Bridging the Gap, the Dichotomy of Windows RT

by Anand Shimpi

I described Windows RT as being a tablet OS with all of the underlying Windows-ness of Windows. You can get the big full screen app experience in tablet mode, but poke around your file system with Explorer or use Office 2013 like you would on a traditional notebook if you want to. If the two sides of Windows RT remained fairly separate that’d be one thing, unfortunately there are some dependencies between the two sides of the OS that keep the overall user experience from being as friendly as it is in iOS. There are still occasional reminders that you’re dealing with something that’s distinctly Windows here.

Most mobile OSes have done their best to hide the underlying file system and shell from the end user. Microsoft did, in my opinion, the smart thing and avoided hiding its roots with Windows RT. Although the new Start Screen is the default UI for Windows RT, there’s a big desktop tile front and center that will take you back to something far more familiar:

Unlike the Windows 8 desktop, you’re pretty limited in what you can do here. The only applications that are allowed to run in desktop mode under Windows RT are Explorer, IE10, Office 2013 and the command prompt (there are also all of the Windows specific tools and settings which I’ll get to shortly). Developers cannot make applications for Windows RT desktop mode and you can’t sideload anything here. Microsoft’s belief is that by completely locking down the system, requiring that applications only come from the Windows Store, it can avoid the pitfalls of viruses and malware that can plague Windows machines today. 

Steve Sinofsky famously quoted an analyst when they asked if Windows RT would be backwards compatible with all of the legacy Windows viruses and spyware. The answer was an astounding no, and this is exactly why we can’t have open season on Windows RT desktop development. There’s also the obvious financial angle to all of this. Microsoft takes a cut of any apps sold through the Windows Store.

Coming from the perspective of a traditional Windows user, the lack of flexibility on the desktop seems wrong. From the perspective of the rest of the ARM  based tablet space, it’s not a big deal. At least Windows RT gives you direct, first party access to the file system. There’s very little exposed through iOS, and with Android you need to download a third party app to get access to the file system.

Explorer works just as it would on a Windows 8 PC. The folder structure is exactly as you would expect it on any Windows machine. There are even some x86 remnants in the Windows RT install such as a C:\Windows\SysWOW64 directory complete with x86 binaries inside that obviously won’t run on your Windows RT tablet. 

Internet Explorer in desktop mode works just like a traditional IE windows application would work. The desktop app actually controls settings and features for the Metro...err...fancy IE10. For example, if you want to change security settings, clear your history or empty your cache, you have to do all of these things from the IE10 desktop application. Fancy IE10 doesn’t expose them. 

The command prompt is, well, a command prompt. It features all of the same commands that you could run before, although once again you can’t simply drop an x86 exe on your system and run it. Not having binary compatibility can be frustrating at times. 

Although developers can’t build applications for Windows RT’s desktop, you can write and execute batch files. Keep in mind that if your batch file needs any additional support files (e.g. sleep.exe) you’ll need ARM versions of them which, unless they come from Microsoft, just isn’t happening.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few other things you can run and do in RT’s desktop mode. Control Panel, event viewer, disk management and all of the other administrative tools that you’d expect to come with Windows are present in Windows RT (including regedit). There are also the little apps that Microsoft has always included, which also work in desktop mode (e.g. mspaint, calc, notepad, etc...)

Ultimately Windows RT is an ARM version of Windows with tablet makeup on. You still get all of the normal bits and pieces of Windows, minus some flexibility and of course, backwards compatibility.

For years we’ve been asking Microsoft to make a clean break with its legacy code and introduce a version of Windows that was built from scratch, with only support for the latest hardware. With Windows RT, Microsoft finally delivered some of that, but in a sort of weird, backwards way.

As Windows RT only supports the ARMv7 instruction set architecture, none of your old x86 applications will run on the platform. Microsoft hoped to avoid this being a problem by shipping an ARM version of Office 2013 Home & Student Edition with Windows RT tablets, and by directing users at the Windows Store for the rest of their application needs. Although it would’ve been possible for Microsoft to enable x86 compatibility through emulation or binary translation, performance would’ve likely been pretty bad.

The loss of backwards compatibility with years of Windows applications feels wrong, but from Microsoft's perspective you don't get that with iOS and Android so there's no real competitive disadvantage here. Why bother with an ARM based version of Windows to begin with? To bring competition to Intel and ensure that it will be able to deliver Windows to the new wave of ultra mobile devices (e.g. tablets). Intel hasn't been competitive on power or pricing at the low end (read: Atom) of the spectrum for years now. The introduction of Windows RT changed that. Atom Z2760 (Clovertrail) is around half the price of the cheapest Atom CPU of the past five years, and it's price competitive with solutions from Qualcomm. We have Windows RT to thank for that. Without pressure from ARM, Clovertrail would've started around $50 per chip just like Intel's low end parts had in the past. As AMD is no longer a pricing check for Intel in some of these new markets, Microsoft had to look for a new way to offer balance. Supporting ARM is its way of doing that. Until there's a new pricing/power/performance x86 competitor to Intel in tablets, ARM and Windows RT will remain.

