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Windows 8.1

Most press reviewers and bloggers agree there’s little wrong with the Microsoft Surface 2 hardware. Microsoft gets credit for bringing its tablet hardware up to date.

There’s a different story with the tablet’s software. Scan the news feeds and you’ll find Windows RT 8.1  comes in for almost as much criticism as the original Windows RT.

Is this justified?

Windows 8.1 RT is a small update on the operating system that shipped with the original Surface RT tablet. For most of the time it looks and behaves exactly the same as Microsoft’s desktop operating system: Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 RT perceptions

This is where problems begin, because Windows 8.1 RT can’t do all the things that a desktop operating system can. More precisely, it can’t run full Windows applications. That means users are locked out of the Windows apps they’ve used in the past. It also means they no longer have millions to choose from.

You can’t run Photoshop or install the Chrome browser as an alternative to Internet Explorer. You can’t run some cloud services that have Windows clients.

On the other hand you can run any of the apps in the Windows Store. Some of the traditional Windows apps come in Windows Store versions for RT, but many don’t. It would pay to look at the store to check it meets your needs before plonking down cash for Surface 2.

The wrong Windows?

Microsoft has a product for people who want to run Windows apps on a tablet. It’s called the Surface Pro 2 – prices start at $1300, roughly twice the price of a Windows RT tablet.

At least part of Windows RT’s problem is confusion about the difference between the two product ranges. Given that the OS looks like Windows and acts like Windows,  people expect it to do everything full-blown Windows can.

This is essentially a marketing and perception problem for Microsoft. It doesn’t help that the flip-side of the logic could be framed as ‘you pay less money and get an inferior experience’.

How Apple deals with this

You could ask yourself why Apple doesn’t face exactly the same problem. The iPad’s operating system is equally limited when compared to the Mac’s operating system.

There’s a clue in the names. Apple calls its tablet OS iOS, while the desktop OS is called OS X. If Apple had launched iPads with OS X RT, it may have run into similar problems.

Which brings up to an interesting point. How does Windows 8.1 RT compare with iOS 7?

It’s certainly a different experience. You may find cast iron reasons why you consider one better than the other, but most of that is a matter of taste and need.

Where Office fits

Windows 8.1 RT comes with plenty of software. There’s a version of Microsoft Office which looks and behaves just like the desktop version. Not so long ago, you’d pay more for a single copy of Office than you pay now for a Surface 2 with the software installed.

Office works with Skydrive, so you can work with files on the move, then make changes to the same documents from a desktop computer later. Or on a smartphone. The new version of RT comes with a full copy of Outlook, an  important productivity tool for companies committed to Microsoft’s technology stack.

Overall Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT works well. I found the touch controls in Windows 8 were clunky and awkward on a desktop, on a 10-inch screen they make perfect sense. Everything is well signposted with big clear buttons to tap and lots of navigation help.

Cognitive leap

There’s a cognitive leap you have to make – particularly if you’ve used other tablets – because many screens are quite minimal. This keeps things tidy and uncluttered. What isn’t immediately obvious is that there are screens and menus behind these screens which you get at through swipe gestures from the edge of the display.

Once you grasp this, you’ll find Windows 8.1 RT can be as productive as any tablet. Possibly more so. I wouldn’t describe it as intuitive. I would say that finding your way around isn’t hard.

Multi-tasking is much improved over the original Windows 8 RT. It’s now practical to have two windows open at the same time, making it easier for tasks such as cutting and pasting between apps.

Where’s the desktop?

Long-time Windows 8 users will notice there’s no desktop button on the 8.1 RT start page. That’s because you mainly don’t need to go there. However, the one aspect of Windows 8.1 RT I dislike most is that the Office apps all work on the desktop. So there’s a jarring transition between what was formerly known as the Metro interface and the old-school Windows desktop when you switch to Office.

