It’s Time for Windows RT to Hibernate

The ill-conceived operating system is better off in hiding while Windows 8 gets the spotlight.

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Microsoft might still believe in Windows RT, but support from the PC business is fading fast.

Nokia is reportedly the latest company to abandon ship. Although a Windows RT tablet from Nokia has been rumored for months, sources told The Verge’s Tom Warren that the company is now working on a Windows 8 version instead.

Other tech vendors who have cancelled their Windows RT plans include Acer, HP, HTC, Samsung and Toshiba. Of the three PC makers that have released Windows RT devices, only Dell has publicly made an ongoing commitment to the operating system. It’s unclear where Lenovo and Asus stand, but neither company has announced new Windows RT devices yet.

Although Microsoft is unlikely to kill Windows RT outright, maybe it’s time for the ill-conceived operating system to fade away for a while. With poor sales, hardly any hardware support, and the potential to cause confusion with Windows 8, Windows RT is better off in hiding, while Windows 8 gets the entire spotlight to itself.

The big difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT is that the former can still install desktop software such as iTunes and Photoshop. On Windows RT, all installed programs must come from the Windows Store, a tightly-controlled marketplace similar to Apple’s App Store, but with far fewer apps. The only exceptions to this rule are a handful of pre-installed desktop apps, such as Notepad, MS Paint and a free version of Microsoft Office 2013.

The main benefit of Windows RT, at least in theory, is that it runs on the same type of system architecture as the iPad and most Android devices, known as ARM. ARM-based processors tend to be less power-hungry than typical PC processors, so they’re better-suited for thin and light tablets.

But by the time Windows RT and Windows 8 arrived last fall, the power consumption advantages of ARM-based chips had become less profound. Some of the first Windows 8 tablets weren’t much thicker, heavier or more expensive than their Windows RT counterparts. For most people, the minor benefits of Windows RT hardware were outweighed by their software restrictions.

From here, it’s only going to get bleaker for Windows RT. The next generation of low-power PC processors from Intel promise at least eight hours of battery life in thin and light tablet designs, and have outperformed ARM-based chips in some tests. Once these Intel processors, known as Bay Trail, begin showing up in Windows 8 tablets, Windows RT will become even tougher to justify.

In the meantime, Microsoft can only make weak, artificial efforts to prop Windows RT up, such as a free version of Office for users and reportedly lower licensing costs for makers of small-screen tablets. The first strategy hasn’t worked so far, and it’s unclear why tablet makers would be swayed by lower licensing when they can create equally cheap (or cheaper) tablets running Android.

Windows RT is either a few years too late or a few years too early. It might have made sense back when ARM-based processors were miles ahead of Intel in power efficiency. It may someday make sense again if the “Metro” side of Windows becomes popular enough–but only if Windows RT devices regain some distinct advantages to make giving up the desktop software worthwhile.

Until then, Windows RT is better off on the back burner, where it can’t create any marketing headaches. Perhaps Microsoft knows that much by now; when the company took to its official blog to announce Windows 8.1, it didn’t mention Windows RT even once. Although Windows RT will receive many of the same new features as Windows 8 in an update later this year, the ARM-based operating system has received none of the fanfare–as it should be.