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8 reasons Windows RT was dead on arrival

Gordon Kelly


8 reasons Windows RT was dead on arrival

Microsoft's latest financial results are in and both earnings and profits are up. In fact, financially everything looks pretty good for the company apart from one glaring issue: Windows RT. Microsoft revealed it has taken a mind boggling $900 million hit on Surface RT due to "inventory adjustments". In plain English: no-one wants them.

So why is Windows RT proving to be such a hard sell? We think we have some pretty good reasons...

Reason #1: It's Windows 8 Lite

When Windows RT was announced it sounded like a great idea: a version of Windows that is finally compatible with ARM processors. The presumption was that it would allow Windows 8 to be used on more portable devices with greater battery life, cut hardware costs and launch Windows into the tablet space (more of later).

The reality was to get Windows 8 on ARM, Microsoft had to butcher it so it would run on less powerful hardware. So instead of extending the reach of Windows 8 for all intents and purposes Windows RT splintered the operating system and consequently...

Reason #2: It confuses people

For a start there is the name: 'Windows RT'. It stands for 'Windows Run Time' - a reference to the Windows Runtime Library (WinRT) technology that allows developers to write apps that work across both it and the full fat Intel-based Windows 8. Yes it is not exactly consumer friendly, but given its Windows 8 Lite status meant Windows RT couldn't responsibly be called 'Windows 8 on ARM' Microsoft found itself in a pickle.

Worse still, having picked a terrible name, Microsoft did a poor job of explaining its relevance to consumers, which only complicated things. Consumers understood the models of Apple and Google: phones and tablets share an OS (iOS and Android) and PCs and laptops share an OS (Mac OS X and Chrome OS).

Suddenly Microsoft was saying: phones use Windows Phone, PCs and laptops use Windows 8 and tablets use Windows RT... except when those tablets are hybrids which use Windows 8... though there will also be a line of dedicated tablets that use Windows 8. It's a mess.

The Surface RT had the market largely to itself. OEM's backed out early.

Reason # 3: Hardware wasn't ready

While we predict Windows RT doesn't have long for this world, we suspect history will remember it more kindly. It is an ambitious idea that doesn't work and a major reason is the hardware wasn't ready. Had Intel had powerful, low power chips like Intel Haswell and the next-generation Intel Atom's a few years earlier, Microsoft wouldn't have needed to butcher Windows 8 during its development to make it run efficiently on ARM. Similarly had ARM had low chips powerful enough to run Windows 8 a few years ago Microsoft could've focused on a full version with sophisticated emulation software.

The problem is Microsoft was desperate. It had seen the iPad suddenly succeed in tablets where it had failed time and again and it had no answer. Instead of pitching a half baked version of Windows Phone (which – naming aside – may have been the smarter idea) it went for the differentiator of a full Microsoft Office experience by butchering Windows 8. Which brings in another argument about Windows 8 in general...

Reason #4: Apps weren't ready

While Windows RT's ambitions were caught out by hardware restrictions, arguably the fundamental idea behind Windows 8 is also ahead of its time. Again Microsoft was acting out of desperation as it watched a shrinking PC market and wanted to make an OS that was all things to all people and all devices.

Windows 8.1 suggests Microsoft knows how to improve the OS over its lifespan, but where it has a gargantuan amount of x86 legacy software to fall back on, Windows RT dropped all that in favour of the duo's shared touch friendly apps. Naturally at launch very few of these apps were available which led to weak demand and in a self fulfilling prophesy weak demand led to app developers ignoring the platform. Windows 8 could survive this, Windows RT cannot.

Reason #5: It competes with itself

It is said that a daft dog bites itself, but with Windows RT Microsoft showed it was more than happy to sink its teeth into its own hindquarters. Whereas Apple and Google push distinct product lines that work together largely without overlapping, Windows RT was primarily a cheaper alternative to Windows 8.

"Would you like this Windows 8 Surface tablet or this Windows RT Surface tablet, sir?" For those who opted for Windows 8 it made Windows RT look pointless, for those who opted for Windows RT its limited experience damaged the Windows 8 brand. It is a stunning example of unintentional self sabotage.

