Only Microsoft and Nokia – which is in the process of selling its devices arm to Microsoft – are still making Windows RT devices; the other manufacturers who were initially involved have now all given up. And there was a notable lack of new Windows RT devices appearing at CES this year.

The positioning and marketing of the operating system has been confusing both to business and consumers. And when asked ‘Is there a future for Windows RT?’ members of TechRepublic’s CIO Jury were downbeat about its prospects.

“It is a halfway house product that that tempts you into thinking it is more than it is and can lead to frustrations due to its limitations,” said Ian Auger, head of IT and communications at UK news company ITN, while Duncan James, infrastructure manager, Clarion Solicitors said “RT is a good concept, unfortunately the rest of the world have not seen any reason to take time developing for it, certainly not as much as Microsoft would have liked. If there’s no demand, the applications simply won’t get developed.”

Michael Spears, CIO at NCCI Holdings said: “Microsoft is really marketing the concept of [the] same experience on any device. Sound good, but it’s a horrible implementation on a tablet still.

“The reduced functionality of RT apps just make it worse.  Customers are also confused over the difference between RT, Modern Apps, Windows Phone, Windows 8.1, etc.  Both Apple and Google have found the sweet spot for bringing consumer technologies to the work world, while Microsoft wants you to take your work home. The concept just isn’t that appealing.”  

John Gracyalny, VP for IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union similarly failed to see a future for Windows RT: “the only version of “mobile” Windows supported by my software vendors is Windows 8 Pro on Surface.”

Microsoft has acknowledged that change is likely to be coming. Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft’s executive vice president of devices and studios said in November: “We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We’re not going to have three.”

But even if Microsoft drops the Windows RT branding, or even ditches the OS in favour of Windows Phone on tablets, it doesn’t really change anything. That’s because the shift in emphasis embodied by Windows RT is central to Microsoft’s ‘devices and services’ evolution.

As such, it’s worth noting what Larson-Green went on to say next: “We do think there’s a world where there is a more mobile operating system that doesn’t have the risks to battery life, or the risks to security. But, it also comes at the cost of flexibility. So we believe in that vision and that direction and we’re continuing down that path.”

Windows RT was always going to be a stopgap, a bridge from Window’s past to its future. Microsoft was hoping for a glittering suspension bridge but ended up with something a lot more rickety.

The desktop mode, for example is an clunky oddity that exists because a touch first version of Office does not (the very presence of Office on these devices reflects how little Microsoft understands what motivates tablet buyers).

The lack of apps is a reflection of Microsoft’s failure to take the iPad seriously when it should have, thus losing the race for the hearts and minds of developers.

Still, Microsoft desperately needs to make a tablet device that consumers want to buy, if only to secure its place in the enterprise in the longer term and guard against erosion by Android and iOS devices.

Whether than means Windows RT will be dropped or merged with Windows Phone (or Windows Phone beefed up to power bigger devices rather than Windows RT being squeezed into a smartphone chassis) remains to be seen. It’s a transition that could take some time. But the idea of a closed, turnkey version of Windows sitting alongside the full version of Windows is something that Microsoft is unlikely to abandon.

Further reading