my contract ran out. I watched, incredulous as my Omnia 2 become a feature phone in a matter of months.
      Presumably they were thinking that I would simply switch to the latest version of Windows on my next smartphone and completely ignore all the fun and frolic happening in Androidland.

      Quite the opposite. I’m quite bitter towards MS over that and have found a new mobile OS that I can live with in Android.
      It was bad enough that the Palm OS I was into dried up and died, now WinMo was folding on me and just assuming I’d follow? lol. Right.

      What sucks the most is that as a result of all that I was reluctant to get into Android for fear that simply liking it would bring about it’s death!
      I’m very glad I was wrong.

  6. We may never know how effective RT has been as a weapon for Microsoft to use against Intel. If in the past Microsoft threatened to leave Intel, it would have been easy for Intel to laugh that off. That threat is not not quite as comical now.

    1. I see your point. I also don’t see how effective a foil it will be. Look at it from Intel’s point of view: Windows doesn’t seem to be moving their processors any more. Year over year sales in the PC market decreased even with an OS release, that’s pretty much unprecedented Even Vista did better. Intel has been actively backing Linux, and other mobile OS’s for years now, even going to the point of trying to work with partners to release their own (Moblin/MeeGo/Tizen, even Android) to try and break out of being the desktop/laptop chip maker of choice and further entrench itself at the high end of the server market, as well as move into mobile.

      Everyone seems to be running away from Windows at this point. The only thing everyone is doing is trying to gauge the point at which they have to jump from the burning platform (to borrow Elop’s evocative line). There’s still money to be made, so you don’t want to jump too soon, but you have to have at least one foot out the door.

      That’s the danger Surface presented to MS. If it wasn’t a success, it risked alienating their real customers (the OEMs), and if we’re on this discussion board, I think we can all agree on the rate of success vs. failure.

      MS isn’t doomed by reasonable assessment at this point. They’re still clearly the number one PC OS maker, but this is a hit to their bottom line and their brand. I don’t think there’s much to question about that except how big of one it is. It’s also a clear indicator to them that they need to actually innovate and not trust the Windows Brand to carry them through, because clearly it won’t.

  7. I have owned my Surface RT for a couple of months and enjoy using it. I use it mostly for web surfing. IE10 has gotten a bit faster with the past few OS updates (especially when you add the TPL lists from Fanboy). The Surface RT is well made and fells good in my hands, though a bit heavy. I own iOS and Android tablets and while I can’t say that the RT is my favorite, I still enjoy it and really appreciate the Windows 8 navigational gestures. They work better for me than any other tablet OS that I’ve used.

  8. The association with Windows 8 has dragged it down from two sides. The negative reviews of Windows 8 in the popular press have no doubt impacted the sales of RT devices. Then you have people who see RT as just Windows 8 ARM and are disappointed by the restrictions RT introduces.


    1) Windows 8 had made the desktop interface the default for desktops and the “Metro” interface the default for tablets

    2) Microsoft had just ported Windows 8 to ARM without adding restrictions on how it can be used

    3) Microsoft had devised a universal binary format for Windows executables, allowing developers to place x86, x64 and ARM compiled code in the same exe file

    THEN maybe Windows RT would have enjoyed better sales rather than being seen as an expensive toy with little practical value.

    1. Problem is ARM is still a limited platform… what you suggest would have created a lot of bloat and probably made Windows perform very sluggishly on ARM devices… Especially with the lack of hardware accelerated support for emulation, etc.

      It’s one of the reasons why RT is so stripped down that even support for external webcams and scanners was removed from RT.

      It’s also pretty much the norm for ARM devices to be more locked down and less flexible, most ARM devices never use anything but the OS they came with for example, but usually they tend to be much cheaper and more easily replaced than x86 solutions.

      However, Intel has become much more competitive with their ATOM SoCs and can offer systems with near the same costs as equivalent ARM systems. So what probably hurt RT the most was that you could get a x86 solution running full Windows 8 for not much more than the RT version.

      It’s mainly the inclusion of more premium features like WACOM active digitizers, etc that tend to quickly ramp up the pricing of even ATOM tablets but the more basic ones come pretty low and better justify the premium for running Windows instead of Android.

      Really, the present Clover Trail Atom is still based on the same architecture as when the ATOM first came out over 5 years ago, still using In Order Processing for example, but it can still beat a Tegra 3 for CPU performance.

