Microsoft retries Windows RT, but does it matter?

Microsoft now has a well-qualified hardware partner, software that's matured rapidly in the last year, and a complete set of Office functionality -- but is Windows RT even relevant?

Surface RT

Just shy of a year after releasing the Surface RT tablet, you would be forgiven for thinking Windows RT had largely been abandoned. However, Microsoft and Nokia, which will soon be part of the software giant, have redoubled efforts around Windows RT, creating a tablet-friendly version of Windows 8 designed to run on ARM processors. 

Nokia recently announced the Lumia 2520, a long-promised tablet that shares many of the features of the Surface, including detachable keyboard options and the Windows RT OS. On Microsoft’s part, after a few hiccups, the company released an updated version of its OS, which I recently installed on my personal Surface RT tablet. Do you think these moves can revitalize Windows RT?

Nokia’s tablet

In a tablet market dominated by Apple and Android, it’s easy to forget Nokia once pioneered tablet-like devices that connected to cellular networks. The company has long promised a tablet, although it’s somewhat of a surprise that its first foray into tablets was with the poorly received RT version of Windows. Also somewhat confusing is the fact that there’s little to differentiate the device from Microsoft’s Surface RT series of tablets. The Lumia looks to be a well-engineered piece of hardware, but few people complained about the quality of the Surface hardware, focusing instead on the OS and its inability to straddle the tablet and productivity worlds effectively.

The good news for enterprise tablet purchases is that Nokia has demonstrated it can successfully apply the popular Lumia design queues to a larger format and, as the company integrated with Microsoft, continue to deliver solid hardware. However, Nokia’s fall from grace has never been due primarily to hardware, so the success of Windows RT as a viable platform rests largely on the software.

Outlook, finally

One of the glaring problems of Windows RT is that it can't run the massive catalog of legacy Windows software that's designed for x86 processors. While the OS looks and feels like regular Windows 8, download an .EXE file, and you’ll quickly realize that it’s certainly not standard Windows. Microsoft attempted to offset this gap by including Microsoft Office with the device, with one glaring omission: Outlook was missing in action. Thus, Microsoft delivered a device purporting to offer laptop-like productivity with tablet features, but it left out a critical application. This was a major oversight, because not many road warriors would actually prefer the poor Mail application to full-fledged Outlook.

With Windows RT’s recent update, Outlook has become part of the standard suite, and it appears on the Windows RT desktop with little fuss beyond a long download and installation cycle. Nearly a year of software updates have also brought stability and usability improvements to the device, and the Office experience on Surface RT is now indistinguishable from a standard desktop. Microsoft has also sorted some of the strange behaviors of its SkyDrive cloud storage service. SkyDrive now seamlessly syncs files in the background, making RT a more viable device since your files “just appear” when disconnected.

Does RT even matter anymore?

Microsoft now has a well-qualified hardware partner, software that’s matured rapidly in the last year, and a complete set of Office functionality -- but is Windows RT even relevant? The OS was conceived largely in response to battery life concerns in the original Windows-based tablets. Devices that were lucky to get 3-4 hours away from a plug suddenly looked far less useful in a world of iPads and Android tablets that could easily achieve a full workday of battery life without recharging.

Windows RT also promised better economics, including a full suite of MS Office at nearly half the cost of a “regular” Windows tablet licensed for Office. With better processor technology, the battery life difference between x86 and ARM is becoming moot, and recent “regular” Windows tablets boast full workday batteries. The cost differential is also rapidly diminishing as well with recent tablets, checking in below $300 (USD) at the low end of the quality scale.

In the enterprise, RT might still make a great deal of sense for the average knowledge worker who spends more time in email than in any specialized applications. With no fans, lighter weight, and an OS that presents less opportunity for unauthorized application installation, a “stripped down” platform that offers tablet functionality and familiar Office applications looks somewhat compelling.

However, a larger variety of “regular” Windows tablets is coming from the major vendors -- at competitive costs and with good battery life -- and it increasingly appears Microsoft itself will be the only source of RT hardware. While current owners of Surface RT tablets will be pleasantly surprised by the functionality improvements present in the Windows RT update, it’s still a stretch to envision enterprises opting for RT over standard Windows. Do you agree or disagree? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...