Reason #6: Poor launch hardware

And yet Microsoft would've gotten away with some of this had the hardware, which greeted the launch of Windows RT, been more appealing. Yes, Microsoft had its Surface range, but it was available in limited quantities and still suffered from poor battery life – ironically the very thing making it ARM compliant was meant to solve.

But more damaging was that while we have mentioned Windows RT was major hardware challenge, partners were unmoved to meet it. Like consumers they seemed reluctant to invest in innovative designs having seen Windows tablets fail many times previously and so stuck to what they knew: pushing out desktops, laptops and even some hybrids for Windows 8.

Consequently, Windows RT hardware was thin on the ground and Acer, HP, HTC, Nokia and Toshiba cancelled devices before launch. That scared off others such as Samsung, which caused them to pull out after launch.

Reason #7: Its walled garden is excessive

Even with a near catatonic start, Windows RT may have grown support had Microsoft not implemented restrictions that make Apple platforms look like an open source hippy convention. All Windows RT apps must be vetted through the Windows Store with Microsoft taking the same 30 per cent cut of sales developers give up for entry to the more successful Apple App Store and Google Play stores.

Customers are similarly restricted. Before using the Windows Store, Windows RT users must sign up for a Microsoft account – something that is true of Windows 8, but Windows RT owners have no other way of obtaining software. Furthermore, unlike Windows 8, Windows RT locks users to Internet Explorer and even this is a cut down experience since Microsoft doesn't allow any web plugins and Flash content only works on Microsoft-approved websites.

Jailbreaks have been developed, but Microsoft is actively looking to close these which, in its current state, is like pointing a loaded gun at its own feet.

Reason #8: It was too expensive

It is unclear why the Windows RT devices that have made it to market are so expensive, but we'll hazard a few guesses.

First, all partners have to build devices to rigid hardware guidelines that ensures a minimum level of quality, but leaves manufacturers fighting over the same components.

Secondly, Microsoft charges too much for the Windows RT licence. No standard fee is set, but prices can be as high as $120 and talk of slashing them to $30 comes too late. After all every Windows RT device not only needs this licence, but one for Microsoft Office is also mandatory.

This combination seems to have caught out hardware partners themselves. Lenovo exec David Schmoock said last August that he expected Windows RT tablets to retail for $300 – $500 (£196 - £328), but its launch device was $800 (£524). Somewhere the sums went badly wrong. You don't challenge the market leaders by being more expensive.

Time for a trip to the vet

Some of these points were obvious at launch, others have only reared their heads thanks to hindsight. That said, as it stands Windows RT has no consumer or hardware traction and it serves only to confuse consumers, fracture the Windows 8 brand and damage its credibility by association.

The humane thing to do is for Microsoft to put Windows RT out of its misery. Windows 8.1 shows great promise and Microsoft needs to focus on two primary OSes. It was a nice try, it failed. Time to move on.

Next, read about the new Windows 8.1 features


July 19, 2013, 3:20 pm

Wow, perhaps their products wouldn't suck as much if they hired American citizens instead of the h-1b visa slaves. I guess cheap labor isn't that cheap after all.


July 19, 2013, 4:10 pm

It's the OS, the Surface RT 32 GB has 15 GB of available storage. Not exactly lean and mean for a new tablet OS.


July 19, 2013, 5:18 pm

I stopped reading this article at the pretentious words, "it went for the differentiator of a full...."

Consumers like me who actually pay money for these machines don't need this strictly "user unfriendly" language.

Or, is this, "nerds writing for a closed group of fraternal nerds"?


July 19, 2013, 5:34 pm

You are joking right?
You're telling me:
1. American labor is cheaper than foreign (even insourced) labor?
2. Do you know how hard it is to get an H1-B visa?
3. Are you implying that "superior" products by Apple, Samsung or even HTC is built by non-slave labor?

You have to be kidding me


July 19, 2013, 5:39 pm

I suspect if the price was lower it would have done ok, and that MSFT still has a chance to do well in the tablet market if they can get it all to run similarly on desktop and tablet and phone.

The common person uses msft at work and would be good with a similar interface on a tablet. However most people haven't started using this metro interface.

