Forget the attractive, four-star hardware. The new Microsoft Surface with Windows RT is a disaster, and I predict Windows RT won't last two years.
I'm not talking about Windows 8. The Surface with Windows 8 looks like an excellent (if costly) tablet, especially for businesses. Windows RT is a new OS that looks like Windows 8, but isn't. Bluntly, it runs Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, and almost nothing else.
Application depth has always been Windows' strength. Yes, Microsoft Office is the killer app that almost everyone uses. But most people also use a few other apps of their own, whether they're games, business apps or educational software. RT has none of that, and its app library is likely to ramp up slowly because of its small user base. There are currently about 3,000 apps available for Windows RT - fewer than for the BlackBerry Playbook , which isn't exactly a game-changing hit.
Internet Explorer can't fill the gap. We've seen "thin client" tablets and PCs come again and again, and fail again and again. Look at the imperceptible sales of Google's Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. People want native apps and they want to be able to use devices when no network is available.
Think about it: some chump comes into a shop wanting to buy a tablet. He picks Windows because it runs the games he loves to play. Takes it home. Guess what? No games, because he got stuck with Windows RT. This will not engender good will for Microsoft. Enterprise IT managers aren't chumps, so they just won't jump at devices that don't run the applications they need.
Microsoft has said that Windows Store apps for Windows 8 should run on RT, but that's not necessarily true. As Microsoft says in a developer white paper, devs working with C++ still need to check a special Windows RT box and compile for ARM; that means additional work for that tiny RT user base.
Sales Aren't All They Seem
"But it sold out!" you cry. That may not be all it seems. I've heard that Microsoft made 250,000 initial Surface RT tablets, half of which (125,000) were the now sold-out 32GB model. But of those 125,000 tablets, a full 80,000 were purchased by Microsoft itself for employees. That means only 45,000 consumers and corporate IT managers have plunked down for Surface RT. That's safely below the margin of super-analyst Michael Gartenberg's Law, which says that with the right marketing you can sell 50,000 of anything.
If there are only really 45,000 Surface RT tablets in the wild, that's not going to create much of an ecosystem from which application developers can make money. So we have a vicious cycle: app developers don't write for RT because nobody's buying the tablets, and nobody buys the tablets because of a lack of apps.
Once again: This doesn't doom Windows tablets. It dooms Windows RT tablets. Windows 8 has an automatic user base (and thus an automatic market for apps) in the hundreds of millions of PCs that can upgrade to the platform. That isn't the case with RT. The fact that I have to say this over and over again, that "Windows" and "Windows RT" are the same thing but not, is going to sow a massive amount of confusion among consumers over the next few years.
(To watch me contradict myself, read my column on 5 things the Surface must do to beat the iPad.)
Windows' Future is Windows 8
So what will kill RT by 2014? Hopefully, new Intel chips. The reason Microsoft "needs" RT right now is that Intel has proven incompetent so far at competing with ARM in producing low-cost, low-power processors for smartphones and tablets. Microsoft wanted a low-cost tablet and that's impossible to do with decent performance and battery life on current Intel components; thus Windows RT.
But this year we've seen the first decent Intel smartphones with ARM-like form factors and prices, and next year (according to leaked documents cited on Ars Technica), we'll see Bay Trail, which will probably be able to hold its own against ARM-based chips.
There's little reason yet for Android and iOS-based manufacturers to move to Intel, but Bay Trail and Windows 8 could result in the return of "Wintel," now in tablet form. The upcoming Surface Pro, which is based on the real Windows 8 which runs applications, will probably grab a foothold in Microsoft-centric businesses. It will be followed up by more affordable Intel-based tablets offering the full realm of Windows 8 apps to consumers. By mid-2014, this entire Windows RT experiment could be a bad dream.