Nokia and the great Windows RT debate

The biggest shock that came along with Nokia’s introduction of the Lumia 2520 tablet is that it runs Windows RT.  Many pundits, and many users, have dismissed Windows RT as a dead horse.  So why is Nokia beating it?

As long-time readers of my blog know in my view Windows RT is supposed to be the future of Windows rather than simply the ARM version of Windows 8.  The problem for Windows RT is that it anticipated and predated having a rich and complete library of Windows Store apps that it could run.  So it spent its first year as little more than a way to run Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer.  Even critical built-in apps like Mail were not competitive.  That seemed like quite a limited market when you could (a) get better pure tablets from Apple and Samsung or (b) pay about the same amount of money for a full x86-based Windows 8 tablet.  So pundits wrote Windows RT off as a bad idea rather than recognizing it for what it really was, an idea that was a year or so ahead of its time.

Is Windows RT ready for prime-time yet?  Probably not, but no longer is it an embarrassment either.  The app library is growing, though still missing too many important apps for it to now be a positive factor in tablet sales.  The built-in apps are much better, and in some cases rather cool.  If you use Hotmail/Outlook.Com then the Windows 8.1 Mail client is the first non-web client on the market to expose features (e.g., graymail management) unique to that service.  With the addition of the Outlook client to the Office suite pre-installed on Windows RT devices a key complaint from potential purchasers has been addressed.,  Etc.  In fact if you’d like to be blown away by the power of a Windows RT tablet then take a look at this video of the Surface 2:

But this is really about Nokia and their decision to jump on the Windows RT bandwagon.  Are they crazy, or crazy smart?  Or maybe a better way to put it is, are they looking backward or forward?  I think Nokia is in the “crazy like a fox” camp.

Is it better for Nokia, as a new entrant to the PC ecosystem, to emulate long-time PC OEMs or blaze the kind of trail more typical of post-PC companies?  Even on the surface it seems like jumping into a Wintel product would be a mistake for a mobile-focused company.  As you dig deeper it becomes even more obvious that a company like Nokia needs to target where it believes the market will be in a few years and not the legacy market that is currently in transition.

Let’s start with Nokia’s core competency, which is building ARM-based mobile devices.  Nokia is a key player in the ARM ecosystem with superior access to the latest and greatest coming out of that ecosystem.  It is full of engineers who know how to design mobile devices based on ARM processors and chipsets, using ARM-optimized design tools.   If it wants to pursue custom silicon to enhance future devices it is likely to do that within the context of the ARM ecosystem.  And if it wants to take advantage of volume technology sharing between its phones and tablets that must also take place within the ARM ecosystem.  Moving to, or adding, an x86-based system to Nokia’s offerings brings many negatives across their entire engineering and supply-chain efforts.  And could distract them from corporate recovery efforts far beyond the returns that are assumed to come from introducing a less controversial “full” Windows 8.1 device.

Second, Nokia has more faith (and perhaps more knowledge) of where Windows RT is going than do the rest of us.  And more to gain from it than traditional PC OEMs.  We’ve long known that Windows RT and Windows Phone were slated to come together in some way.  Be that a smoother continuum or an actual merger of the operating systems, Nokia is the best positioned player in the mobile device or PC industries to benefit.  By focusing on Windows RT for 2013 tablet introductions Nokia sets itself up to be the clear incumbent leader when Microsoft makes its next move on Windows RT/Windows Phone integration.  Something that could very well happen within a year.

Third, Nokia would rather be a big fish playing in a small pond than a tiny fish playing in the ocean.  The PC ocean is one in which a lot of fish are drowning and few, perhaps just one (Lenovo), is thriving.  If you think of the Windows RT market as a reservoir that is slowly being filled than whoever dominates today’s pond someday will have the opportunity to be at the top of the food chain of a Great Lake.  Or sea!

And all of this predates the deal for Microsoft to acquire Nokia’s devices business.  Keep in mind that new tablets being introduced today started their life two years ago (or more).   Sure you can turn around refreshes of existing products on an annual basis, but new products take two or more years to go from conceptualization to volume manufacturing and general availability.  So while Nokia’s choice to focus on Windows RT was made independently, its direction was probably a plus in Microsoft’s thinking about acquiring them.

Will Nokia be proven right in its decision to base the 2520, and rumored “Illusionist” 8″ tablet, on Windows RT?  I think so.  The real question for me is, will all those OEMs who got excited about Windows RT and then abandoned it be kicking themselves come 2015?  Nokia already demonstrated what commitment to Windows Phone could do for both the OS and its own recovery.  If they pull off something similar with Windows RT then traditional OEMs like HP, Dell, Acer, ASUS, etc. are going to find themselves on the defensive in a market they should own.,

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2 Responses to Nokia and the great Windows RT debate

  1. I believe the real method to the MS madness with shoving the Metro interface onto desktop computers is very easy to see. By the end of this year, there could be close to 200 million “devices” sporting the Metro interface. Considering there are a total of 170 million iPads in existence, the plan of getting it out there, whether it was confusing or not, in front of as many eyeballs as possible, and then fixing it later, may have been more brilliant then baffling.

    Hal your insight is such a clean break from the click bait headline crap that is out there.

    Could you go on CNBC sometime as a tech analyst so that you can make the ones they currently have on look like the bumbling morons that they are?

    • Bob - Former DECie says:

      It seems to me that Hal’s post is about Nokia’s choice of introducing a device running Windows RT vs. Windows x86 rather than a statement on the UI formerly known as Metro.

      I do agree with your last two statements.

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