Windows RT isn't dead -- yet

Microsoft didnt mention RT at today's Surface Pro 3 unveiling, but it still sells the Lumia 2520 RT tablet at a discount

The troubled Windows RT operating system got nary a mention at Microsoft's Surface event on Tuesday.

All of the focus instead was on the new 12-in. Surface Pro 3 tablet, which runs Windows 8.1 on one of three Intel processors and which officials touted as a laptop replacement well suited for business.

So what happens now to Windows RT, originally unveiled in Microsoft's Surface RT tablet in October 2012? The lightweight OS was built for low power consumption and based on the ARM chip specification, like so many other tablets and smartphones.

After Tuesday's event, some bloggers suggested Windows RT is dead, or nearly so. However, some analysts said Windows RT will probably limp along for at least a couple of years, possibly with a Nokia Lumia moniker now that Microsoft owns Nokia. Others said there's the possibility of a mini Nokia Lumia running Windows RT appearing as early as this fall with a display size of 7 inches to 8 inches in size.

When asked what happens to Windows RT, IDC analyst Tom Mainelli said, "It's a good question." After meeting with Microsoft recently, Mainelli said officials didn't offer any Windows RT updates or discuss any new RT-based Surface products.

"Microsoft has often reiterated that they will continue to have a version of Windows running on ARM, so I don't expect it to go away," he said. "But I don't see any pull from end users for RT tablets, so the volumes sold will remain very, very small," Mainelli said. He suggested a single ARM-based OS for both phones and smaller tablets might emerge.

"The fact that Microsoft did not have a refresh of Surface 2 running RT says that there are still decisions to be made with RT as an OS," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research for Kantar WorldPanel ComTech. "Also, maybe, RT will be the consumer play that might move more under Nokia versus Surface."

Under that scenario, Surface -- specifically the Surface Pro 3 -- becomes the "productivity" tablet from Microsoft, while any future Windows RT device would be mainly for consuming content such as movies, books and games.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, had a slightly different take from Milanesi, suggesting Microsoft will launch a Surface tablet running RT in the 7-in. to 8-in. display range by the end of 2014 or early 2015 using an ARM processor from Qualcomm. After that, RT would be transitioned to Windows 9, sharing the same code base with full Windows in 2015, he predicted.

Last September, Microsoft unveiled the second-generation Surface 2 with Windows 8.1 RT, along with a Surface Pro 2 with Windows 8.1, both with 10.6-in. displays. More recently, Microsoft shipped the Surface 2 in March with an LTE update.

Microsoft began selling the Windows RT-based Nokia Lumia 2520 tablet with a 10.1-in. display after Microsoft completed its $7.2 billion acquisition of Nokia in April. Starting at $399 in the Microsoft Store, the 2520 runs Windows RT 8.1 and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 quad-core 2.2 GHz processor based on the ARM specification. That $399 price is already listed as a reduction of $100 from the $499 price on the AT&T LTE network with or without a new two-year contract.

Whether the price cut on the 2520 is a bad sign or not, Windows RT has been in decline since shortly after the OS was introduced nearly two years ago. Microsoft and its Nokia unit are the only ones making Windows RT machines now that HTC, Dell, Asus, Samsung and others have backed away from the OS.

In July 2013, Microsoft took a $900 million charge amid flat Surface RT sales.

The biggest complaint about Windows RT has been its inability to run desktop applications. "It's a lobotomized Windows, not full Windows, since it can't run all the apps," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "It originally appeared as a placeholder for Microsoft, something they could move into the market quickly with low power needs and at a reasonably low cost that's competitive."

Like some other analysts, Gold said Windows RT will soldier on for a while, probably as a high-volume sales item with the Nokia Lumia brand.

Microsoft didn't respond to a request to comment on the future of Windows RT.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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