02:45 PM
Mike Feibus
Mike Feibus

Windows 8, RT Confusion: Can Microsoft Beat It?

Windows 8, paired with ultra-thin laptops, could add sorely-needed excitement to the PC market this holiday season. But Microsoft has a marketing problem.

8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
8 Key Differences Between Windows 8 And Windows RT
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In a few short weeks, buyers will get their first glimpse of this holiday season's PCs. By most any measure, it's an exceptional vintage of sleek, ultra-thin laptops running Windows 8. Indeed, the upcoming models represent the biggest leap over the prior year's harvest than we've seen in a long time--maybe ever.

So if you set aside all the other variables that sway how consumers apportion their electronics budgets, you'd expect PC sales to swell this quarter. That's what happened three years ago, when Microsoft replaced a dreadful OS, Windows Vista, with Windows 7. PC sales grew 22.1 percent that quarter, sharply higher than the 0.5 percent growth logged in the prior period, according to Gartner data.

Of course, you can't set aside all the other variables. The economy has been pinching consumers' wallets for four years now. At the same time, other exciting devices like HDTVs, smartphones, and tablets have been taking a bigger slice of those budgets.

[ Get expert guidance on Microsoft Windows 8. InformationWeek's Windows 8 Super Guide rounds up the key news, analysis, and reviews that you need. ]

As we head into the year's final period, HDTV's pull is waning; most of us here in the U.S. have already made the transition. Likewise, the domestic market for smartphones is maturing--more than half of this country's mobile subscribers now have smartphones--and the pace of platform innovation has slowed, at least for now. All rays of good news for the PC vendors as they reinvigorate their offerings.

The threat level from the tablet side of the aisle is a bit more difficult to gauge. On the one hand, the good news continues: U.S. tablet shipments have slowed dramatically as many Americans who've craved a companion device now have one. Also, the lines have been drawn between Amazon and Apple, the two successful players thus far, and consumers now comprehend their market models and react accordingly. The other tablet suppliers, by and large, have yet to find a formula to compel consumers.

On the other hand sits a potentially disruptive new platform. And ironically, it's from Microsoft--the same company that's bringing you Windows 8. The software giant plans to release what it calls Windows RT, a tablet version of Windows 8 for ARM processors, in concert with the PC version of the new OS. Conventional Windows 8, like all previous versions of Windows, runs on x86 processors.

More precisely, Windows RT is a tablet platform--complete with its own programming model and app store (which one day, presumably, will feature a broad selection of apps). If you're buying a tablet, which most people use to watch videos, play games, read books, scan social media, and flip through messages, the new touch-centric user interface (UI) works just fine. Just press a tile--that's what icons are called on the "Modern UI," Microsoft's go-to-market name--and sit back.

On a Windows 8 PC, you can download and make use of those apps too, because Modern UI is built in. But when you want to use a Windows 8 PC like you're doing today on a previous version of Windows, Modern UI can be downright annoying. For your bread-and-butter programs, Modern UI is a poor replacement for the old Start Menu. Unlike the Start Menu, which lay quietly in the corner of the desktop until you summoned it, Modern UI takes up the entire display, blocking your view of the desktop--and all the windows you've got open--until you click the desktop tile again. It's like the boss' nephew: a bit player elevated far beyond its capabilities.

Pardon my rant about Modern UI. This column isn't about whether the UI makes Windows better. It's about whether identical UI's on disparate platforms will confuse the market, and what that might do to holiday sales.

The potential for confusion certainly exists. And the problem comes to the fore when you consider these points:

--Microsoft plans to include the desktop tile from Windows 8--the one that takes over your PC and all the applications you've come to rely upon--on Windows RT. On an RT media tablet, though, it's a window to nowhere, because the lion's share of those programs don't work. At least you can admire the lovely wallpaper image. So there's that.

--Microsoft will bundle a no-frills version of Office for Windows RT tablets. It's good enough for consumers, by most accounts. But here's the thing: Office tiles will appear on the RT home screen. That's a confusing signal to buyers that RT is a capable replacement for Windows 8.

--Some of the more innovative Windows 8 Ultrabook designs--I'll point to Acer's Iconia W700 as an example--sport the performance of a PC in the shape of a tablet. You can convert them into clamshell laptops and even desktops with keyboard-attached covers, docking stations, and other accessories.

With that as a backdrop, picture this: a consumer walks into the store looking for a new laptop and checks out the new Acer model. It looks like a tablet. Interesting. The salesperson explains that it's a do-everything machine. Lean back and watch movies or play games like a tablet. Plus, you can hook it up to a keyboard or a dock and turn it into a powerful laptop, capable of doing all the things your computer does. Wow. Sounds great!

And then the potential buyer spies a Windows RT tablet across the aisle. It's a little smaller than the Acer. And it costs less. But when the buyer touches the display, the home screen looks the same as the one on the pricier Windows 8 system. There's even that desktop tile, the one that takes you to the Land of Windows Past.

What does the salesperson say?

That's not an easy question to answer, particularly for Microsoft. The company has a long-term goal of enabling ARM processor suppliers to compete with Intel and AMD in the Windows PC market. That's likely why there's a desktop tile on the Windows RT home screen. That's also why the UI plays so prominently in Windows 8.

So the company would like to give RT every chance to succeed. Fair enough. But as it dials in the positioning for the present, Microsoft had better not lose sight of the fact that neither RT nor the ARM players are ready to compete with x86 in the PC market. Otherwise, a lot of consumers who need new PCs may find themselves buying Windows RT tablets that don't do what they need.

And when they go to return the tablets, do you think they'll trust Microsoft enough to buy a Windows 8 PC? It's possible, I suppose.

More likely, they'll just go out and buy Macs.

Upgrading isn't the easy decision that Win 7 was. We take a close look at Server 2012, changes to mobility and security, and more in the new Here Comes Windows 8 issue of InformationWeek. Also in this issue: Why you should have the difficult conversations about the value of OS and PC upgrades before discussing Windows 8. (Free registration required.)

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