When it comes to Microsoft's Surface / Windows 8 plans, both the Surface RT and Windows RT are like the collective red-headed stepchild of the Redmond family. Nobody seems to like the platform, and every month or so someone in the industry is clamoring for Microsoft to put the miserable dog out of its misery.
But that's silly. Sure, Microsoft botched the Surface RT / Windows RT rollout, but that's about as surprising as the next M. Night Shyamalan movie being awful (and, no, After Earth isn't going to change that). The company often has good ideas; the problem is it can rarely ever get them out to consumers correctly.
Windows RT is a great idea for mobile platforms, especially since many users don't want or need their tablets to be full-fledged Windows PCs. But Microsoft's initial push into tablets happened to coincide with its push for Windows 8 in general, and the company didn't know how to differentiate the two products. Why does Surface RT even offer a desktop mode, when it's virtually useless outside of accessing Microsoft Office programs?
In addition to the fact that customers were confused by these two operating systems that looked exactly the same yet had very different purposes, the Surface RT was also offered at a premium price. Like it or not, 500 bucks is a lot of money for a tablet, and when you find out you're getting a gimped version of Windows it's not surprising that many balked.
But is Surface RT really that bad an idea? It does come packing Office, which in itself is a potentially huge selling point, and the touch-centric Live Tiles are great for tablets. Windows RT isn't as capable as Windows 8, so it shouldn't be on products that can be easily confused with the likes of the Surface Pro. There should be significant, easy-to-tell differences, even in terms of size. RT products don't need 10-inch screens, and they may not even need a desktop mode at all, if Office programs can be optimized for the Metro UI.
If Microsoft can get RT running on lesser hardware at a price that could go toe-to-toe with the lower-end price ranges of Apple and Android devices, the things would sell themselves, even in the face of an iPad mini 2 or Galaxy Note 8.
Fortunately, Microsoft seems to understand some of these things. The company has been working on cutting licensing costs for the OS and optimizing it for 7- to 9-inch screens so that cheaper hardware can be manufactured. Windows Blue 8.1 also will reportedly give users access to more functions through the Metro screen, meaning there will be less of a need to go to the desktop.
As Paul Thurrot writes at his Supersite for Windows, Surface RT / Windows RT should be reserved specifically for lower-end tablets in the 7-inch range that can compete directly against other $300-or-less devices. Windows 8 Pro can be saved for a 9-inch Surface Pro and whatever equivalent OEMs decide to produce.
"[By] offering Windows RT only on these cheap, sub-$300 machines, Microsoft can feed the low-end of the product with something that is truly a new mobile OS, Windows RT, a product that I feel will (or at least should) shed its desktop underpinnings more aggressively than mainstream Windows," Thurrot wrote. "That is, while the netbook was an underpowered PC running real Windows, these new low-cost tablets could be highly mobile devices running a version of Windows that was designed specifically for that hardware.
"This is not the same thing. More to the point, it preserves the notion of 'real' Windows as a more premium product that runs on more powerful hardware and is, in fact, functionally superior. And backwards compatible. And yes, more expensive."
Basically, Thurrot is suggesting that it's okay for Windows RT to be markedly different from slates like the Surface Pro. And he's right. There's no way I'm spending $500 on anything running RT at this point. But for a $250 or $300 tablet with built-in Office functionality? Now that I'd be eager to sign up for.