      While graphical performance isn’t as well utilized outside of games for Windows, unlike say how iOS makes better use of it to provide a smoother user experience.

      So having better than ATOM graphics doesn’t help that much… Meanwhile, the next gen ARM devices have yet to come out for Windows tablets and RT had to work with what was available now…

      Meaning that timing also had a lot to do with their decisions… bad news for RT but it may be good news for Intel as they will start pushing their next gen hardware before the end of the year and ARM still has to the later half of 2014 at the earliest before the 64bit ARM solutions come to consumer range products.

    2. Couldn’t agree more. I wrote CLR apps for Windows CE. They worked if you kept them simple. There was no reason not to give an easy way into RT, or to simply ban them on principal. It didn’t have to go this way.

  9. Windows RT has a shaky value proposition:

    1- for Entreprises, it caters to those who want Office, but not Exchange, not AD, and no other Legacy x86 apps. As far as I know, the number of companies fitting that profile is exactly 0.

    2- for consumers, it caters to those who want Office, losing access to most tablets apps/content. As much as I’d like Office on my tablet, I have no use for a single-task device.

    In both cases, it only does so while costing more, running on inferior hardware, offering less hardware choice (7″ ?), a lot less OS/software choice (no root, no apps, no games…).

    Basically, RT is a one-trick poney that does Office, and that’s it. Android/iOS tablet do all the consumer stuff much better, for a lower price, on better hardware; x86 tablets including the Atom ones do everything RT does, and about 100 times more.

  10. The Surface RT tablet will sell well when Microsoft pulls an HP and fire sales
    it for $99. Google should do the same with Chrome OS and Chromebooks.

    1. I actually see how Chrome OS makes more sense for Google as a company than Android does. Also they don’t make and sell Chrombooks, and give away the OS for free already. There’s nothing Google as a company can do there to discount the devices that the OEMs made and sold to retailers who may eventually decide that they can’t sell them and firesale them, but that hasn’t happened yet, and since Chrome OS use is actually GROWING (not hard given the lack of an install base), I don’t see that happening soon.

      Otherwise I basically agree with the sentiment.

  11. A lot of this goes back to the .Net fanboys within Microsoft who want a “managed world.” This was a big reason why Longhorn was a disaster, and many of Vista’s issues came from a rush to strip out the Longhorn bumfodder and get an new OS out the door. With Win8 we have “revenge of the nerds” with the WinRT subsystem implementing major parts of the .Net infrastructure in native code so at least it runs well. While you can code against WinRT in C++ the only halfway viable path for most developers is back to .Net languages or scripting. The similar travesty that was the move from WinMo to WinPhone is probably no accident. Bathless Anders has sunk Microsoft at this point.

  12. I have no doubt RT is a failure, infact it also caused confusion in already confused windows 8 complainers. Its time they should ditch marketing RT and focus on intel low power chips. I couldnt be happier with my new low powered laptop with ability to do some work while playing around.

  13. I keep hearing “RT is the future.” I don’t get it. I sold my Surface RT and bought am HP Envy x2 for $525.00. Great device with a detachable screen. Full Windows 8. My Surface RT set me back $600+ on release day.

    1. It’s a confusion between the Modern UI and RT… Since WinRT is the new Windows Runtime but that’s not exactly the same as Windows RT, which is specifically a stripped down version of Windows 8 optimized to run on ARM devices.

      Part of the problem is the lack of a proper ecosystem as the App market is still in its infancy and still needs a lot of development to compete with what the far more developed Android and iOS markets offer but that’s because they’ve been around for years and the MS App market has just started.

      Focus though will likely go back to full Windows 8 rather than RT going forward… There are already rumors that the upcoming Code Blue upgrade/update for Windows 8 will either phase out or merge RT with Windows 8… exactly what that means isn’t certain at this point but with the next gen hardware coming out for Intel and AMD it’s more likely they will push full Windows for now.

      Though, there are also rumors that Code Blue will emphasis the Modern UI more but at this point it’s still rumors since Code Blue is still at the Beta stage of development.

      All we know for sure is they’ve apparently made some improvements that mainly effect the Modern UI… Like snap now lets 50/50 video instead of one side dominating and some other improvements… including a better emphasis on cloud support so Windows will remember state between systems to the point you can even use the same Bluetooth mouse as long as you use the same log in account, along with better integration of Skydrive, etc… So will apparently have at least some of the same advantages that Google promotes for Chromebooks for example.

