We’ve all seen the ads for Windows Surface devices, but did you know that there are two completely separate operating systems for that Microsoft tablet device? Surface hardware is available with the conventional Intel x86 processors or with the low-powered ARM CPUs, and since the latter is not compatible with any software that runs on traditional desktop and laptop computers it required an entirely different Operating System (OS). To differentiate the two, Windows 8 is the x86 version and the ARM version is entitled Windows RT. Their user interface (UI) is the essentially identical love it or hate it Metro-Modern purple-tile-monster except that while Windows 8 can run anything that works on any Microsoft OS, Windows RT runs just about nothing. Should your company invest in Surface RT devices? Perhaps if you have a penchant for short-lived OS curiosities like Microsoft Bob.

Short-and-not-so-sweet life

Windows RT may have had a short-and-not-so-sweet life to parallel the infamous Bob OS, as industry leading technical site DigiTimes recently reported that The Windows on ARM OS was going to be merged into the upcoming Windows Blue and no longer have products launched for that line. Even the most optimistic forecasts show Windows RT struggling to achieve a 1.9% share of 2013 sales in a tablet market dominated by Apple’s expected 100 million iPad shipments. Why is RT sinking below the Surface? To explain the fizzle, observers point to the utter failure of Microsoft’s $1.4 billion annual advertising budget in explaining to consumers what Windows RT is and how it differs from Windows 8. This turned out to be a very difficult task as considerable effort has been expended in making the two OSs look as identical as possible on the Surface (will the Surface puns ever end?).

Cannibalized Surface Pro

The Windows RT strategy would have made perfect sense a couple of years back when ARM CPUs dominated the low end mobile market, but with Intel and AMD stepping up to the plate with extremely capable very inexpensive x86 processors with extremely low electricity demands to extend battery life, the necessity to have an ARM-only OS has long vanished. Windows RT ended up doing nothing but cannibalizing Microsoft’s own Surface Pro line of tablets which run Windows 8 and actually allow their owners to use any software that they have on their desktop and laptop computers.

Cloned OS

Much of the confusion between Windows RT and 8 stems from the fact that not only the OS is cloned, but that the ARM version of the OS sports a basic application of Microsoft Office. This inclusion led the uninitiated consumer to conclude that, hey, there’s a tablet that runs the Metro-Modern interface and Microsoft Office, so I’ll be able to run everything else I have. That conclusion proved disastrously wrong as the only applications that can be installed on RT devices are the ones downloaded from the specific section of the Windows online store, and they are extremely limited in variety and scope… so limited in fact that Microsoft has just announced a $100 payment for developers to place apps on their declining store.

RT confused even Microsoft Store staff

Although Microsoft extended the availability of the RT devices starting early this year, up through the critical Christmas holiday season, Surface RTs were only available at Microsoft Stores, all 31 of them. Customers at major tablet retailers such as Best Buy and Staples couldn’t find an RT device anywhere. This lack of availability was a blessing in disguise as it turns out that even at the official Microsoft Stores, some of the staff was just as flummoxed by the RTs as the customers and were erroneously stating that the ARM devices could run all the Windows 8 software.

The wisdom of launching an identical but incompatible RT OS is debatable. It seems that all Microsoft managed to do is confuse customers and stymie their own Surface Pro sales:

Still, they’re cousins,
Identical cousins and you’ll find,
They laugh alike, they walk alike,
At times they even talk alike.
You can lose your mind,
When cousins are two of a kind.
The Patty Duke Show