Reports of the death of Windows RT have been greatly exaggerated

November 27, 2013

Despite Windows RT being a colossal failure, Microsoft may not actually kill it. (Steven Senne/AP, File)

If you've been following gadget news over the past few days, you probably saw a slew of reports about the impending death of Windows RT, Microsoft's much maligned tablet operating system. Many of those reports cite recent comments from Microsoft Devices and Studios Executive Vice President Julie Larson-Green. And she did say, "We have the Windows Phone OS. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We're not going to have three." But her comment didn't end there. Instead she continued with what sounded an awful lot like a defense of RT: "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[...] So we believe in that vision and that direction and we're continuing down that path."

Given that follow up and the state of the mobile OS market, it might actually make more sense for Microsoft to fold Windows RT into its somewhat more successful Windows Phones OS than give it the full axe.

"The goal," of RT according to Larson-Green, "was to deliver two kinds of experiences into the market, the full power of your Windows PC, and the simplicity of a tablet experience that can also be productive." To do that, they made what was essentially a closed, limited version of their full-fledged operating system that worked better on mobile devices. "It's not as flexible, you can't do as much with it," explained Larson-Green, "but it's a more seamless experience, even though more simplified." And they had a number of industry precedents for that model, including the iPad. But by branding the devices as a version of Windows rather than as its own entity, she admits they may have made a mistake: It was confusing to consumers, who wound up rejecting the platform.

In fact, Microsoft had to write off nearly $1 billion to account for the bomb of Surface RT tablets. And in the second quarter of 2013 only 200,000 units with the neutered operating system shipped. By then, its share of the tablet market was 0.5 percent,  barely above the share of the Blackberry OS. Plus, while the full-featured version of Windows 8 still lagged significantly behind Android and iOS tablets; at 4 percent market share it was eight times more popular than RT.

And that brings us to another place where Microsoft may have dropped the ball: Splintering the phone and the tablet version of their interfaces in the first place. The two biggest players in the mobile OS marketplace followed a very different approach by providing a relatively unified experience across both devices. Apple's iOS has some 32 percent of the tablet market and 13 percent of the smartphone market, whereas Android has cornered nearly 63 percent of the tablet market and a staggering 81 percent of the smartphone market.

Windows Phone still trails significantly behind iOS and Android, but by the third quarter of 2013, it had snatched up 3.6 percent of the market share with a 156 percent year-over-year change. But it's hampered by a lack of apps that result in limited functionality. Which brings us back to Larson-Green's comments: If Microsoft doesn't want to have all three operating systems in the future, it might make more sense to merge RT and Windows Phone than to just kill RT outright. That would leave Microsoft with a more robust platform that could port to both smartphones and tablets -- and hopefully mirror some of the success the same strategy has brought Apple and Google.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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