Microsoft caused a stir earlier this week when an executive appeared to hint that it might kill off Windows RT, the version of its Windows 8 platform that runs on ARM-based devices. But what would this mean for Microsoft's mobile strategy and its remaining Windows platforms if this happened?
Julie Larson-Green, executive vice president of Microsoft's Devices and Studios group, made the comments while speaking at a conference earlier this week.
"We have the Windows Phone operating system [OS]. We have Windows RT and we have full Windows. We're not going to have three," she is reported to have told the audience at the UBS Global Technology Conference.
This has been widely interpreted by many as meaning that the company is planning to discontinue Windows RT, which has failed to achieve the level of sales that were expected of it. Rather than continuing to pour resources into developing and maintaining RT, many observers believe that Microsoft should just pull the platform and cut its losses.
However, this would leave Microsoft back where it started years ago: with Windows on x86 PCs, Windows Phone on smartphones, and nothing in the middle to address the consumer tablet market that Apple's iPad devices had effectively created.
Let's not forget that all of the changes that have come in Windows 8 were introduced in response to the threat Microsoft saw to Windows PCs from the iPad and other tablets, a threat that has turned into reality in the consumer space as sales of PCs have continued to decline.
Part of Microsoft's response was to build an ARM version of the platform, in order to deliver the combination of a light weight and a long battery life that devices such as the iPad enjoy, and which x86 based systems still cannot match.
But buyers have overwhelmingly opted to purchase Windows tablets with the full-blown Windows 8 version, which is capable of running existing applications designed for earlier versions of Windows.
According to Larson-Green, this is partly Microsoft's fault due to a lack of clear differentiation between the capabilities and target markets of the Windows 8 and Windows RT.
"I think we didn't explain that super well," she said. "I think we didn't differentiate the devices well enough. They looked similar. Using them is similar. It just didn't do everything that you expected Windows to do," she said.
Ovum's principal analyst for devices and platforms Tony Cripps agreed, and said that it would likely make more sense for Microsoft to instead scale up its Windows Phone 8 software into a tablet platform to replace Windows RT.
"Running the same OS on tablets as on smartphones might be a better way of tackling the tablet market. It would more clearly differentiate consumer tablets from similar form factor devices running full-blown Windows." he said. Moreover, this is effectively what Google and Apple have done with Android and iOS.
Arguably, Microsoft's platforms have been set on the path to convergence already, with the Metro-style user interface adapted from that of Windows Phone, while Windows Phone 8 rebooted the platform on an ARM-based version of the same operating system kernel used in mainstream Windows.
Long term, Microsoft may be seeking to merge all of its Windows platforms together into one version that can run across phone, tablet and PC systems. However, this would likely mean introducing new programming models that enable a single app to run on very different screen sizes and different hardware.
This could prove a serious challenge even for Microsoft, according to Cripps. "The basic problem is that you can't have one single app that will run just as well anywhere," he said.
For the immediate future, Microsoft is likely to see how well the newer devices with Windows RT 8.1 fare in the marketplace before making a decision on its future, but it could turn out to be just a blip in the long history of Windows.
In many ways this would be a shame, since Windows RT devices – with their long battery life and built-in Office applications – were a perfect fit for many mobile use scenarios. if only Windows users could see beyond the need to have an x86 chip and full Windows.
"In a world where decisions were made in a pragmatic manner, Windows RT would make a lot of sense. But I'm not sure that purchase decisions are made that way," Cripps commented.
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