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What is Windows RT? Redmond, We Have a Problem

I’ve been writing about Windows for almost 20 years, and I feel like I’ve kind of seen it all. But for the past several days, I’ve been struggling under the weight of the most brutal email onslaught I’ve ever endured over these two decades. And if my email is any indication, and I believe it is, the majority of people out there have absolutely no idea what Windows RT is.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem because, for every reasonable, probing question I get about Surface with Windows RT—the recently launched Microsoft device—I receive at least 10 questions that betray that simple truth: Most people have no idea what’s going on here.

No idea at all.

To be clear, I’m not blaming you, you person with these questions. It’s no wonder you have no idea what’s going on. Fact is, Microsoft has decided to launch a Windows RT version of its Surface three months before a Windows 8 version. And to do so without effectively communicating what, exactly, it is selling.

Put another way, on the day that Microsoft launches Windows 8 to the world—a day that is the most eagerly awaited Microsoft product launch since Windows 95—Microsoft will also launch a device that runs Windows RT, and not Windows 8.

Think about that for a minute.

And consider this: When Microsoft finally announced the pricing and availability of that (Windows RT, not Windows 8) product this week, it left out crucial technical specifications as always, even  as it allowed customers to actually pre-order the thing. Cue onslaught of questions. Cue deer in the headlamp response.

This was avoidable.

Based on my email, I have to think that most of these first customers have absolutely no idea what they’re buying. That some have still made an amazingly expensive purchase regardless, well, it boggles the mind.

Regular readers of this site already know that I’ve written about this stuff. A lot. I mean, just this week, I wrote Microsoft Surface: RT Vs. Pro, A Specifications Comparison, a way to pick between the current RT-only versions of Surface and the coming Windows 8-based versions. I published Mailbag: Microsoft Surface Special Edition, a collection of the most frequent (and reasonable) Windows RT and Surface RT questions I’ve received since the product pre-order announcement. Most important, I published How To Choose: Windows 8 Vs. Windows RT, a guide to choosing between Windows RT and Windows 8.

But people still don’t understand Windows RT.

Because of the amazing amount of email I’ve received this week, I kept my Windows Phone nearby while watching TV last night and answered dozens of emails during commercial breaks. I went to sleep with not a single email left unread. And yet I woke up to 154 non-spam emails, most about Surface and Windows RT, this morning.


Just from overnight.

Some of the questions I’m getting are absolutely amazing to me. And these emails, which are almost child-like in their lack of awareness, speaking volumes about the job that Microsoft simply is not doing communicating this product—and its differences with Windows 8—to customers.

With the understanding that I have communicated all of this stuff dozens of times, if not more, a few basics:

Windows RT is a limited version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM-based devices, not on traditional PCs.

Yes, Windows RT is compatible with most, but not all, of the Metro-style apps that also run on Windows 8. That is one advantage of this new Metro environment that graces both systems.


Windows RT will not run any desktop Windows applications beyond the applications that are bundled with the operating system. Bundled applications include virtually every single desktop application found in Windows 8—Paint, WordPad, etc.—except for Windows Media Player. It also includes a fully-functional and full-featured version of Office 2013 called Office Home & Student 2013 RT. This suite includes Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint. For the umpteenth time, it does not include Outlook.

Let me stress that point again.

Windows RT will not run any desktop applications beyond the applications that are bundled with the operating system. This means it will not run Windows Essentials 2012, Microsoft Outlook (any version), Microsoft Office (any version, beyond what’s included with RT), Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, or any other Adobe desktop application. It will not run the SkyDrive desktop application (which is part of Essentials 2012, yes, I know), meaning you cannot sync SkyDrive data to your RT device’s storage. You can only use the SkyDrive Metro app, which lets you access SkyDrive only when connected … just as with any other mobile device. It will not run iTunes. It will not run any desktop Windows application beyond what’s bundled with the OS.

Windows RT is not a computer operating system. Windows RT is an operating system for mobile devices.

Surface with Windows RT is not a computer. It is mobile computing device, like an iPad. It is a tablet, a hybrid device that bridges the gap between real PCs and media tablets, where you can work and play.

Again, I want to be very clear to readers, to the people who have emailed me with several hundred Windows RT and Surface questions this week alone. This is not your fault.

I really like Windows 8 and think Windows RT is a great long-term play against the iPad and other tablet challengers. But any excitement Microsoft generated around this launch will be squandered when people realize they just bought something that looks like Windows 8 but comes with even fewer apps than Windows Phone. That’s not a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for disaster. And I’m tired of cleaning up the mess.


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