Before it's time, and that it should use the same os for the phones and open up the app market, all great points.


July 19, 2013, 6:28 pm

Are you complaining about the word "differentiator?" Because that's not a technical term.


July 19, 2013, 7:18 pm

#7 doesn't go far enough. The rt tablet uses secure boot which is locked to only booting windows rt, as insisted upon by microsoft. This effectively prevents unsold inventory from being refurbed with an os people are willing to buy. No wonder manufacturers were unwilling to make these. They knew win rt was a flop and they couldn't repurpose the units later to cover costs.

Dave Wu

July 19, 2013, 9:42 pm

learn to read jackass. and stop txting so much. pick up a book, and stop getting all your info from memes

Dave Wu

July 19, 2013, 9:46 pm

have you tried windows 8? worst most clumsy piece of crap, confusing OS in history. Going back and forth from old windows and metro was ridiculous. It didn't even offer a basic tutorial of how to work it. most of the times, you get stuck in a one window, and can't get out. sometimes, the swipe or mouse over hidden stuff doesn't come up for no apparent reason. MSFT just can't figure it out.If they were to develop a touch tablet OS, it should not have two different realms. There is no wonder why this company is floundering


July 19, 2013, 10:05 pm

Until I read this article, I didn't realize there was a distinction btw RT and Win 8. I consider myself somewhat conversant with tablets (I've owned 6) but my eyes glazed over whenever I read about this late-to-the-party tablet that nobody cared about. And if I didn't know the difference, there was zero chance the Average Joe understood what the heck RT was good for.

Amazing they took a $900MM writedown. I had no idea they would have spent a fraction of that building those surely-destined-to-fail tablets. Redmond is completely out of touch.


July 19, 2013, 10:31 pm

#9 Microsoft has a reputation for abandoning hardware products whenever they don't achieve world domination ensuring that the Surface will be a brick in 6 months while waiting for a update that will never come.


William R. Mosby

July 20, 2013, 12:08 am

Also, there's reason number zero, or number 9, take your pick. In the picture at the bottom of the article, holding up the surface.


July 20, 2013, 1:43 am

After seeing the stats/reviews of what the Surface Pro has, I actually would prefer the RT and its MUCH longer battery life, with no stupid fans or heat... if I had to choose between the two.

The Surface Pro IS a notebook, despite its pretending that its a tablet. Four hours of battery life and a stupid fan to cool the hot CPU.... sorry but that IS a notebook.

Although I'm very happy with the Samsung Android tablet I just purchased so I won't be getting any Windows tablet. I do love Windows 8 on my desktop though.


July 20, 2013, 7:35 am

Great article, but I have one bone to pick: Microsoft needed to make a clean break from the desktop OS not only because they wanted better power consumption, and to run on different processors, but also to enforce touch-based UI design, just the way Apple did. It doesn't matter how much underlying code, or code methodologies are shared between these platforms, this was going to mean serious rewrites for anyone porting to the touch-world. That is simply the way it has to be. Touched based UI design is a different animal from mouse/keyboard design. Thinking you can "run all your old desktop apps" on your tablet is just a confused idea that shows a lack of understanding of the differences between the platforms. So, RT really was Microsoft's entire touch strategy. To have it fail at this point means they've got nothing except good old Windows desktop. In other words they are up a creek.

The way I look at it, the real mistake that Microsoft made (and has made many times) was to think strategically rather than experientially. They thought the "two in one"/convertible approach was a good strategy to offer something new to consumers. But this is a strategy invented by people that obviously did not use tablets. This idea of "one device that will do everything" comes from the time before everything was cloud-synced. It's much easier now to have multiple devices, and I think the thing RT's failure proves is that it's much better at this point in time to have two finely tuned devices than one "mash-up" that's supposed to serve all situations. Microsoft didn't think about the fact that a Frankenstein do-everything device would make for a crap user experience. The Surface Pro is an awful tablet (heavy, bad battery life, limited apps) and an awful laptop (cramped keyboard, uncomfortable pointing device, too-small pixels). Apple thinks about user experience from the very beginning of their process, and this is why they are winning as a company that targets the consumer market. Microsoft thinks strategically about how to leverage technology. This works when you're selling to businesses, but it's not a way to win people's love and affection. And no number of break-dancing angry prep-school girls is going to change this.


