After a spate of recent news on Windows RT, I pulled my Microsoft Surface RT tablet from a drawer, where it had been sitting unused for several months. I reviewed Surface RT in November of 2012, and several of my concerns have been rectified. Since the updates, the performance of the device has improved and application availability is slowly increasing. However, recent indicators hold several clues as to the fate of Windows RT, with both positive and negative signs for the future of this variant of Windows 8.
A healthy Outlook
Perhaps the most exciting news around Windows RT is that the full Outlook email client is slated for inclusion in the OS, along with the other major components of the Office suite. I found the absence of Outlook glaring and a major competitive miss for the device. The biggest selling point of Surface RT is that it delivers a “split-personality” device of sorts. It can act as a finger-focused tablet like the iPad or various Android tablets, but if you fold down the stand and switch it into desktop mode, you have access to full-fledged versions of the Office suite, all with strong battery life and easy portability.
The mail client included with Surface RT is now passable due to performance improvements, but if Microsoft wants to make a compelling case for Surface RT over an Android or iOS competitor, it needs the power of the full Outlook client onboard. Aside from appealing to users who want the full capabilities of Office on their tablet, this move provides some indication that Microsoft is not ready to abandon Windows RT, despite some clouds on the horizon from long-time partner Intel.
The Intel question
While not a direct, competitive threat to Windows RT, Intel’s recently announced 4th generation Core processor, code-named Haswell, could spell doom for Windows RT. The primary focus of Haswell was reduced power consumption, providing computing power similar to prior Core-series chips with significantly extended battery life.
Consider for a moment that battery life was the primary driver behind Windows RT. Prior to RT, Windows tablets had a battery life in the 2-4 hour range, similar to most laptops, since they were using laptop-style hardware. ARM-based mobile processors adopted from smartphones changed the battery game, pushing tablet battery life into the double digits. With no way to extract similar performance from then-available x86 processors, Microsoft made the painful decision to create an entirely new version of Windows to run on ARM processors, primarily in the name of battery life.
If Haswell lives up to its promises, the holy grail of tablet computing in a Microsoft ecosystem may finally be reached: a device the size and weight of Surface RT that runs an Intel Core processor and full version of Windows 8, all with a 10-hour battery and no awkward fans or heat mitigation. While this would be cause for celebration among the user community, it leaves Windows RT awkwardly positioned, as its primary benefit — battery life — is now on par with “regular” Windows. Combine this with RT’s several compromises — mainly its incompatibility with any Windows application that’s not specifically designed for Windows 8 — and you have an OS and platform with no benefits and several glaring drawbacks.
The cost question
Microsoft obviously realizes the problem Haswell presents and seems to be positioning RT as a cheaper Windows. Not only is Microsoft fattening up Windows RT functionality by bundling Outlook, but the company is also rumored to have lowered the price of RT to its OEM partners. On its own Surface RT tablet, Microsoft is now bundling a free touch keyboard rather than lowering the retail price of the unit. By including one of the “must-have” accessories for free, Microsoft can offer a discount to users without cannibalizing the sticker price of the Surface RT. This move shows that Microsoft is trying to increase market share rather than dumping an ecosystem, as HP infamously did with the ill-fated TouchPad and its $99 liquidation sale.
As more Windows RT-compatible software appears, Microsoft could attempt to make Windows RT the next netbook, offering combined tablet and laptop-like devices that include a full version of Office at a significant discount to a similarly provisioned device running “regular” Windows 8. It’s a tricky balancing act, since the Surface RT is still equivalently priced to the average corporate laptop and simultaneously confusing to consumers who may not understand the nuances between RT, ARM, and x86. In any event, for the moment, it appears Microsoft is standing by Windows RT — and in the short term, users of the platform will get increasing functionality and lower costs. Whether Microsoft and its hardware partners continue to stand by the ecosystem in the face of dwindling benefits remains to be seen.
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