Windows RT Is Having an Identity Crisis

If you don't keep a close eye on tech blogs--and, perhaps, even if you do--you'd be forgiven for not knowing that Microsoft will launch two new versions of Windows on October 26.

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If you don’t keep a close eye on tech blogs–and, perhaps, even if you do–you’d be forgiven for not knowing that Microsoft will launch two new versions of Windows on October 26.

One of them is called Windows 8. The other is called Windows RT. While they look identical on the surface, Windows RT has a critical distinction: It cannot install desktop applications. Some desktop applications are pre-installed, such as Paint, Notepad and a stripped-down version of Office, but anything that doesn’t come from Microsoft–stuff like iTunes, Photoshop and Google Chrome–won’t run on Windows RT hardware. The only way to get new software on a Windows RT device will be through the Windows Store, a closed ecosystem of tablet-friendly apps, similar to but much smaller than Apple’s iTunes App Store.

(MORE: The Big Launch List of Windows 8 Tablets and Hybrids)

The above paragraph is my best effort to explain the main difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT. It’s a bit verbose, and it doesn’t even get into RT’s benefits (more on that later). But it’s better than anything Microsoft has offered to consumers so far, and I’m not sure that’s going to change anytime soon.

Little Guidance So Far

Over at The Verge, Sean Hollister has a devastating account of how Microsoft has failed to explain Windows RT to its customers. He starts at the website for Microsoft’s Surface tablet, which glosses over what Windows RT can and can’t do. Then, he called several Microsoft Stores to ask about Windows RT, and came out with an embarrassment of conflicting answers and flat-out incorrect statements from employees.

Microsoft responded to Hollister’s report with a statement that said the company is currently training its store employees on the finer points of Windows RT, and that they’ll have 15 hours of training on average by the time Windows 8 launches. Employees will reportedly ask qualifying questions to shoppers to help steer them in the right direction.

It’s disconcerting that Microsoft waited until a week before launch to train its employees, but it’s not surprising. Microsoft didn’t have a clear explanation of Windows RT vs. Windows 8 when it unveiled the two operating systems a year ago, and even now the company doesn’t seem overly concerned about cluing in the average shopper.

“I don’t think a lot of people go to an Apple Store and stare at an iPad and ask if Mac Quicken runs on it,” Windows and Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky said at a Surface press event this week. The implication is that there’s an obvious difference between the tablet-centric Windows RT and full-featured Windows 8, but you can poke a huge hole in Sinofsky’s logic: The iPad’s software looks nothing like Mac OS X. It looks more like the iPhone’s interface, which makes sense because it runs the same operating system and the same apps. Windows 8, however, has the same modern-style Start screen as Windows RT. You can’t tell them apart by looking at them.

The Bitter Truth About RT

What we’re seeing, I think, is Microsoft dancing around an uncomfortable reality: Windows RT just doesn’t have much to offer, so it’s hard to explain how it’s different from Windows 8 without making it look inferior.

Unlike Windows 8, which runs on processors from Intel and AMD, Windows RT runs on a different architecture called ARM, on which most existing smartphones and tablets rely. The expectation was that Windows RT would allow for thinner, lighter, more power efficient and less expensive machines than Windows 8 ever could. But that hasn’t been the case with the tablets and hybrids we’ve seen so far.

Windows 8 tablets that run on Intel Atom processors will have starting prices of $500 to $600, just like the cheapest Windows RT tablets. They’ll get around eight or nine hours of battery life, just like RT devices, and they’re not much bulkier, if at all. Many Atom-based Windows 8 tablets are thinner and lighter than Apple’s iPad.

The only distinct advantage for Windows RT is its support for “connected standby,” a power-saving mode that lets the device keep an eye on e-mail and other apps while it’s not in use. It’s a nice feature to have, but on its own it’s a tough sell compared to Windows 8’s wider software support. (UPDATE: As Eddie Yasi points out in the comments, the Atom-based chips that Windows 8 tablets are using, codenamed Clover Trail, support connected standby as well.)

Microsoft’s Dilemma

Microsoft doesn’t make an Intel Atom-based version of Surface, and I don’t know if the company will. With Atom, Intel has proven that its processors can offer many of the benefits of ARM-based Windows RT tablets, minus the limitations. That creates a tricky situation for Microsoft as it tries to present Windows RT as the best choice for consumer tablets.

Even if other Windows 8 hybrids provide comparable performance, size and battery life, it behooves Microsoft to push Surface, because every sale of a Windows RT device translates to a consumer locked into Microsoft’s Windows Store. The future of Windows hinges on hooking people into the new modern interface and its tablet-optimized apps. Downplaying the need for legacy software–or better yet, selling hardware that can’t support legacy applications to begin with–helps further that goal.

So although Microsoft will train its store employees to know the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT, I suspect they’ll continue to downplay it. There’s just too much riding on the success of Windows RT, even as the reasons for its existence diminish.

MORE: Microsoft Surface: The Price Is Out but Mysteries Remain