Windows RT’s Future Remains Bright as Intel Continues to Struggle in Mobile

As the first batch of SP3s (Surface Pro 3s) were shipped into the hands of eager fans and enthusiasts over this weekend, Windows RT seems to have been forgotten in the conversation. The SP3 has achieved many of the advantages the first generation Surface RT held including long battery life, a somewhat lower price point, and a superior form factor.

A peruse back down memory lane to the Sinofsky era at Microsoft reminds us the that Windows RT was met with resistance from the very beginning. First, the naming of Windows on ARM to Windows RT was universally panned by technology media and technology enthusiasts alike. To make matters worse Windows 8’s platform architecture was named WinRT (Windows Runtime). The two similar names also caused a great deal of confusion. It’s a running joke that the naming of Windows RT is among the reasons Sinofsky was fired.

The hardware also proved to be problematic too. While Microsoft announced a number of Windows RT partners at the launch of Windows 8 almost all of them either dropped our stopped production of their tablet. The lone exception was of course Nokia with the Lumia 2520. Most OEMs were extremely slow to adopt touch screens and tablet or hybrid form factors.   Microsoft’s own hardware did not fare much better than its partners. The launch of the Surface RT came out to mixed reviews. The performance on the NVidia Tegra 3 was woefully inadequate, and it took nearly a year of software updates to improve the situation. The NVidia Tegra 4 chipset was dramatically better with the Surface 2, but the damage had already been done. Surface RT is perceived as product that is sluggish and slow. produced the tablet by the thousands. It took a $900 million charge on the hardware about a year ago. A brand new Surface RT can still be bought on ebay for under $250.

Ecosystem problems have not helped either. The Windows Phone store ecosystem still remains more robust than the Windows Store. Popular apps have been slow to come to Windows 8. The problem magnified on Windows RT as the OS cannot run legacy x86 applications since it runs a different chipset. Popular video player VLC which raised nearly $75,000 to create a Windows RT app nearly two years ago has still not delivered on its promise. Microsoft’s own WinRT Office application suite has still not been delivered either.

Despite all this, from a technical perspective Windows RT is an amazing achievement. In less than three years Microsoft fully ported Windows to run on an ARM chipset. In fact the father of Windows NT, Dave Cutler, wanted Windows to run of the RISC-based chip from MIPS. He had demanded that his programmers write code that would work on any processor, rather than Intel x86-specific code, which might have been faster but would have been less portable. Of course over time Intel came to dominate. And up to Windows 8 Microsoft has been exclusively supporting Intel chips for Windows. During that time Intel faced little competition except for AMD for a short period of time.

However the rise and ubiquity of ARM-based mobile devices has been problematic for Intel. ARM chips have classically held three major advantages lower price, smaller size, and energy efficiency. With the rise of the iPhone/iPad and android smartphones ARM chip usage has skyrocketed. Apple and Samsung have begun developing their own chips based on the ARM architecture. Microsoft choose to support Qualcomm based ARM chips for Windows Phones.

Intel’s mobile chips are used by almost nobody and most analyst say they are still three generations behind ARM chips. With tablet PCs Intel’s chips are still quite power hungry and their current roadmap does not point to fully solving this problem until 2016. Intel is still acting slowly as if nothing is wrong, there is no reason the company should not have been dominant in the mobile space. In fact Intel’s chip still do not contain an integrated 4G/LTE solution. Microsoft’s rumored 8-inch Surface mini will be based on Qualcomm’s ARM chips instead of using Intel’s chips. For smaller form factors Intel’s chips are still not ideal.

Microsoft decision to support ARM is ultimately good for consumers. More choice is always better for consumers. The success of Windows 8 will in fact mean the success of Windows RT. As more apps run on  the WinRT platform and legacy desktop applications fade away more Windows tablets based on ARM chipsets will be available at lower price points. The non-pro Surface line-up is significantly cheaper than the pro line-up.

Pundits who have consistently dismissed Windows RT are fundamentally being anti-consumer choice. More choice and more competition always benefits consumers. While in the short term Microsoft has stumbled in its execution of Windows ARM, these problems were not completely unexpected either. The new wave of consumer devices iPhones, iPads, Samsung Android smartphones, etc. are all utilize ARM based chips. Microsoft needs to continue its investment in Windows RT, it will pay off as Windows 8 (or 9) continues to succeed and grow.