Windows 8 RT and Surface Tablet: Microsoft’s Deliberate Smokescreen and Balancing Act

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A case could be made that Microsoft has done a poor job marketing Windows 8. Given that it is spending upwards of a billion (with a B) dollars on promotions, the problem is not in hyping the new operating system, but in explaining the differences between Windows 8 for x86 devices and Windows RT, the Windows 8 designed for ARM-based machines.

Windows 8 launch eventBut that assumes Microsoft wants users to know the differences between the two types of Windows 8, because following the official launch event in New York this week, it’s abundantly clear that Microsoft is selling both versions of Windows 8 as the sole next-generation Microsoft operating system, and not Windows 8 and Windows RT as separate entities, despite their differences.

To the Untrained Eye

Looking at the interface formerly known as “Metro” (now called Windows 8 UI, btw), Windows 8 and Windows RT are exactly alike. They look the same, function the same, feature the same navigation scheme, and support the same apps from the same source, the new Windows Store. Both Windows 8 and Windows RT support USB peripherals, with Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky claiming Windows RT works with more than 420 million peripherals alone, including printers. Yes, you can print to a USB printer on a Microsoft Surface tablet.

Both Windows 8 and Windows RT support Office, though separate versions. However, based on some brief time with Windows Office 2013 RT and Windows Office 2013 for Intel and AMD devices, it’s very difficult to discern any differences from a functional standpoint, at least at a glance. It’s Office, after all, and documents created on one can be read and edited on the other.

Both Windows 8 and Windows RT have a desktop environment, though Windows RT only utilizes it in support of Office RT and a desktop version of Internet Explorer 10, and it seems extremely out of place. In fact, it’s doubtful a casual user will even notice it.

The only major difference, at least to most consumers, is that Windows RT won’t support old Windows XP, Vista, and 7 legacy applications. To his credit, Sinofsky mentioned that clearly during his presentation at the Windows 8 launch event, though that’s the extent of the marketing efforts to explain the differences to date.

Deliberate Obfuscation

Steve BallmerAt the same event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer looked over at the dozens of Windows 8 machines adorning the stage, including Windows RT and x86 tablets, and he remarked, “Are these new designs PCs? Yes. Are these new designs tablets? Yes.”

To Microsoft, a Windows tablet is a PC and a Windows PC can be a tablet. And Windows RT is Windows 8, just like the x86 version, because Windows RT can do so many of the same things.

Sinofsky drove this point home when talking up the Microsoft Surface Windows RT tablet. “It’s not just a tablet, but it’s the best tablet that I’ve ever used,” he said. “It’s also not just a laptop, but it’s the best laptop that I’ve ever used as well.” By Ballmer’s logic, that would make it one of the best PCs Sinofsky has ever used as well.

Surface Balancing Act

In regards to Surface, Microsoft is performing a major balancing act. Sinofsky, Ballmer, and the rest took great pains to separate the Surface tablet from the actual Windows 8 launch address, and held a “Surface reception” dedicated to the tablet afterwards. During the Windows 8 address, Microsoft execs talked up RT tablets from ASUS, Dell, Samsung, and Lenovo. The very same devices they promoted on stage were on display in the lobby for any attendee to try. Surface was nowhere near any of them. Show floor Surface tablets were behind velvet rope and off limits to attendees until after the Surface reception.

It’s obvious Microsoft wants to sell both Surface tablets and its partner’s Windows RT efforts. And it’s obvious Microsoft is sensitive to the fact that by producing its own hardware, it is competing with its hardware partners. And after spending time with the Samsung Ativ Tab, ASUS Vivo Tab RAT, Lenovo Yoga, and Dell XPS 10, it’s very obvious why Microsoft kept the Surface tablet separate.

The vendor RT tablets feel cheap by comparison like any regular thin-and-light Android tablet. The best thing one can say about them is that they are unspectacular and each one is just another tablet competing with the iPad.

Microsoft SurfaceThe Surface by comparison, sports some of the best hardware the team at TabletPCReview has ever seen in a mainstream product. According to Surface General Manager Panos Panay, it contains more than 200 custom components, built and designed specifically for this device. Thought went into nearly every component, from the front and back-facing camera angles, to the kickstand, to the weight distribution, to the magnets that secure the Surface Touch keyboard cover (easy enough for a 5-year old to detach, strong enough to hold while the Surface dangles).

It feels great to hold thanks to the magnesium chassis, which is a welcome break from the plastic builds of so many other tablets, and it’s tough. Panay demonstrated that by dropping the Surface live on stage, and then claimed Microsoft tested the Surface to 72 different drop points. Sinofsky then took the stage to show off the “Surface skateboard” that he used in the past to demonstrate the Surface sturdiness.

Apps the Question

Great hardware is only half the equation. A rich app ecosystem is also needed for a new product and platform to take off. A dearth of decent tablet apps is why Android tablet faltered out of the gate. And Windows RT runs that same risk.

A quick trip to the Windows Store reveals, well, not much. Big name apps from Netflix and Hulu are there, but it pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands in the Apple App Store, and the growing tablet selection in Google Play.

It’s telling that Microsoft did not tout the number of apps available for Windows RT and Windows 8 in the Windows Store, because it’s not that impressive. Reps did comment that the Windows Store has more apps at launch than any other app market at launch. But that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that market rivals have more and better apps now, and it’s hard to sell consumers on a better tomorrow when excellent alternative devices from Google, Amazon, Apple, and others are available today.

Hopefully, Microsoft is using a significant portion of that billion dollar marketing budget on courting developers. They are on the right track by offering up to an 80% cut on all app sales, which is more than the traditional 70% many get with iOS.

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