      This is all still a work in progress though… So we’ll have to wait and see how it goes…

      1. Alpha stage of dev. Also as far as I know they’re still seperate, since Blue is set to launch some time in August as of this point. That’s too soon to consolidate the code bases… although if they just abandon RT then that simplifies things. And would also be yet another boost to the growing theory that Devs should avoid writing against any first gen MS product, which just increases the chicken and egg problem MS will have growing their business if we do move into a post-PC world.

      2. Also Intel did Microsoft absolutely no favors by coming out with that 7w (sorta) Ivy Bridge processor when it did. In a way you can look at it as them putting a knife into Microsoft’s back.

        If that’s any indication of what’s to come, it not only undermines Surface Pro, it sort of kills the whole point of moving to ARM since Tegra3 isn’t that much lower than that in standard usage. If they really can come out with half way decent Haswell processors at a similar TDP (real TDP not SDP), then yeah, ARM becomes faintly redundant unless you really just enjoy rolling your own SOC or have fixed function/antenna requirements that are met more easily by doing so… Or just don’t want to pay that much on a CPU in a sub $500 dollar device.

        In any case Moore’s law seems to indicate that within 2-4 years we should expect relatively close to current performance in the space ARM is currently operating in. That’s one of the reasons I keep thinking Surface RT is just a device that’s out of time, and that Windows Modern UI is just kind of early/really late to the game.

        1. It doesn’t really hurt MS that Intel is coming out with lower power consumption hardware… RT was always a experiment to try to counter the effect on the market by established mobile devices like the iPad… They even emphasized that the pricing was to be competitive with the iPad…

          Besides, it’ll end up increasing the range of products that can run full Windows and still be mobile usage. So that helps more than hurts MS in the long run…

          While the Surface Pro is a tablet and as such is influenced by how high paced the tablet market is now. So all that will happen with the Surface Pro is how soon it’ll be before it gets updated to the newer hardware… It’s just hasn’t been the norm for the traditional PC market but that’s the effect of the mobile market now there’s starting to be overlap between them.

          I agree with your last paragraph though, but MS game plan has always been long term for Windows 8 but people tend to be impatient…

          1. Yes, they pushed the comparison with iPad pricing… at exactly the time Apple started losing the tablet space to Android products selling at half the iPad’s sticker price like the Nexus 7 leading Apple to the iMini and Microsoft with no answer. Better, Apple makes serious bank on iPads because there ain’t much in em. Windows RT tablets need more inside, Windows 8 tablets need a lot more, leading to thin margins for the hardware partners since it isn’t sane to charge MORE than Apple.

            Anyway, worst case Microsoft can afford for RT to be a failure. What they probably can’t survive is Windows 8 itself being a failure. Up to now their monopoly position allowed them to get past failed versions and move on to the next one, see Vista, ME, Bob, NT3.1, OS/2, DOS 4.00, etc. The question is whether they can coast to Windows 9.

          2. The iPad still has the strongest presence in the tablet market for any one company. Android has mainly surpassed them in phones and similar markets but has yet to really pass them for tablets but that appears to be where it’s headed now.

            I agree on the sense that people seem to think charging more than Apple iPad is insane, even if the device provides a lot more than the iPad as even full PC tablets are being complained about as being too high priced.

            Also, I agree MS can afford RT to be a failure but not W8 itself.

            Though to be accurate Vista just got tweaked and renamed Windows 7 and XP didn’t really get considered a valid upgrade from ME/95 until after its second Service Pack Release mostly fixed it, even though it needed a 3rd before they were done with it.

            So part of that is perception… Pretty much all versions of Windows has needed fixing and tweaking after its initial release. People just don’t always remember this after it has been fixed…

            Similarly, other OS typically need patches and fixes after release too… especially if release has to happen on a set schedule. So monopoly or not this part of the process isn’t that unusual.

            People just aren’t always patent about it and companies sometimes rush too much… Like HP with WebOS for example… A good OS but rushed to market too fast and the company then giving up before putting in the time to fix it.

            While MS are definitely not coasting as now they’re adopting the same annual upgrade/update business model as Apple has for OSX. Code Blue being the first such release… Like Apple they’ll charge a small fee for each such update/upgrade.

            Also like Apple, these upgrades/updates aren’t limited to what’s usually a Service Pack Release and can include significant changes to the OS… Namely we should see some UI changes in this first release and we’ll see where they take it from there.

            So each year we can see how far along they come and not have to wait till Windows 9 for any major changes.

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