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Surface RT keeps Microsoft in the game for mobile devices

Donovan Colbert believes that Surface RT keeps Microsoft in the game for mobile devices and that IT pros need to plan for RT showing up as BYOD devices in the enterprise.

Microsoft Surface 2

The general release of Windows 8.1 was rolled out on October 17th, 2013, but the lack of media buzz around this significant upgrade to the Microsoft platform was extraordinary. I’ve read several opinions that say that the newest wave of Atom-based Windows 8 tablets make Windows on ARM a redundant, crippled, and senseless platform for Microsoft to support. I don’t agree.

Here's how the logic works: The latest round of Atom processors are nearly as cool and efficient as ARM. They don’t require fans, they deliver great battery life, and they also support legacy Intel Architecture (IA) code. This means they address all of the advantages that ARM brings, while avoiding the one major liability -- the lack of legacy Classic desktop app support.

This logic overlooks important details. On consumer-oriented tablet devices, ARM has an advantage and removes most of the traditional liabilities of the Intel Windows platform. Over the last five years, I’ve owned and reviewed dozens of Android and iOS mobile devices. It's become routine for me to factory reset, reconfigure, or perform major OS upgrades. Although Microsoft will get a lot of bad press for the way the Windows 8.1 update rolled out, the other platforms can’t really throw stones. Let's be honest, death, taxes, and Microsoft blowing it on SP1 releases are three certainties in life, and Windows 8.1 is not where they’re going to break this streak.

My experience with the difficulties of upgrading Surface RT from Windows 8.1 preview to general release highlights the difference between ARM mobile devices and Intel platforms. In particular, performing a refresh and even a full-factory reset were dead simple, quick, and far less of a hassle than trying the same thing on legacy Intel platforms. PC vendors, Intel, and Microsoft have all come up with various schemes to make this kind of thing easier, with varying degrees of success. IT professionals know that once you lose a real PC, getting it back to exactly the state it was in before the disaster can be a challenge. 

Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are real PCs, and so they’re just as prone to these issues as any Intel Core platform. They have the legacy ability to run Intel x86 code -- but only the most basic. More powerful Classic apps are still going to require Core CPU performance. However, despite the fact that Atom isn't powerful enough to run apps like Photoshop, AutoCAD, and other programs that require true 64-bit Intel multi-core processing, they're perfectly capable of running the true Intel code that you do not want to execute, like virus and malware apps. Atom has some “improvements” that might be considered huge liabilities on closer inspection. The sole advantage that I see of Atom tablets is the ability to run VPN software, which is something that could surely be addressed on ARM platforms.

The Surface 2 indicates that Microsoft doesn’t see ARM as a dead end. My experience with upgrading RT to Windows 8.1 supports this. Troubleshooting a Microsoft-built product with a Microsoft OS through Microsoft support was far easier than trying to get support for my Lenovo Yoga. Because the apps are all default apps or Modern Apps, and because my personalized settings are stored in the cloud, I was back to my defaults quickly after a refresh or factory restore. The small local storage of mobile devices insures that big data gets offloaded to cloud or removable storage -- in my case, a 64 GB MicroSD -- so, I didn’t lose any irreplaceable data. This is the kind of recovery and data protection that makes mobile computing more robust, despite less powerful hardware.

Contrast that to TechRepublic blogger Deb Shinder, who had the same problems with her Surface Pro as I had with RT. She was prepared for Intel-specific issues and had media and keys ready to reinstall. However, she still wasn’t completely back to her original state after two days. The simplicity of ARM platforms is as much an advantage as it is a liability. 

Beyond that, working with Surface support illustrated that most IT pros who complain about the limits of RT are simply unfamiliar with how powerful the Classic back-end is. I asked the tech if there was a Microsoft course on Windows 8 administration, and he was unsure. There are a whole suite of new commands, utilities, and techniques that allow you to troubleshoot the guts of Modern from the Classic OS, I just don’t think most of us know them yet.

Microsoft is on the right track with ARM and RT. It makes a lightweight device that will run cool for hours, that's quick and easy to recover to a previous state, and has world-class manufacturer support behind it. RT keeps Microsoft in the game for mobile devices that will eventually show up as BYOD devices in the enterprise, and IT pros need to plan for that. 


About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

7 comments
pethers
pethers

I've recently got a first gen RT for cheap and I love it for sitting on the couch when I get home and doing all my basic things that I need to get done. Tasks like clearing my personal email accounts, Internet banking, youtube, etc. It's all content consumption and it does the job well.