Personally, I would have been happier if Microsoft had created Metro-style versions of the Office apps. I don’t know whether the company chose not to maintain full compatibility with the desktop version or whether Microsoft just hasn’t got around to modernising the apps yet. Either way, this discontinuity is annoying.

So to answer my original question, is the media criticism of Windows 8.1 RT justified? We certainly need to stay critical but some of the negativity is overstated.

Work needed on sales and marketing

Microsoft and the people in retail stores selling the Surface 2 could do a better job of managing customer expectations. I heard a sales person, wrongly, tell a customer an earlier RT device had a full copy of Windows. That doesn’t help. More retail training and clearer advertising may help.

The switch to desktop when using Office is not enough to dismiss the OS. For people who don’t need powerful desktop apps like Photoshop – let’s face it, that means most people – a Surface 2 tablet will be all the computer they need. RT’s limitations are not such a big deal for 90 percent of the population.

Windows 8 red

Mauricio Freitas asks Are we seeing the death of Windows RT? It’s a fair question.

Think about it for a moment and you’ll realise it begs an even bigger question: Can Microsoft breathe life back into Windows?

This might seem crazy given the sheer number of Windows devices in circulation. Microsoft’s installed base is significant and can’t be underestimated, but Windows’ relevance appears to be eroding with each tick of the clock. And by extension, Office is growing less important too.

Today RT, tomorrow all Windows?

RT is a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Microsoft. The problem goes back a decade, but came to the fore when Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Although Microsoft’s complacency before the iPhone wasn’t good, it was understandable.

At the time, the dollars were still rolling in. Google may have nibbled at Microsoft’s edges, but the core product lines, Windows, Office and server software, all enjoyed market dominance and that meant solid margins and profits.

When the iPhone dropped, everything changed. The revolution was obvious to everyone almost immediately. Everyone except Microsoft.

Within months it was clear computing had altered course, from 2007 on the PC’s fate was sealed. The future was mobile devices.

In 2010, Apple’s iPad consolidated the revolution.

No Microsoft answers

Microsoft had no answer to the iPhone in 2007. It took the company five years to get a credible alternative – Windows Phone 8 – out the door.

When the iPad arrived in April 2010, Microsoft had no answer. It took two and half years to get Windows RT to market, almost three years to get the Surface Pro on to the streets.

Three years is a long time in technology. Too long.

Microsoft assumed customers, especially business customers, would wait while it developed a Windows tablet. Most didn’t wait. They chose iPads or even Android devices. Companies bought them by the container load, individuals gave their CIOs palpitations as the phrase BYOD entered the lexicon.

Microsoft’s July 2103 scorecard

On Friday Microsoft’s share price fell 10 percent as investors finally understood how bad things are. Here’s a quick stocktake:

  • PC sales plummeting. Ultrabooks not happening. Barely any interest in touch screen PCs.
  • Weak Windows Phone 8 sales, lack of interest from smartphone partners other than ailing Nokia.
  • Windows RT a basket case.
  • Slow Surface sales.
  • Little interest in third-party Windows tablets.
  • Disappointing Windows 8 sales, humiliating partial u-turn with 8.1.
  • CEO widely regarded (rightly or wrongly) as out of touch with market reality.

None of this suggests Microsoft is doomed. Nor is Windows likely to die in the near future. It does suggest the company is no longer a market leader and its star is waning. It also suggests that Windows will decline in importance and the rivers of gold from operating systems and Office could slow to a trickle.

It’s hard to see Intel’s battery-sipping Haswell processors as anything other than the final nail in Windows RT’s coffin.

Microsoft’s cut-down version of Windows for tablets with weedy processors was always a difficult value proposition. In hindsight it looks like no more than a holding strategy to keep Windows in the tablet game while hardware makers prepared their next generation devices.

RT’s one saving grace was that it allowed Windows tablets to work all day on a single charge. Intel’s new chips can do that and deliver enough power for a real tablet operating system.

Few hardware brands have stuck with RT. The devices haven’t been a sales hit despite competitive prices and preloaded Office applications.

