Skepticism mounts over Windows RT's enterprise role

Questions about IT's ability to manage Windows RT tablets makes the new OS a weak business candidate, say experts

Omissions from the feature set of Windows RT are making analysts increasingly skeptical that enterprises will gravitate toward tablets running the new forked version of Windows.

Earlier this week, Microsoft confirmed that Windows RT, the operating system designed to run on battery-saving devices powered by ARM system-on-a-chip (SoC) silicon, will not include a pair of features critical to enterprises: Connectivity to a company's network, dubbed "domain joining," and support for Group Policies, a mechanism that enterprise IT administrators use to micro-manage machines.

Prior to this week, Microsoft had called the operating system "Windows on ARM," or WOA for short.

Microsoft had not given a clear answer on Windows RT's fit within enterprises before Monday, said Al Gillen of IDC. "I asked them this question point blank," he said, referring to face-to-face meetings between Microsoft and analysts earlier this year. "I never got an answer."

The lack of those features, as well as still-unanswered questions about how IT staffs will manage Windows RT devices, made Gillen and other analysts wary of recommending Windows RT devices -- tablets in particular -- for enterprise use.

"Based on what we know today, a Windows RT device will be no more manageable than an iPad," said Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, which focuses on the Redmond, Wash. developer's moves.

That may disappoint IT administrators who had expected that a Windows tablet would more easily integrate into their companies' networks and infrastructures than one from the consumer-oriented Apple. But Windows RT is increasingly seen by the experts as very similar to the iPad -- a consumer-only play -- and considering IT's needs, offers little to businesses.

"This solidly positions WOA [Windows RT] as a consumer device," argued Michael Silver, who covers Microsoft for Gartner. "As more information comes out, it looks like fewer and fewer organizations will be looking at WOA."

Information, or the lack of it, was a concern for Cherry and Gillen, who both noted that there was a lot still unsaid by Microsoft about how, or even if, Windows RT devices can be managed with standard enterprise tools such as Microsoft's own System Center.

"We're still dealing with information by a thousand cuts," said Cherry, of the dribs and drabs that Microsoft has disclosed.

"It's not clear," answered Gillen when asked whether hardware running Windows RT can be managed through tools available from Microsoft.

This week, Microsoft announced the availability of System Center 2012 and talked up Microsoft Intune, its cloud-based management platform. Nowhere in the recent blog posts and supporting materials for either System Center or Intune has Microsoft explicitly called out Windows RT, although it's named iOS and Android as supported.

The closest it's come is to affirm that devices that support Exchange ActiveSync -- which both the iPad's iOS and Windows RT do -- will be manageable by its tools.

"I've come to the conclusion that with no domain log-in, [companies] won't be able to manage, won't be able to provision Windows RT devices," said Gillen.

Instead, said Gillen, Microsoft is using the Windows RT omissions to push companies toward mobile devices -- tablets, say -- that instead run the standard Windows 8 on x86/64 processors from the likes of Intel and AMD.

"Windows 8 on tablets was expected to bring a more managed environment," said Gillen. "That's true on x86/64, but not true on Windows RT, which is more like a consumer device, more like an iPad."

The trade-off between tablets running the two Windows is pretty clear: Devices that run the low-powered ARM SoCs squeeze more time out of their batteries, while Windows 8 tablets will likely have the same kind of between-charge lifespans as a lightweight notebook.

The inclusion in Windows RT of Metro versions of the core Office applications would seem a win for enterprises, but again, the lack of manageability, or at least the open questions on the subject, made experts skeptical of the value of the bundled software, too.

"Unless someone has an absolute need to run Office locally [on a tablet], there's no more value to Windows RT than there is to an iPad, which at least is a known quantity," said Cherry.

Microsoft has not revealed a completion date for Windows RT or when it expects hardware manufacturers to have Windows RT devices ready for sale, but most assume that Microsoft and its OEM partners are shooting for a debut in about six months.

Speculation on pricing has centered around a range between Amazon's Kindle Fire, which costs $199, and the opening price of the iPad, at $499.

It's certainly possible that as time goes by, Microsoft will boost enterprise support for the Windows RT platform, said Cherry, but in its first iteration, the operating system looks like a no-go for businesses.

"Despite Microsoft not wanting to create disappointment with Windows RT, I think there will be a lot of disappointment with version 1," said Cherry.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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