Windows 8-based tablets are all set for a November launch and frankly, we are quite kicked about it, since more competition is always a good thing for the consumer, that’s you and me. Microsoft has a lot riding on their new Operating System, as not only is it being released for desktop PCs, for the first time, we’ll be seeing ARM-based devices also run Windows, which opens new doors for the software giant, as they can now reach out to a much wider crowd. As usual, there’ll be several different versions of Windows 8 as well as a separate version for ARM, called Windows RT. Previously known as Windows on ARM, Windows RT (where RT stands for Runtime) is a completely different version of Windows that will come pre-installed on tablets and ARM-based notebooks. My beef with Microsoft is that they chose to call the ARM version Windows, which is a bit misleading.
Microsoft’s marketing team have a big challenge ahead of them in distinguishing Windows RT and Windows 8-based systems, because it just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Here are 5 reasons why we feel Windows RT might not really work in the long run.
It’s not really “Windows 8”
First and foremost, let’s get this out in the open, Windows RT is not really Windows 8. Since it’s designed for ARM, the OS uses a completely different runtime, which is why you can’t simply update a Windows 7 system to Windows RT, and you really wouldn’t want to either. The only element that’s common between the Windows 8 and Windows RT is the Metro interface. In fact, on tablets, that’s all you’ll see. You won’t be able to switch between the ‘classic desktop’ mode and the Metro UI, the way you can on x86-based systems that use Intel and AMD CPUs. Microsoft was very careful when they ditched the ‘8’ moniker from Windows RT, since they are two completely different Operating Systems. Unfortunately, this is also going to confuse the uninformed when they walk into a store and pick up a Windows RT system, instead of Windows 8. When you say ‘Windows’ tablet, one typically expects a regular desktop interface or at least the possibility of using the tablet in a way one would use a desktop, but they are in for a disappointment as so far, there doesn’t seem to be a way in which that would be possible. In a way, it makes sense to have the Metro UI as the primary interface on a touchscreen device, but we would have also liked the choice to switch to the standard desktop mode on an ARM device. What if we have a tablet, like the Asus Transformer that could be converted to a netbook, having ‘classic windows’ mode in this case would be really useful but it doesn’t seem like that’s possible.
Limited to apps in the app store
In Windows RT, your only source of getting applications is through the built-in Metro Store. Also, all Metro apps will work across platforms, be it ARM or x86 machines. The fact that we have to rely on Metro apps is a scary thought, since Microsoft’s track record with app stores is not the best (Windows Phone 7 anyone?). Even today, the Windows Phone Marketplace lags behind Google and Apple, despite being around for a long time now. Although this is not official, expect Windows Phone 8.0 or Apollo to be designed around Windows RT. We have a feeling that Microsoft will base the next version of Windows Phone OS on Windows RT, since it is designed for mobile devices running on ARM, which is the same as phones. This way, you should be able to use the same Metro apps that you’ve purchased on your phone as well, which ties into Microsoft’s whole strategy of creating a common ecosystem for mobile and desktop devices.
Cannot run native x86 applications
While this one’s a bit obvious, all of your current applications that you use on a daily basis won’t be available on Windows RT in the same way apps for Apple’s OSX won’t work for iOS. But this is where Microsoft goofed up. In Apple’s case, both the Operating Systems are named differently, so even an uninformed user would not make the mistake of installing an OSX app on an iOS device or even expect it to work. When you call your OS ‘Windows’, one typically expects all the current apps to simply work and users are in for a rude awakening when they realize it doesn’t work like that anymore. All your favourite programs, like Irfanview, Foobar, etc won’t work in Windows RT, unless these developers choose to release a Metro app, and that’s a big “if”. By going in for Windows RT tablet, you’re really at the mercy of the developer to release a Metro version of your favourite app. This issue can be circumvented by buying a Windows 8-based tablet, like the Dell Latitude 10 that leaked recently, but obviously, don’t expect it to be cheap or have a great battery life compared to the ARM version.
Microsoft will be including Office apps, like Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote by default in Windows RT and it seems like this is the only set of apps that will work in the classic desktop fashion.
Chaos and confusion in Windows notebooks
Intel demoed a concept notebook at CES 2012 with a tablet like screen and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which to us, seems like the inevitable evolution of the Ultrabook. With this, we get the tablet experience when you need media consumption, but you can convert it into a full-fledged notebook in a second. Let’s face it, this is an ideal notebook/tablet device that we’ve been waiting for. Why settle for two devices when one can give you the best of both worlds? Also, Windows 8 is the perfect OS to complete this transformation, but wait! We now have Windows RT. How do you decide between a Windows 8 notebook and a Windows RT notebook/tablet? If you argue that Windows RT is the best choice, if you're going to be using it for media consumption then what’s stopping you from getting an iPad? You’ll also be getting a much better selection of apps, which should be incentive enough to go for it. The only way Windows RT-based tablets will be appealing enough is if they are cheap, which is something that we will have to wait and see.
When will this come?
Productivity will suffer, initially
The only reason that will make me buy a Windows-based tablet over an iPad or an Android is the fact that it runs Windows, which means I can use all my traditional applications that I use on my desktop on it. This is only possible with a tablet running Windows 8 and not Windows RT. I’m sure that with enough demand, developers will release (at least I hope they do) Metro versions of their applications, but how long before we see that happening? Once again, we come to Windows Phone Marketplace, which doesn’t really inspire much confidence. Let’s say you buy a Windows RT tablet today, how long will it be till you actually get to use your favourite apps? A year? Maybe two? We don’t know. If Microsoft could have come up with a way in which we could have emulated legacy x86 apps on ARM, then I wouldn’t have to write this article, but they’ve made it very clear that that’s not happening.
Microsoft seems to have created another mini ecosystem of their own with Windows RT and like any mobile OS, the success or demise of it will ultimately depend on the availability of apps. Just like how Apple has iOS for their phones and tablets, Microsoft will have Windows RT and upcoming Apollo for their phones. If Microsoft manages to build a vast ecosystem of apps rather quickly, then Windows RT will be a huge success, else it’ll be just another Windows Phone OS – amazingly slick interface, but that’s about it. Windows 8 on tablets (especially hybrids) seems like a more promising and exciting prospect. Ivy Bridge should really help with the power consumption and improve upon battery life, bringing it close to its ARM-based counterparts. My dream notebook would be a 14-inch tablet/notebook hybrid running Ivy Bridge and Windows 8 for about 40K, what do you say?