User Interface, Gestures, and Multitasking First Party Applications: Mail, Calendar, Messaging and Bing
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  • Sherlock - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    IMHO WIndows RT on ARM is an stop-gap solution till the x86 architecture becoms power efficient to give tablet like running times. I belive Microsoft began working on Surface about two years ago & at that point of time, there was no viable competitor to ARM, in terms of power efficiency. This is the primary reason I belive Microsoft had to create an ARM version.

    Several of the commentators on this site have mentioned that they see no reason to buy an ARM over x86...and it definitley makes sense. Why have an fragmented ecosystem?

    I believe that as time passes on & people get used to the Modern UI & the x86 architecture catches up, Microsft would phase out their support for the ARM version.

    Microsoft could have chosen to do away with the "Desktop" environment with Windows RT & created a Moder UI version of Office (I don't agree with the argument of they not having enough time...they have been at it for 2 years) but I guess they deliberately chose to retain it so that users experience the familiar environment while using their killer app in this war - Office. I think people have underestimated the importance of bundling Office with Windows RT which remediates the biggest shortcoming of Android/iOS tablets
  • prdola0 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Hi, the article is nice, but I keep wondering about one thing. Why do Apple articles start with a nice and colorful image of the devices, and a lot of it's competition articles start with a smudgy ugly images or devices turned off? Maybe it's just accidental, but please give it a thought. It looks a bit like bias.
  • B3an - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Lol i've said this before! They often put more effort in to images taken of Apple stuff, which i've never liked as it's bias in way.

    But to be fair, this time the image at the start of this article is old and to show the Win 7 tablet. It makes sense to have it with the opening of the article.
  • beginner99 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    ...but doubtful very usable in practice. I really like the thinking behind Surface with the touch keyboard cover and other things. According to this review Windows 8 isnt that bad on tablets. I'm just gonna believe that.

    However the Application load times are very, very bad. 7 sec for mail app? That is just frustrating. Just shows that ARM is still very much underpowered....Or that surface uses an extremely crappy flash storage.
  • milkod2001 - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link


    this site belongs to Anand a trully Apple fanboy plus there's no such thing as unbiased review, any review on any web is only as good/positive as much is reviewer/site owner getting pay
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Funny, I thought the review was rather in favor for Microsoft. This review, and the Microsoft surface review. Both.

    Anand is no dumbie.. I absolutely HATE anything Apple based on pure personal beliefs / reasoning. Yet, even I, can not deny that iOS as far as polish goes is second to none. Until now. And the hardware used is usually top quality.

    At a higher cost, with less freedom, and a strangle hold on their software regime. A lot of people claim these are all problems from Microsoft. Which may be true, but Apple trumps Microsoft in computer-land tyranny. Until now.

    It could be that 90% of the market will be driven to using Mint Linux x, in the not so distant future. We'll see if Microsoft gets another clue.
  • GnillGnoll - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    I very much like that the on-screen keyboard has cursor keys, even if it's just left/right. It's one of the main features missing from the iOS keyboard, as precisely positioning the cursor with your finger is a huge pain.

    I assume that Ctrl+Left/Right skips words, and that Shift+Left/Right can be used for selection. Does anyone know if there is a way to go up/down?

    I don't like that quick access to punctuation is so limited, though.
  • bitbank - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    From your comments throughout the article, it's clear that you're a fan of Metro and you overlook many of the shortcomings of Windows Phone and Windows RT just because of the "smooth tiled interface". The truth is that the GUI isn't that important. It's not where you get your work done. Apps are where you work.

    As you said, an ARM version of Windows is good to wake Intel from their slumber and get some competition in the low cost/low power CPU market. Intel's Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors get decent battery life and run 3-5x faster than the best ARM offerings to date. I get 8-10 hours of battery life out of my 17" HP Sandy Bridge notebook with the medium capacity battery. I would much rather have an x86 slate running Windows 8 with support for legacy apps. Having a half-baked version of Office on an ARM based WinRT tablet isn't much incentive to be stuck with virtually no apps.

    WindowsRT feels a lot like the launch of Windows CE notebooks. Interesting form factors and improved battery life don't make up for lack of app compatibility. The value of Windows is in its huge selection of apps. Win8 Pro is taking the right approach. Similar to the transition from DOS and 16-bit to 32-bit apps with Windows 95, there needs to be a transition product (Win8 Pro) which bridges the gap between old and new. When presented with a completely new device with no legacy support and very little app support, it makes very little sense for the average user to buy it. Besides reviewers and people who have to buy the latest gadget, why should an average person want to buy WinRT? According to you, they should patiently wait for the app store to get some decent apps. That's asking too much. The smart move for the average consumer is to wait a year or so and see if developers have given any attention to Windows 8's "little brother" and published apps in both x86 and ARM versions.
  • karocage - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    But the interface is how you navigate all those apps. It's legitimate to point out that WP7 and W8/RT have clearly surpassed iOS in terms of speed of navigation between things like the back button, hubs, task switcher, charms and so on. That's not a function of the tiles really - although of course the tiles are another place where MS has a much better implementation than Apple.
  • steven75 - Friday, November 2, 2012 - link

    Completely disagree on speed of navigation. Are you familiar with the four-finger swipes on an iPad to switch apps, bring up the "task manager" tray, etc?

    I'll give you getting to the settings screen to find apps settings takes longer but thankfully on iOS apps launch lightning fast unlike on RT.

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