July 20, 2013, 9:45 am

A lower price point would have helped... but even then as long as the "pro" was around, people would be thinking of the RT tablet as "watered down"/"less than"/"not the real deal." Microsoft really shafted themselves by releasing both the RT and the pro. They should have JUST made the RT, had a lower price point, and made a significant push to sell it into business/enterprise as "the tablet for doing MS Office stuff." MS Office is still a big selling point.


July 20, 2013, 9:55 am

I agree. That's what I've been thinking all along. There were all these people online saying "I'm waiting around for the pro." I'm thinking, for what? So you can run old non-touch Windows apps on a cramped hot tablet with a flimsy keyboard awkward pointing device and poor battery life? It's like a lot of people have no experience with the iPad or Android tablets.

Michael Bradley

July 20, 2013, 2:45 pm

This review is RO


Michael Bradley

July 20, 2013, 2:53 pm

Windows on ARM will probably be around for awhile...New Tegra 3 and Tegra 4 in the future (like 12 Core CPU / 64 Core GPU) at 2.5 GHZ will be plenty powerful to run it on a tablet or even notebook. Problem is by then, ARM will be competing with Haswell which can run full Windows. People aren't going to buy an ARM over a Haswell for the same price......and don't forget AMD's CPU/GPU low power combos...Windows on ARM will probably die eventually. Microsoft has already stated there will be ARM version of Windows 8.1 however...........

Smail Buzzby

July 20, 2013, 3:33 pm


Michael Kehm

July 20, 2013, 6:34 pm

Actually I think for tablets, Metro UI is the the best way to use it with a touchscreen, so I don't think that WinRT is such a fail, because, on a tablet, the desktop is the thing that is in the way. Metro for tablets only and Desktop for Desktop only should be the way to go.


July 20, 2013, 7:23 pm

two words to explain why ipads are cheaper......SLAVE LABOR

many of the other points you bring up apply to crapple too.


July 20, 2013, 8:23 pm

Oh, I agree with you, but that's not what I meant. My point was Apple made a clean break from desktop apps when it introduced the iOS dev kit. You couldn't just take your existing OS X apps and run them on your iPhone or iPad, even though iOS is a close relative to OS X. So, I don't agree with "Reason #3" in this article "The hardware wasn't ready" as if having hardware that could run full-on Windows on an iPad-like form factor would have made a difference. Then you'd just have Windows running on an iPad, and that would suck eggs. Things need to be rewritten for touch regardless of whether it's an Intel or Atom chip. The problem with RT is not that it has a new programming API, it's that Microsoft completely botched it's branding and roll-out by closely associating it with desktop Windows.

Steve Gentile

July 20, 2013, 8:39 pm

should add that the main areas as a consumer device where RT could have been successful have completely missed the mark: media + games

1. I run Windows Media Server, RT offers no Windows Media player. That is a fail
2. Games and integration with XBox. The Surface could have been used like the Wii U device with games and great XBox integration.

Instead, they focus on the 'business user' with their office apps.

I would instead have ditched the 'desktop' - big mistake. If you want office, then make 'Metro' office apps - or heck, just use Office 365

Drop the price, it doesn't have to be a hybrid, it's a RT ARM processor, we don't want a hybrid.

The focus for MS is waaaayyy off and they can't market something if their life depended on it.

Chris Boots

July 20, 2013, 9:05 pm

wait until they slash the price further , then buy and wait until Cyanogen releases a version of Android for it :) with the right OS it is a nice piece of hardware


July 20, 2013, 9:07 pm

Reason 1, 2, 3 and 4 could have been: It is way WAY too expensive. People are willing, even ready, to spend on a device that is inexpensive. I still have a nearly two year old Kindle Fire (that works JUST FINE thank you) and bought it because it was $200. People will forgive any little issue as long as it is inexpensive and works. In that order. If you don't believe me, just ask Amazon. (or Google, I am typing on my most awesome $249 Chromebook... look, two devices I own that do not have any Windows on it)

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