Microsoft’s marketing of RT was missing in action, I don’t remember seeing any promotional material except while at product demonstrations arranged for journalists.

Windows RT may limp on, making it into smaller – that’s below 10 inch – tablets.

Typically an RT device is two-thirds the price of a tablet running the full version of Windows 8. Microsoft may sharpen its pencil to lower the price of RT on smaller tablets.

Even that may not be enough to save the tablet operating system. It’s now just a matter of time.

Windows 8 isn’t selling as fast as earlier Microsoft operating systems. Many customers who have the software dislike it so much they use add-ons to mask features. Windows Phone 8 is the fastest-growing smartphone OS but has a tiny market share.

Both problems are solvable.

On the other hand, Windows RT looks beyond saving.

IDC estimates Windows RT sold around a million units by the end of March. That’s after six months on the market. In comparison, Apple sells well over a million iPads every week.

RT suffers from being almost-a-desktop-OS in a non-desktop device. And there’s that clumsy business of needing to switch to desktop mode to handle certain tasks.

Windows 8, that’s the full version not RT, works great on more powerful tablets and touchscreen PCs. If you must have Windows on a portable device, that’s the best way to go – even if it is expensive. HP’s Elitepad shows how this can work.

Although it has detractors, Windows Phone 8 is a fine smartphone OS.

Microsoft could have used Windows Phone 8 as its tablet OS. That’s what Apple did. The software running an iPad comes from the iPhone, not from the Macintosh.

It looks like the market has spoken and its response to RT is ‘no thanks’. This may change If reports of a 7-inch Windows tablet are correct and Microsoft delivers something compelling. Otherwise, RT is doomed.

Phillip Smith comments on my story about Microsoft matching Apple’s tablet pricing.

He argues the iPad is as different from the PC as the PC is different from the minicomputer. Smith goes on to say Apple has moved to the new era while Microsoft is still stuck in last-era thinking.

An interesting point.

I disagree partly because the post-PC era is so young, we still don’t know where it is going.

And anyway, Microsoft is having an each-way bet.

Microsoft’s double-edge strategy

There are two Microsoft Surfaces. One has Windows 8, the other has Windows RT.

Both Surfaces are closer to the PC model than Apple’s iPad. They are stepping-stones on the post-PC path. The iPad was a great leap forward. Although Apple and Microsoft are heading in roughly the same direction, their tracks are not parallel.

The Windows 8 version is, essentially, a PC dressed in tablet clothes. It runs PC software and will largely be used as a PC replacement. Microsoft’s subliminally emphasises this in all the promotional material – you almost never see a Surface tablet without a keyboard. Which is not a huge step from the Ultrabook.

The more tablet-like Windows RT device will only run apps from Microsoft’s app store and it offers better battery life.

Presumably corporations will love the Windows 8 tablet as it stays in their comfort zone. The RT device is more likely to appeal to consumers.

While many Surface customers will at least have considered an iPad before opting for Microsoft’s tablet. It won’t be true the other way around.

Think Ultrabook

You can connect the dots like this:

  • Old school PC,
  • Ultrabook,
  • Touch screen Ultrabook
  • Windows 8 Surface
  • Windows RT Surface
  • iPad.

Sure Windows 8 is a brave, risky, out-on-a-limb departure for Microsoft. But it is still Windows. It is still essentially a personal computer operating system. Even on a tablet. Even when reworked for touch controls. Maybe not so much with RT, but even that version is still a PC operation system.

Underlining this, Surface runs Microsoft Office. An umbilical cord back to the PC mothership.

Sure, there are people who use iPads like PCs, but one can also work on those devices in an entirely non-PC like manner. Theoretically that’s also a possibility on the Surface. I just don’t expect many Surface users will end up using it that way.

None of this is about one device being better or worse. They are tools designed from different philosophical perspectives and, best of all, they offer a real choice, not just cosmetic differences.