There was a fairly common article in the Boston Globe yesterday. Their tech reporter, Hiawatha Bray, wrote a buying guide for techie toys called In time for Christmas, the year’s best gadgets. Lots of publications run similar stories, but this one contained a stunning paragraph.
Describing the Microsoft Surface tablet, Mr. Bray writes
I’d have loved to recommend the Surface, Microsoft Corp.’s daring bid to create the ideal tablet for its new Windows 8 operating system. Indeed, the $499-and-up Surface is an impressive piece of hardware ... But Windows 8 is a confusing mess, whether running on a tablet or standard personal computer. Perhaps next year, Microsoft will give its tablet the operating system it deserves.
What's shocking is that the Surface does not run Windows 8, it runs Windows RT.
Granted, the two operating systems look alike, at first, but they are very different.
The biggest difference is that Windows RT does not support "legacy" or "desktop" applications. These terms refer to every Windows application written to date, such as Firefox, Chrome, VLC, Thunderbird, Audacity, 7-Zip, the Adobe Reader and Notepad++.
In most ways, Windows RT is not Windows at all, it's something new. And, like any new operating system, it only runs new applications specifically designed for it.
How did we get to the point where even a gadget guy gets confused?
Of course, some blame rests with Mr. Bray; one need only glance at Microsoft's site selling the Surface tablet to see that it's "Surface with Windows RT." But I see this as part of a larger dynamic.
Consider first, the Boston Globe itself. I suspect that no one associated with the paper or its website uses a Surface tablet, so there was no one to correct the mistake. If Mr. Bray had written that the iPhone ran OS X or that the world was flat, someone would have noticed.
And since the two operating systems look alike on the surface (no pun intended, I promise) it's up to Microsoft to explain what they are selling. Despite spending a ton of money on advertising, it seems they have failed to make clear this basic attribute of their Surface tablet. Thus, Bray's mistake was an easy one to make.
Then too, there are the naming problems, both for the operating system and its native apps. Last month I blogged about how comical this was.
One problem with the name Windows RT is that "RT" has no inherent meaning. Nerds at Microsoft know that it means "runtime" but every operating system offers a runtime environment and non-techies don't know what a runtime is. It would have made more sense to call it Windows 4T, as in Windows for tablets.
And, since Windows RT doesn't look or feel like prior versions of Windows and doesn't run applications written for them either, why call it Windows at all? Surface OS might have better communicated the concept behind the operating system.
Finally, there is the confusion over what to call native Windows RT apps. Originally known as Metro apps, there have been so many different terms used that none has stuck. When I blogged about this last month, my list had eight different names on it. Since then, I ran across yet another term, Windows Runtime-based apps.
No one can describe something that has nine different names.
End user confusion over the various new editions of Windows was a concern from the get-go. Sean Hollister at The Verge wrote that "Microsoft promised that it would address this particular digital divide way back in September 2011 at the Build conference where developers were first introduced to Windows 8." Hollister quotes a Microsoft executive on the potential confusion:
It's only to our advantage to not have confused customers. We will be clear what the value proposition and what the software is capable of and we'll do that with all the communication tools at our disposal.
The executive that made this statement, back in September 2011, was Steven Sinofsky, the head of the Windows division. He no longer works for Microsoft.
Hollister's article, written nine days before the Surface tablet was released, also foretold the confusion. He spoke with eight Microsoft store employees about the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. Each employee offered wrong information. It's a stunning survey of corporate incompetence.
Bray's mistake is, to me, an indicator of just how far off the consumer radar Microsoft has fallen. This should not be much of a surpise. In addition to the confusion, the Surface tablet is hardware/software combination without a compelling use case. It costs as much as an iPad, has hardly any apps and is, at least initially, confusing to use.
UPDATE. December 17, 2012.
Shortly after this blog was published, the Australian Financial Review wrote that the president of Dell's PC business urged Steve Ballmer to change the Windows RT name.
In explaining why, John Davidson wrote that Windows RT is not "... compatible with other versions of Windows and the name would only lead to widespread confusion." The Dell executive argued that since Windows RT does not run, what everyone in the world considers Windows applications, it should have been called Windows at all. Obviously, Ballmer disagreed.
The article also points out that Microsoft has had to change their return policy to accommodate consumers that realized, eventually, that a Surface tablet can not run Windows applications.
Picking up on the story Lance Whitney at CNET added an excellent point, saying
Consumers don't want to have to be "educated" about the products they buy. Already faced with a bewildering array of devices, people prefer more clear-cut choices so they can simply buy the product they want without having to be taught every single detail about it.
Finally, the Financial Review story pointed up how things are even more confusing than I described above.
While Windows 8 and Windows RT can both run so-called “Modern” apps (formerly known as “Metro” apps) designed for touch-sensitive screens, even those apps must be converted, or ported, to Windows RT, and not all Modern apps appearing in the Windows app store have been ported over, compounding compatibility issues.