Windows RT on its last legs

Windows RT has already failed to gain traction due to a compromised value proposition, but now the fledgling platform is in serious danger of premature death.

Intel’s new mobile-friendly chipsets and Microsoft’s changes to Windows 8 pose a further setback for the struggling Windows RT platform for ARM-based tablets and other portable devices. Windows RT has already failed to gain traction due to a compromised value proposition, but now the fledgling platform is in serious danger of premature death unless Microsoft and its OEMs significantly step up their marketing. This would be a huge setback for ARM chip vendors, which were hoping to use the platform as an entry point to the Windows ecosystem. It will also harm Microsoft’s ambitions to move away from its legacy desktop environment.

Windows RT has been a tough sell

Windows RT was designed as a stripped-down version of Windows 8, optimised for tablets and other portable devices. By discarding the legacy Windows desktop and related services while enabling the OS to run on less power-hungry ARM CPUs, Windows RT theoretically provided Microsoft with the right tool to address the tablet and portable market by offering all-day battery life alongside always-on connectivity.

Ovum was impressed by the first wave of Windows RT devices, which offered a promising mix of interesting form factors (such as the Lenovo Yoga), improved mobile performance, preloaded Office applications, and competitive price points. However, it has become clear from comments made by ARM chip vendors and OEMs that these devices have not been selling well.

Aside from its own Surface RT device, Microsoft has barely given Windows RT any marketing support, which has led to a lack of consumer awareness of the platform. Moreover, Microsoft has failed to clearly explain the difference between the two platforms and, most importantly, why a consumer should buy a Windows RT device. Understandably, naturally risk-averse consumers have sided with devices running the more traditional Windows 8.

New Intel chips and updated Windows 8 could be a fatal blow to RT

With Intel’s latest line of CPUs – the recently launched Ultrabook-focused Haswell processors and the upcoming tablet-friendly Bay Trail – the company has significantly increased the overall battery life and connected standby time of Windows 8 devices, making them much more mobile friendly and on a par with Windows RT devices.

At the same time, Microsoft has been making changes to the specifications and requirements of Windows 8 and Windows RT, which has further blurred the lines between the two platforms. In March 2013, Microsoft reduced the minimum screen resolution, effectively opening the door to sub-10-inch Windows tablets. More recently, Microsoft announced that sub-10-inch tablets running Windows 8.1 will also come with Office RT installed, removing another differentiator for Windows RT devices.

It has also been suggested that Microsoft is reducing the licensing cost of Windows 8 for touch-enabled devices in order to improve user experience. Such a move would diminish another key differentiator of Windows RT devices.

Microsoft needs to prove its commitment to Windows RT

Price is still an advantage for Windows RT, with devices selling for approximately 50 per cent less than Windows 8 devices. The rumoured price cuts for Windows RT will mean that this benefit is maintained, which is especially important in the face of the alleged price cuts for touch-enabled Windows 8 devices. Microsoft has also given Windows RT a boost by announcing that it will pre-install Outlook into Windows 8.1 RT.

However, if Microsoft is as committed to Windows RT as Windows chief Tami Reller has claimed, the company must do much more to save it from a premature demise. Both Microsoft and its OEMs need to make a big investment in marketing Windows RT devices to clearly explain the purpose and value of them.

Additionally, Microsoft needs to incentivise developers to get more apps in the Windows Store. Whereas Windows 8 devices can use traditional Windows desktop applications, only apps from the Windows Store can be used on Windows RT devices. Without a great selection of the most popular applications, users will continue to avoid Windows RT for the less risky option of Windows 8 or, even worse, will opt for an iPad or Android tablet.

Nick Dillon is an analyst at Ovum. 

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