By mid-2015 at the latest, Windows RT will likely cease to exist a distinct product within Microsoft’s line-up. While this may seem like a bold, hyperbolic prediction to make the fact is that the ascendancy of Satya Nadella to position of CEO and Microsoft’s launch of multi-platform versions of Office mobile software were the final nails in the coffin, and we can expect to see RT development projects increasingly and quietly moved under the category of Windows Phone development.
Microsoft figures themselves have increasingly been echoing, alluding to and even directly stating this is their strategy for a while now. Larson Green, Executive VP of Products and Devices at Microsoft stated back in November that MS weren’t “planning to maintain 3 versions of Windows”.
She went on to say that ”We do think there’s a world where there is a more mobile operating system that doesn’t have the risks to battery life, or the risks to security. But, it also comes at the cost of flexibility. So we believe in that vision and that direction and we’re continuing down that path,” this seems to mirror Microsoft’s strategy so far, with Todd Brix announcing the company would unify different versions of the Windows Store and Windows Phone development program. This was further cemented by news in February this year that the latest development kits for Windows Phone 8.1 showed support for “universal apps”.
It’s important to remember that Microsoft’s initial reason for launching RT was to have a power-friendly, mobile OS that ran on ARM architecture, utilizing their SoC designs to afford potential users better battery life. There was, of course, a time when there was a good reason to adopt such a strategy as only ARM-based chips provided the sort of power efficiency necessary for mobile devices that also wanted to take a stab at being HD media players and enterprise software devices. However, this is no longer the case.
In fact, as far back as 2012 Intel’s Medfield (now outdated) chips were outperforming most contemporary ARM chips on battery life using Intel’s x86 architecture, a trend that has been born out in an increasingly large body of benchmarking tests and reports, underscoring Intel’s superiority in battery life over ARM. More recently, Apple has shown that solid battery life is possible even on x64 SoCs with highly capable GPUs. Therefore, the argument that RT’s viability rests on the battery life that ARM affords hasn’t been true for some time.
The most important reason why the writing is on the wall for RT is predictably the most talked about and discussed reason; namely the lack of apps. It’s crucial to remember that RT planned to save battery life precisely by locking the consumer down to OEM and Microsoft software already included on the device. While RT devices do now offer apps, this initial aversion has cost Microsoft dearly and app development on RT platforms remains woefully limited. Of course, this has to be taken in context with the fact that Dell, Microsoft’s last remaining OEM manufacturing partner for RT devices, quietly decided to abandon it last October, joining a long list of manufacturers who have seen it as a sinking ship (HP, Asus, Lenovo and Samsung among others).
What role new CEO Satya Nadella may play in shaping this more streamlined mobile and OS strategy is, as yet, unclear (expect no big change in strategy until after Microsoft FY end in June). However, the decision to release iOS and Android versions of Office may be taken as an initial litmus test for what may be an eventual deprecation of the RT brand as a whole. It may also signal a more ambitiously openly approach to development as compared to Ballmer, who was supposedly reticent about any such release until late 2013, when he experienced what has been described as a ”change of heart”, or more appropriately, an acknowledgment of business reality, depending upon your level of cynicism. Whats clear however is that Microsoft as a company does not price Office highly enough to value its exclusivity above the potential rewards of building a larger, multi-platform install base.
RT’s future therefore does not lie in complete abandonment of what was developed in the RT name, but rather in its integration into a more streamlined OS offering from Microsoft themselves. This will likely consist of a stripped down Windows Phone OS with 8.1 as its core and 8.1 itself, with UI scalability between Desktop and Tablet to overcome some of their more egregious mistakes with 8.