With the release of Windows 8 just around the corner, a fairly difficult question is facing IT leaders who are considering testing or deploying the new OS on tablets: which version of Windows 8 do I choose?
Windows 8 comes in two distinct "flavors" where tablets are concerned — Windows RT and regular Windows 8. The main difference between the two is that Windows RT is designed for ARM-based processors, which are built from the ground up to accommodate mobile devices. The regular variety of Windows 8 includes the familiar Home and Professional editions and is designed for traditional Intel processors.
This might seem like a bit of an inane technical discussion, but the two different processors and their relevant flavors of Windows 8 have some compatibility nuances. Applications designed for Windows 7 and prior versions of Windows are incompatible with Windows RT devices, since the ARM and Intel processors are fundamentally different, much like how you can't run an iPad app on a standard PC or Macintosh desktop.
The other relevant nuance between the two flavors of Windows is that certain applications designed for Windows 8 promise compatibility with both flavors of the OS. The regular Intel-based versions of Windows 8 should run just about everything targeted at the PC market, but for Windows RT, IT leaders will have to run through a bit of a mental decision tree to determine what software will work for the devices. In six months, as more software that's designed for Windows 8 appears, this will be less of a concern, but in the coming months, you'll need to ask if key enterprise applications have a Windows RT version available should you choose that route.
So, why would anyone want RT?
Rather than being forced into mental gymnastics every time you consider new software, it's tempting to simply drop Windows RT and the associated ARM-based devices from consideration. While the long-term viability of Windows on the ARM platform might be questionable, in the here and now, ARM provides three critical differentiators: price, size, and battery life.
ARM processors have long been optimized for low power use, so ARM-based devices are generally smaller and last longer than their Intel equivalents. The latter evolved from desktop computers, where power consumption and size only recently became concerns. Intel has been promising to gain parity with ARM on device size, weight, and longevity, but has been unable to do so for nearly a decade.
Price is a compelling factor as well, especially as ARM-based Windows tablets look like they'll be 20-50% cheaper than their Intel counterparts. Windows RT also includes a watered-down version of Microsoft Office, and this is a nice license savings if the user requires only basic functionality.
Further muddying the waters, Windows RT lacks some of the enterprise management functionality of its counterparts, causing some to suggest that it's primarily a consumer platform.
Which do I pick?
While I don't believe that Windows RT is solely a consumer product, one has to question the long-term viability of Windows on the ARM platform. On one hand, Microsoft probably knows more about Intel's plans and capabilities than the average CIO, and the millions they spent to deliver Windows RT makes it look like more than a one-hit wonder. On the other hand, if Intel is to be believed, an "ARM-matching" processor is just around the corner, and we can have our cake, eat it, and then brag about it on a lightweight, cheap, and long-lasting Windows-based tablet that runs all our software.
From my perspective, your choice in Windows flavor comes down to a matter of philosophy. If tablets in your organization are meant to be a user's primary computing device and must do everything from jockeying spreadsheets in accounting to running your ERP client on the shop floor, the Intel platform makes sense. The "standards" Windows 8 on a tablet lets you deploy a multi-role device that can act as laptop, tablet, and desktop, providing many of the best features of each. You'll pay monetarily for the privilege and give up some portability, but the Intel-based Windows 8 tablet looks to be fairly decent in each role.
If tablets are more of an content consumption device and designed to augment existing computing platforms, service highly mobile users who are information consumers, and also perhaps serve as the primary computing device for users to send email and browse the web, Windows RT looks compelling. You get the familiarity of a Windows platform and put all your users in front of a similar user interface vs. a Windows desktop and iPad or Android tablet.
Since Windows 8 applications will run on both flavors of Windows 8, application developers get a massive pool of potential customers, which will hopefully jump-start the development for what is essentially a new tablet OS.
In the near term, don't immediately dismiss Windows RT. Get devices with both flavors for your Windows pilot and seed some Windows RT devices with different classes of users. Ask IT to look at these devices more as iPads than inferior desktops that lack management capabilities. In the long run, if you can buy cheaper Windows RT devices for some users and wait for Intel to deliver an ARM-killer, you can seamlessly switch users with far less drama than going from iOS to Windows.
In all cases, it's exciting to see Microsoft reentering the tablet market with new thinking and new platforms.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.