In 1993, Microsoft introduced Windows NT. Unlike Windows 3.1–and, later, Windows 95 and 98–it could run on processors made by companies other than Intel or AMD. Windows NT supported several chips that had little traction in the PC market, but the land grab yielded little. By the time NT’s successor Windows 2000 came along, Microsoft was back in bed with its main PC chip partners. Hardly a defeat, that set the stage for future popular operating systems such as Windows XP and Windows 7, solidifying the “Wintel” dominance in PCs.
But the release of the iPad in 2010 touched a nerve: a nerve of touch. Microsoft watched as the iPhone had upended the phone industry. Now the iPad was getting dangerously close to the size and functionality of a laptop. This would not stand (well, at least not without a Smart Cover).
Microsoft planned a twofold counterattack with Windows 8. It would graft a Windows Phone-like touch interface atop the familiar desktop, and it would support chips based on technology developed by ARM (like the ones used in the iPad and most other tablets and phones) with a version called Windows RT. Like Windows 8, Windows RT would support the new wave of iPad-like touch apps, but, unlike Windows 8, it would not work with apps written for the old-school Windows interface. There would be one exception: Microsoft rejiggered (most of) Microsoft Office to run on Windows RT and included it for free.
Windows RT would power a new generation of inexpensive, touch-enabled laptops that broke the laptop mold. An early example was Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga, which pioneered the convertible laptop in which the keyboard rotates on a hinge behind the screen. Asus introduced a 2-in-1 system in which the Windows RT-powered tablet section could be removed from the keyboard base. Microsoft itself was Windows RT’s biggest booster, supporting it through two generations of its Surface hybrid tablet.
When compared to Windows 8-based devices, Windows RT-based designs offered better battery life, thinner designs which didn’t require cooling fans, and lower prices. This was clear in the comparison between Microsoft’s first Surface and Surface Pro. From the beginning, though, there were signs of trouble. Major PC companies such as HP and Dell passed on Windows RT. The new touch interface got in the way of the “real work” people did in the desktop interface. Because consumers didn’t value the touch interface, the apps didn’t come, and that left Windows RT’s app selection lacking compared to the iPad and Android tablets.
Microsoft wrote down a huge loss relating to poor sales of the Windows RT-based Surface. A Windows RT-based Surface Mini slated to be introduced alongside the Surface Pro 3 was reportedly scuttled at the last moment. Though Microsoft still hasn’t formally said that Windows RT is toast, the final blow came when the company announced that Windows RT devices would not have an upgrade path to Windows 10–a particularly damning move given that it will offer Windows 10 for smaller tablets and phones that use ARM technology. (All Windows Phones have used ARM-based processors.)
Windows RT was a bet that Microsoft could attract a library of touch-centric apps. Its failure to do so led to the collapse of the operating system and the devices it powered. Windows RT’s failure demonstrated painfully how much Windows users care about backward compatibility, a lesson that Microsoft is taking to heart in Windows 10, which sports a user interface that is much more palatable to those who passed on it and Windows 8 because of the misguided overemphasis on touch.
Windows RT flopped with consumers and developers, but it was ultimately a triumph for Microsoft. Only after the announcement of Windows RT did its main partner Intel ramp up its chips’ power efficiency to the point where they could compete with ARM chips for use in thin, fanless devices with long battery life.
At the high end of the market, this has been demonstrated by the Core M processor used in the new fanless MacBook and many Windows PCs to come. At the price-conscious end, it’s shown by the Intel Atom-powered Surface 3, the new model in what had been an ARM-based product line. As the iPad scared Microsoft into competing with Apple for tablets and low-cost laptops, Windows RT scared Intel into designing competitive chips to power those devices.
Once Intel started producing chips that could compete with ARM-based ones used in Windows RT devices and deliver backward compatibility, the game was over for Windows RT. Microsoft’s denial of a Windows 10 upgrade path for the relatively few who bought Windows RT-based devices is disappointing for those who bet on Windows’ future of touch-based apps or just wanted a good deal on a lightweight device that ran Office.
Of course, the larger battle is far from over. While Microsoft and Intel seem to have prevented the iPad and other ARM-based devices from seriously cannibalizing laptop sales, the dominant PC companies have a small share of the tablet market. Nonetheless, Windows RT opened the PC industry’s eyes to what a tablet-laptop hybrid could be: energy-efficient, productivity-enhancing, and versatile enough to quickly shift between traditional document creation and streaming media consumption. May that be its epitaph.