FAQ: All about Windows RT, the OS behind a Microsoft tablet

As branded tablet rumors flourish, we answer questions about Windows RT, Windows 8 and Metro

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Windows Store opened earlier this year, but it remains in beta. Until it officially launches alongside Windows 8 and/or Windows RT, all apps must be free. At that time, however, developers will be able to add for-a-fee versions of their Metro software.

Why did Microsoft create Windows RT? One-word answer: Apple.

ARM processors -- made by multiple chip companies, all of which license the architecture from U.K.-based ARM Holdings before putting their own spins on the chip -- power the vast majority of mobile devices, smartphones and tablets, including the iPad and the iPhone.

ARM CPUs sip power at much lower rates than those from Intel, and so squeeze many more hours from a battery, a key to tablet -- or smartphone -- success.

Now two years behind Apple, which has run through three iterations of its iPad, Microsoft needed a way into the tablet market. Hence Windows RT, which the company first called Windows on ARM, or WOA for short.

Windows 8 will show up on tablets of some kind, too, but those will run on Intel processors, which can't yet match ARM in the low-power, long-battery-life departments. Without a pure-play on tablets, Microsoft risked being left out of a fast-growing market that has already had an impact on traditional PC sales, a major Microsoft source of revenue through sales of Windows licenses.

When will we see Windows RT When devices ship. Unlike Windows 8, which Microsoft has been aggressively promoting with a series of free public previews, Windows RT won't show itself until tablets powered by the operating system appear.

Microsoft has yet to disclose ship dates for Windows 8 or the debut of Windows RT devices. But it has said that the former's goal is to launch in time for the 2012 holidays and that Windows RT is "on our schedule," whatever that is.

If it does introduce a Windows RT tablet today, Microsoft may also define a launch timetable for the device and the operating system.

Will all Windows RT tablets be alike? No. While Microsoft has set out certification requirements for Windows RT devices, it has not adopted Apple's strategy of making and selling a one-size-fits-all tablet.

For example, to be Windows 8/Windows RT certified -- in other words to display a Windows logo -- tablets must have five (no more, no less) buttons, including one called "Windows Key" that serves the same purpose as the iPad's Home button.

Windows RT tablets must also have a display with at least a resolution of 1366-by-768 pixels, which then packs more pixels than the original iPad and the iPad 2 (1024-by-768-pixels), but far fewer than the newest iPad's "Retina" display.

But Windows RT hardware can offer resolutions higher than the minimum, of course.

If you have time on your hands and the inclination, you can peruse the requirements by grabbing the "Windows 8 System Requirements" PDF from this page (click the first "Download" button). The tablet section starts at p. 86.

Why is Microsoft thinking of its own Windows RT tablet? No one knows for sure why, or even if that will be the focus of the company's quickly-called press conference later Monday, the New York Times notwithstanding.

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