Time to say goodbye to Windows RT tablets?

Some say Microsoft should scrap alternative to Windows 8

Windows RT tablets grabbed just 0.4% of the tablet market in the first quarter, a dismal result that led some tech experts to urge Microsoft to scrap the platform that's in its six-month infancy.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they do streamline and do drop [Windows RT]," said Brian Proffitt, an adjunct instructor of management at Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business , in an interview. "Microsoft is going to remain heavily invested in its Surface tablet strategy, but that doesn't preclude them from making changes and cutting. Cutting Windows RT would be a smart move, unless the number of shipments suddenly improves."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, was more blunt: "I believe Microsoft would be much better off killing RT and going with one unified tablet OS [with Windows 8]. The need to support ARM [processors] was why Microsoft went with RT. But it never really worked that well."

IDC said Wednesday that just 200,000 tablets running Windows RT, including Microsoft's own Surface RT, shipped in the first quarter, which was 0.4% of the total market of 49.2 million tablets. Windows RT tablets first started shipping late last October, although Samsung early on decided not to ship a Windows RT tablet in the U.S.

For the first quarter of 2013, Android topped IDC's tally with a 56.5% market share, followed by Apple's iOS with 39.6% and then Windows 8 tablets with 3.3%, which includes Surface Pro tablets from Microsoft.

Microsoft had no comment on Windows RT's future and the IDC rankings. "We have no information to share at this time," a spokesperson said. Windows RT ARM-supplier Qualcomm did not comment.

The problems with Surface RT and other Windows RT tablets are several, analysts said, but a fatal flaw is how the platform won't run traditional desktop apps that Microsoft users want and need.

Users of iPads and Android tablets would expect not to have access to Microsoft desktops apps like the Office software suite, but not Microsoft customers, said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group.

"RT was supposed to have a competitive strength with Office, but the most powerful component for Office on a tablet -- given a tablet's limitations -- is Outlook, which RT didn't get," Enderle said. "Tablets are typically used for consumption and email, and RT was going to be light on games and interesting tablet apps because it was late to market. The one advantage RT should have had -- Outlook -- Microsoft denied."

Windows RT is expected to support Outlook eventually, but not until 2014, which may be too late, Enderle said. "Microsoft is still coming from behind, so they need to significantly accelerate improvements or leave the race," Enderle added. "If they aren't willing to do what it takes to win, they should exit and accept that this is another Zune."

Zune was a portable digital media player that Microsoft essentially killed nearly a year ago after Microsoft failed to fund and support the product early on, Enderle argued.

"The sad thing is that the Windows RT hardware is actually far more compelling than the current selection of Windows 8 products in terms of price and battery life," Enderle said.

In fact, Microsoft has talked up the advantages of Windows RT in running ARM processors, providing longer battery life and a thinner form factor than x86-based Windows 8 tablets, noted IDC analyst Tom Mainelli. But buyers care less about ARM's benefits than having compatibility with their existing Windows apps, which is not possible with Windows RT, he said.

"Most consumers don't understand what Windows RT is or why they would want it," Mainelli said. "It's difficult for Microsoft to effectively market Windows RT because when they talk up its advantages, they end up comparing it to Windows 8, so they end up downplaying the advantages of one of their two tablet OSes." That's different than with Apple, which has two operating systems but has described clear uses for the Mac OS and iOS, he said.

Mainelli said Microsoft should focus its attention on getting Windows 8 adoption on track. However, he also said Microsoft isn't likely to kill Windows RT. "I don't think there's much chance they'll walk away from Windows RT anytime soon."

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said not only does Windows RT not run legacy applications, it has no ability to use existing management tools valued by IT shops. And, the Intel x86 alternative with Windows 8 tablets is widely available and offers the ability to support both those apps and management tools.

Lenovo laid out the case for business users when it decided to use Windows 8 for its ThinkPad Helix device. "We don't believe that Windows RT is what businesses want," Lenovo Think PC manager Simon Kent told Australian Reseller News recently. "Even Microsoft has started to review the RT path they have gone down."

This article, Time to say goodbye to Windows RT tablets?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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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