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

Imho, large-scale BYOD support won't emerge until they decide to allow RT devices to join an AD domain -- till then, RT devices are little better off than any competitor, and IT shops hear from senior mgmt much more about Apple and Android BYOD desires. Just checked the FAQ - this still wasn't addressed in 8.1. I really don't understand this, as there's nothing magic to joining a domain and receiving GPOs - I make Linux boxes do it all the time, and it works fine for ARM Linux distros.


This just feels like an artificial limitation based on some bean counter determining they are likely to make more profit in the long run from Pro devices. There's an interesting ethic at work here, part of MS's non-abundance zero-sum thinking.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I support several Surface Pros and we're quite happy with them.  I haven't had the chance to play with a RT machine.  But it is odd the vehemence that you witness, at least here, toward them.  The big issue seems to be that you can't load regular windows programs on them.  I suppose that is something that will keep me from buying one for myself, but you didn't see that same kind of outrage about the iPad which won't run Mac OS-X applications or the Android that won't run anything other than Android apps.  I think where MS might have made the mistake was making Windows RT look like the x86 version of Windows 8.  It makes you think that you are actually running the same Windows that you would have on a desktop or regular laptop and so it raises the expectation that you should be able to load all your regular Windows programs on there.  Whereas iOS and OS-X don't look the same and so nobody complains that they can't run Photoshop on their iPad.  It might be a good plan for MS to eventually just drop the desktop option from RT and leave everything in the Metro interface.

jmfcosta
jmfcosta

Good input. I upgraded both my Surface RT and my Win8 laptop to 8.1 versions with no hassle whatsoever (I didn't have 8.1 Preview installed... that's for pros and any complexity comes with the job). The improvements were not wow!; they were sensible and easily identifiable, a must to keep daily work on the run without having re-learn a lot.

Surface/Windows RT is the best mixture of work/entertainment device around. It may take some time for professionals to realize it but eventually they will. Microsoft, keep RT alive.

jmfcosta
jmfcosta

@pethers That's the idea, with the plus of being able to do some work on Office. I never imagined the possibility of working on Autocad, Photoshop, Matlab or whatever in a 10" screen, even if I could install it. I would like to ask people who complain about the lack of legacy compatibility in RT if they are able to do any real work on these power-apps in anything smaller than a 15" laptop with an external monitor. The only app I miss in RT is to be able to view dwg drawing files.

dcolbert
dcolbert

@daboochmeister @daboochmeister AD membership and VPN support are major liabilities for RT and they are not addressed in Surface 2. I think it may be that they want to discourage corporate use of RT (Office Home/Student, etc.) But I think this is short sighted. The truth is that for mobile executive devices that provide limited Windows features but remove the liabilities of a true Windows32/64 distro, that ARM based devices have a perfect place in the enterprise. 


Keep in mind it took a long time for Android to gain momentum where it started showing as a BYOD solution in many organizations. RT is off to a better start than Xoom and the original Samsung Galaxy tab. Microsoft simply has to realize that they've got a tremendous wedge against Google and Google Docs with Surface RT if they compete more directly with those platforms. The fear is probably cannibalizing their own sales in corporate scenarios of Surface RT... but they may be shooting themselves in the foot with this strategy.
dcolbert
dcolbert

@boomchuck1 Lots of people have suggested that. I don't think that is a great idea. Part of the strength of RT compared to iOS and Android *is* the ability to drop into a mouse and pointer oriented desktop that will run a full desktop browser, web apps, social media sites, and Office. It opens up a level of power that Android and iOS have to kludge around for real productivity, even with bluetooth keyboards or docks. 

The classic desktop, when you understand what it is good for, is a significant advantage over what iOS and Android offer. This is a lot like people complaining that Windows 8 could only run two apps at once (which was one more mobile app on screen at once than either Android or iOS could do). The truth was, not only could Windows 8 run two mobile apps at once, but as many classic apps as any version of Windows before it... so rather than being inferior, it was superior to *everything* out there. The tech press didn't understand it, and readers passed on the misinformation. 

If I had an executive and most of their remote work was web based and through OWA - I'd rather send them on the road with a Surface RT or Surface 2 than a Surface Pro if I could get away with it. The odds of something going wrong are so much smaller, and the ability to recover from anything that might happen is radically easier. At the very least, I'd rather have them using Surface RT or Surface 2 in my environment than Android or iOS tablets.