[Windows] RT is Dead…NOT

If you’ve been reading [other] recent blog posts by certain industry commentators interpreting statements made by Microsoft’s Julie Larson-Green at last week’s UBS Global Technology Summit you may well be thinking that Windows RT is dead. You may be thinking that Microsoft is planning to reduce their stable of Windows operating systems (Windows, RT, and Phone) from three to two, and you’d be right. However, what most people are reading into Julie’s comments is the impending doom of Windows RT and I for one think that’s a gross misreading of the proverbial tea leaves.

What Julie and other Microsoft leaders have said is that under the One Microsoft initiative the company is working hard to bring their various technologies together to create new products and experiences by tightly integrating properties that have too long been separated by internal politics and silos. They’ve also said that they want to work towards a day when one app can run on all platforms – not a “port” of the app, but one app for all platforms. Recently they’ve taken some public baby steps in that direction by starting to consolidate the developer store experiences, or at least allowing developers access to both Windows and Phone with a single account (hey, it’s a start). Taking all that in and looking at Julie’s talk of trimming down Windows you get a very interesting picture forming and it’s not one of RT lying on its death bed.

First of all One Microsoft would really like to have just One Windows. Period. They’ve clearly been working towards that and the hard evidence is there in front of us today; every version of Windows 8, from server to phone, is running a shared OS kernel. What’s more is that if you have a Windows Store application it already runs on the Server, Windows, and RT. In fact the only machine left out of the “runs on all Windows” story right now is the phone (if you don’t count Xbox…which we’ll talk about in bit…).

Second, while the RT haters out there like to say “RT sucks because it can’t run Windows software”, the thing is it can run Windows software (in fact it does run Windows software) and if you’re talking about Windows Store apps it runs them all just fine. Of course that’s not what the naysayers are really talking about – they’re complaining that you can’t take some random Windows Desktop application, let’s pick “Quick Books”, and run it on RT. They’re right of course, for two reasons; Windows RT has been compiled to run on ARM processors whereas pretty much all Windows applications are built for x86 processors (think Intel and AMD primarily). Without recompiling the applications to target the ARM processor there’s no way it can run on RT since the CPU’s “language” is entirely different between ARM and x86 (and that’s hardly RT’s fault). In fact we saw this same thing happen in the Mac world when Apple switched from the Power PC to Intel – some companies were unable to run on the new Intel-based Macs for a year or more while they rebuilt their applications for the new processor.

However, even if you could recompile your application for ARM you’d still have a problem; Microsoft artificially restricts Desktop applications from running on RT [unless signed by Microsoft]. There could be any number of reasons why this is and I’ve never read a single concrete answer but my own feeling on it is that the Desktop on RT was never intended to be there to run applications in the first place. I think that the presence of the Desktop is simply there because at the time Windows 8 released Microsoft was under enormous pressure to have a credible tablet offering and there simply wasn’t time to recreate every single UI in the OS in a new touch-friendly “Modern” way. Add to that the decision to include MS Office with RT [a fantastic marketing decision IMHO] and Microsoft was basically screwed; they had to include the Desktop because there was no way in the world they had the time to rewrite the Office product in the Modern style. Having the Desktop was a hack, not intended to be a feature, but the public saw RT as just a “smaller” Windows, a complete Windows with a Desktop and everything. This drove expectations about what RT should be and what was missing, and the public was confused and disappointed to find out that they couldn’t run their old Desktop software on it. I contend that if Microsoft had been able to release RT without any Desktop at all then the messaging would have been clearer and the whole “RT controversy” would have been nonexistent.

So, imagine that RT doesn’t really have a Desktop – what you see there is just a temporary “host” for UI that hasn’t yet been replaced with Modern equivalents [trust me on this]. Imagine that RT is a touch-first (only) OS that runs on ARM and has been ported to devices of all sorts. In terms of Modern Windows Store apps it can run everything that all other versions of Windows 8 can run, except Windows Phone, and you don’t even need to use your imagination for that.

Now let’s look back at the One Microsoft, One Windows concept again and Julie Larson-Green’s comments. Microsoft wants one OS platform with a unified application model where any Modern app can run on any Windows-based platform. When you look at this in the proper context it becomes clear that it’s not RT that’s the odd OS out, it’s Windows Phone. That’s the only place where Windows Modern apps don’t currently run and while the Phone OS does share some kernel code with “big Windows” it’s obviously not enough to support the full app ecosystem. What’s needed is a more complete implementation of Windows that will run on the processors used by the phones…an ARM processor.

By now the end game should be coming into pretty clear focus; Microsoft is working hard to finish the “modernization” of Windows RT so it can remove the final dependencies on the desktop. They’re also working very hard to produce a Modern version of the all-important Office suite so it no longer needs the Desktop either. I suspect we’ll see both of those coming together by mid-2014, probably released as part of a Windows 9 or 8.2 update.

Once that work is completed Microsoft will not only have a “pure” touch-first tablet OS but they’ll have their new Windows Phone OS too. That move probably won’t happen in 2014 but I’d be shocked to not see it by mid-2015. In the meantime we’ll see updates to the development SDKs and tweaks to the current Phone OS that bring the programming interfaces closer together, easing the transition for the eventual move to a Windows-on-ARM-based phone platform. It’s possible that Microsoft may include some sort of runtime “shim” to allow Windows to run current Phone apps without recompiling them, and it would be a smart move, but I’m sure they’ll also be encouraging developers to do a “native port” of their applications to the new SDKs in order to take advantage of new features, improved performance, etc. etc.

Oh, and that Xbox thing, well Xbox One also includes a version of Windows onboard and so it’s a very small leap indeed to imagine a world where you can create a Modern application [or game] that with one code-base runs on all Windows platforms, including desktops, tablets, phones, and the Xbox One game console. One Windows – its closer than you may think and Microsoft will get there not by killing off RT but by finishing the project they started when they first began porting Windows to ARM as part of a touch-first reimagining of Windows.

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