Free Windows RT – A Future or not?

Posted on January 28, 2013


Windows RT officially launched alongside Windows 8 on October 26, 2012 with the Microsoft Surface device leading the pack of several Windows RT-powered devices from OEM partners.

Despite the lack of clarity around the Windows RT v. Windows 8 versions, Windows RT has established a solid user base. It delivers to the mobile demands of users in key areas of a stylish aesthetic design and critically excellent battery life. More on that discussion in my earlier blogs:

Microsoft’s decision to release an OS build for the ARM CPU was largely driven by the capability this architecture gave the design teams to forge a svelte cutting edge design. Systems on a Chip reduced the bulk and cooling demands as well as increased the battery efficiency allowing for thin devices.

With the announcements by both Intel and AMD that they have their own x86 ‘Systems on a Chip’ CPU’s in the pipeline raises the question that has started entering debate as to the future of Windows RT. Couple this with the new Atom class CPU’s that are now driving fully fledged Windows 8 OS’s and narrowing the gap in critical areas of compactness and battery life.

If the hardware continuous evolve allowing a fully-fledged Windows 8 OS to be delivered on tablet devices without compromising battery and design then what does the future hold for Windows RT? The reality is very little. After all who would invest in a Windows RT device over a fully-fledged Windows 8 device? It is an election into a closed ecosystem with a derisory ecosystem of desktop applications and despite a 4 fold increase in Windows New UI applications they represent a poor compete against Android and iOS libraries of apps.

The decision maker in this saga is the application ecosystem and third party product and vendor attachment. iPad has enjoyed a momentum that appears to demonstrate that OS grade functionality is not a critical factor in the Tablet class as long as app and vendor add on product are compelling. That was in an environment that lacked such fully-fledged OS power, Android being no better than iOS. With Windows RT the started to change, but for the lack of application ecosystem. Now with Windows 8 appearing on iPad tablet design class devices there is going to be some interesting times ahead as the full momentum of the Windows application ecosystem and Partner 650,000+ commercial developer organisations get up to speed. Throw in the next generation of Office 365 due out soon and things get even more interesting.

Back to the debate on Windows RT’s future, there are many permutations but to consolidate these under a few common headline options we are left with:

  1. Status-Quo

No change, however it lacks real viable evidence that it is not going to just wither on the vine. OEM’s have not only cancelled RT initiatives they are largely cold on the whole project and driving their hardware architectures to a full Windows 8 which is clearly their agenda further eroding the current device class RT is pitched at fast. There is a price and battery advantage that RT offers as a differentiator but that is modest, and for everyone I have spoken to Windows RT is not worth it.

  1. Trim

Reduce the OS to the Windows New UI side of its personality, allowing it to live on lighter and cheaper hardware. As Windows 8 drives a new fully featured OS class of tablet, it will not supplant the cheaper, more compact, lighter and battery efficient Android and iOS class of device which we have become used to as consumption devices. RT has a future in the iOS and Android ‘Consumption device’ class. To do so it needs to drop its split personality (desktop side) and deliver just the new Widows UI. This would allow RT to be stripped back as an OS which could allow it to be delivered on reduced capacity device design’s that would slash cost and battery usage. This still does not identify what will stimulate the redressing of the small application ecosystem, as this is just another low end user volume platform competing against two well established platforms in iOS and Android.

  1. Kill

Discontinue the ARM experiment in light of the point made above over hardware evolution supporting full Windows 8. This is the current consolidated view IF it continues in its current form and lacklustre redressing of blatant short fallings such as no offline SkyDrive storage which makes a mockery of the device as a mobile platform when you think you need to be always network attached!

  1. Free

One thing is clear something has to happen to allow RT to compete in a class of devices that will not see it being thumped by its big brother Windows 8 as Atom Tablet architectures are already seeing happen. This will probably come over as a heretical idea and likely to be more than out of bounds for Microsoft culture to adapt to BUT there is a real and viable case for releasing Windows RT as an Open Source community effort.

Amongst many viable reasons:

  • Removes license costs from production placing it toe to toe with Android and giving OEM’s a choice they currently do not have. It’s Android or nothing in that class of device.
  • Make a friend with the OEM’s.
  • Opening up the closed RT architecture would immediately get the attention of the largest programmer audience in the world.
  • Put a cat amongst the pigeons with the regulators who have always enjoyed having a snipe at Microsoft.
  • Microsoft has an established Trusting audience and loyal user base.
  • Windows 8 UI familiarity on the Desktop will drive adoption.
  • Free platform does not mean NO revenue. This has the potential of driving explosive growth in applications that will stimulate significant reviews through the Microsoft store.
  • Community goodwill.
  • Takes the fight to Google on territory it arrogantly believes it owns.

There would be significant challenges, headline ones including:

  • Microsoft cultural readiness.
  • It is unclear how much opening up the RT code would reveal cross platform x86 insights that Microsoft would rather were not.
  • It will eat away at the bottom end of the Windows 8 market, BUT this is just the user tier that is adopting Android and iOS devices accepting the restrictions as they do not need power features and functions.

Most of the challenges could be dealt with either in the Open License Agreement and or limitations placed on opening up certain parts of the OS code, whilst providing them ‘black boxed’.

Looking at the bigger picture, services and application store revenues are increasingly becoming the new revenue generators. Would ‘giving away’ a lightweight OS iteration on a constrained hardware architecture really impact bottom line? I challenge that the ecosystem revenues would out weight that furthermore the momentum it would build behind the new generation of Windows OS’s in this class would be an accelerator into taking chunks out of the competitions market share for Microsoft.

It is just this type of bold and decisive action that would shake up this class of devices and place Microsoft very much into the tier of innovators again.

Casual discussions with some of Microsoft OEM hardware partners has seen this received with significant interest. Maybe a lunch with them all in the same room could forge a friendly meeting with the power that be at Microsoft?