Windows RT is the name of Microsoft’s version of Windows 8 for ARM processors, right? It’s aimed primarily at Consumers, right? It’s role in business is primarily in the BYOD realm, right? That’s so 2012! Let’s talk about strategy and where I think Microsoft will go with Windows and particularly Windows RT. And how their strategy may become more obvious in 2013.
The name Windows RT wasn’t chosen to convey a message about Windows moving to ARM processors. Nor was it chosen to convey that it was a Tablet OS. The name appears to have been chosen primarily for one reason, it is an operating system devoted to running Windows RunTime apps. It splits the mainstream Windows product into two families. Windows for running Win32 “desktop” and Windows RunTime applications and Windows RT that drops the legacy Win32 application support. Windows RT is Microsoft’s go forward client operating system, while Windows is the operating system Microsoft will need to keep selling and enhancing for a transition that will last a decade or more, but it will eventually be considered a legacy.
I know I just sent a lot of people’s blood pressure through the roof because today they either (a) dislike Metro/Modern/whatever-you-call-it ,Windows RunTime, or the Start Screen and/or (b) the new environment isn’t really suitable for their usage scenario. But keep in mind I’m talking about where things are going over several releases of the re-imagined Windows. There will be many refinements, improvements, and changes before Windows RT replaces Windows as Microsoft’s primary client operating system offering.
The desktop lives forever, right? Well, on Windows yes but not on Windows RT. Today Windows RT only needs the desktop for two reasons. First, many traditional utilities from the File Explorer to much of system management are only available as desktop apps. Second, Microsoft Office is only available as desktop apps. But in each release going forward this will become less true. A Metro File Explorer will become standard. More and more system management will move to the new model. And eventually Microsoft will remove the desktop from Windows RT. Then it will be able to remove many pieces of legacy (including Win32), making Windows RT smaller, faster, and more secure (via smaller attack surface) than it’s Windows sibling.
Microsoft started the ball rolling with Windows RT on ARM because that was the most practical thing to do. With ARM unable to run existing x86 apps Microsoft had to decide if it would evangelize conversions of existing applications to ARM or put the energy into getting developers to write new Metro/Modern apps. And without a library of Modern apps it was unlikely that any of the x86-oriented OEMs would create an x86 Windows RT system. No rational amount of pricing difference on Microsoft’s part would encourage a OEM to use an operating system with no applications when they could just as simply use one with a huge, if aging, library. ARM thus became the obvious place to introduce Windows RT.
As the library of applications in the Windows Store grows it becomes more and more likely that Microsoft will introduce Windows RT for x86 systems. Will that happen in 2013? By the end of 2013 the Windows Store will likely have in excess of 150,000 Apps. Perhaps in excess of 200,000. Assuming that the quality is there (meaning they are the apps people want and are equal to their iPad and Android equivalents) the market for systems with no need to run legacy desktop apps will have grown dramatically. Microsoft, many of its OEMs, and Intel (of course) will want the option of using Clover Trail (and its follow-ons) in those systems. So it is quite possible that Microsoft makes Windows RT available for Clover Trail-based systems in 2013, and it seems a certainty for 2014.
As a side note this is something that Paul Thurrott will probably not be happy about. Paul has called on Microsoft to use Clover Trail in its next generation of the Surface so that it would have the full Windows experience. But I expect that if Microsoft did use Clover Trail in a Surface (as opposed to Surface Pro) replacement that system would still run Windows RT. Sorry Paul :-)
If Windows RT for x86 is speculative in 2013 here is something I think is a surer bet. Windows RT will expand into a family that mirrors the editions of Windows. I expect that in 2013 we will see a Windows RT Enterprise (and perhaps Pro as well) edition. Why? Well the current edition of Windows RT is missing some key functionality that would accelerate its adoption within Enterprises. And I’m not even talking about UI or Windows RunTime changes that would increase the application space it was applicable to. I’m talking purely about lower level operating system features.
Being able to participate in a domain is part of Microsoft’s secret sauce for enterprises, and today Windows RT can’t do that. A Windows RT Enterprise edition would bring the ability to join a domain, use DirectAccess, use BitLocker, fully participate in Microsoft’s management capabilities, etc. Whereas the solutions introduced in 2012 are acceptable for BYOD situations and some limited application scenarios, an Enterprise edition would allow Windows RT systems to participate as full members of the enterprise computing environment.
Windows RT Enterprise will not allow side-loading of desktop applications, but it may allow side-loading of limited types of system software. As great as DirectAccess is (and given my involvement in it I’m biased, but then I also lived with it as my “VPN” for a year so know how fantastic the user experience is) most enterprises use Cisco VPNs. And while Windows RT is certainly adequately protected with Windows Defender, IE SmartScreen, etc. most enterprises will want at least the management capabilities of enterprise-oriented security products and probably the ability to use their corporate standard (i.e., Symantec, McAfee, etc.) products and infrastructure. Unless Microsoft addresses these adoption of Windows RT will be much slower than desired.
And what about requirements for access to desktop applications on Windows RT systems? Many, perhaps most, enterprises are fine with using VDI to allow users of these systems to access desktop applications. Some are downright enthusiastic. But many do not want that access occurring off their corporate network. Hence the need for the ability to join a domain, and use DirectAccess or VPNs when users need remote access. You then run VDI over the corporate network.
Now we get to another wildcard in all of this, Office. Today’s situation with Office being a desktop Win32 application on Windows RT, and only being available in the Home and Student edition, represents a major drag on Microsoft’s ability to move Windows RT forward. Microsoft needs to either allow upgrade of the edition of Office on Windows RT to an Enterprise edition (including, for example, making Outlook available) or to move Office fully to Metro/Modern (likely in multiple editions). They may do both given the time it could take to create a true Office RT.
An Office RT would benefit the entire Windows RT and Windows 8 market and is the logical direction for Office to go. But I find it hard to believe they can get to full equivalence with the Win32 Office apps in a year, let alone in a traditional longer release cycle. We’ll see some, perhaps substantial, movement in this direction in 2013 but I don’t know how far Microsoft will get. In the mean time they may find it prudent to release Office 2013 Enterprise (standalone and/or as part of Office 365) for Windows RT systems. However this rolls out, Microsoft will substantially improve the Office for Windows RT situation in 2013.
Finally, let me reinforce a point I’ve blogged about before. Microsoft is moving to annual (or more frequent) updates as a (at least unofficial) corporate standard for release cycles. There may be exceptions from time to time, but I’d expect pretty much every actively developed product to have annual releases. That means faster evolution in smaller chunks is the norm. You don’t like how the Start Screen works today? By the end of the year there will no doubt be improvements that address major complaints. Windows RunTime missing an API that keeps you from creating a Metro/Modern version of your App? You might have it later this year. Can’t stand that the Share contract doesn’t work with Outlook? Again, a solution may appear faster than Microsoft customers have ever imagined possible.
2012 was an exciting year for Microsoft and its customers. 2013 may be even more exciting, and delightful.