When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer admitted that sales of the company’s much-hyped Surface tablet had been “modest”, it did little more than raise a few eyebrows. Then, a few days later, the chief of the company’s Windows division, Steven Sinofsky, resigned.
It’s difficult to know whether Microsoft’s Windows 8 ecosystem is really meeting expectations within the company, but what’s becoming increasingly apparent is how haphazardly the RT platform fits into that vision.
As software developers try to get to grips with the two incompatible environments – one for Intel x86 and the other for ARM – it seems that the differences may hamstring Windows RT more than originally anticipated.
“[Windows RT] is a new stack that’s come out of the Windows division. In many ways it’s similar to the .NET framework and platforms, but there are some nuances,” said Microsoft cloud partner Aditi’s chief technology officer, Wade Wegner.
“I was taking an old app that I’d built for WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation] and moving it into RT. I found that some of the things, for example for painting stacking controls, didn’t exist, and it would throw up exceptions like ‘not implemented’,” he said.
Wegner suggested that “there’s still going to be quite a lot you’ll have to implement specifically for in the Windows RT run-time when not just using the Windows 8 app itself”.
Erwin Visser, senior director at Microsoft, speaking at a recent UK press showcase of Windows 8 and its associated tablet devices, claimed that Windows RT is “giving additional choice and devices to [Microsoft’s] enterprise customers... It can be used for specific, specialised business cases, including the need for greater battery life”.
Visser added that the plan for Windows RT is to support “all apps from the Windows store, so they can run side-by-side, and that includes Office components, including Excel and OneNote”. Visser said that the Surface is his idea of a great tablet. The tone at the event, though, was almost apologetic and not particularly encouraging.
Otherwise strong supporters of Microsoft's ecosystem have also expressed concern. Acer chairman and CEO JT Wang, for example, revealed that the company had shied away from releasing its own RT tablet after a fierce internal debate.
HP, too, decided against producing Windows RT-based devices. Executive vice president of personal systems at HP, Todd Bradley, has called the interface “slow and a little kludgey”.
And it isn't just hardware partners that are wary of becoming early adopters. At the end of Visser's press conference for Surface RT, two of the three partner organisations that Microsoft had brought along as “show ponies” for the event admitted that they had no plans to buy any Windows RT device.
“We’re not planning to use [RT],” said Edwin MacGillavry, deputy director of the Bureau for Criminal Law Studies of the Dutch Public Prosecution Service. “We want full security possibilities. Security is paramount, so from that point of view we’ll not be using the RT machines for the moment.”
Peter Scott, a consultant at telecoms giant BT, was of a similar mind: “It's the same for us. I don’t think we’ll see BT adopting any RT devices.”
While MacGillavry added that his organisation may offer Windows RT devices to employees as “a companion device”, his comments were far from a resounding endorsement.
The trouble is that Windows RT is more challenging to develop for because of the incompatibilities with “mainstream” Windows 8, as well as the restrictions deliberately built into the platform.
RT devices can only run software down-loaded from Microsoft’s app store, which remains a fairly sparsely stocked shop, and are incompatible with legacy Windows applications – or even apps that run on other versions of Windows 8. Microsoft’s RemoteApp client can be used to run Windows 7 applications over a server, but that’s the only non-app store option to date.
The expression “shaky start” does not begin to describe RT’s predicament, what with enterprise users, hardware vendors and consumers all turning their back on the operating system before it has even been in the shops for a month.
Unless Microsoft takes quick action to make RT more attractive to users, it could be consigned to oblivion when its feature-rich sibling Surface Pro appears in early 2013.