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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  • Flemo86 - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    With WindowsRT (oh God what an awful name) they're now competing with Apple on Apple's terms, and Apple have had a 5 year head start with iOS. It's just ridiculous that they have .NET, XNA, DirectX etc at such a sweet spot right now, with so many developers on board and able to program whatever the hell they want for the OS (complete with file system!), and then they just change the game entirely by tearing x86 out and putting in what may as well be an Apple chip.

    They should have come up with a better solution to use ALL existing software and their architectures with every device, not just the "Pro" version. That would've been real competition with the iPad. Imagine being able to port all Xbox live arcade games and every .NET application to the "Windows App Store"/Marketplace (whatever they're calling it). All Microsoft would have to do is verify each piece of software and then bada-bing bada-boom, you've got yourself tens of thousands of apps within the month, and an extremely easy set of tools for devs to use.

    Of course, this would've required more effort on the hardware side. Maybe less battery life? A lower screen resolution? More effort on Intel's part? I really hope Windows RT falls by the wayside and Windows 8 Pro tablets become the de facto standard. I hate the idea of them throwing a decade worth of development tools out on one of their operating systems.

    Sorry for the rant, just an XNA fan!
  • stimudent - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    Since this system uses Windows and an ARM processor instead of an Intel processor, that makes it 50% respectable. To achieve the other 50%, it would have to have Linux installed.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Ok, I'll bite.

    Whats so good about Linux ?

    Polish ? Security ? painless upgrade path ? The majority of modern games played on the PC are written for this software platform ?

    Or is it that you can feel good about your own self using it for free. Without having to use pirates bay ?

    Seriously. Grow up.

    Also, please tell me you use Ubuntu. So the rest of us can have a good laugh, and totally disregard what you have to say in the future.
  • B3an - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    That made me laugh, because it's true.
  • foolsgambit11 - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    that points out that the autumn of 2000 is just before the turn of the new millenium, not just after....
  • milkod2001 - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link


    what's good about Linux?
    lol u gotta be kidding

    Android is based on Linux so iOS . That covers all Apple platform and the rest of all smartphones and tablets. Most servers are running on Linux. Not enough?

    The majority of modern games played on the PC are written for this software platform ?
    The majority of modern games are coded for console kids(Xbox and PS3), then ported to PC.PC games market is only the niche part of games market anyway.

    Ubuntu is for geeks/scientisc/developers and not for average uneduceted joes

  • solipsism - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    "Android is based on Linux so [is] iOS."

    Um... double no.

    Android uses the Linux kernel and some underlying code but it is not Linux in the way stimudent is talking about which is why we call it Android and not Linux or Android Linux.

    iOS uses Darwin OS and foundations and frameworks found in Mac OS X. "Darwin is built around XNU, a hybrid kernel that combines the Mach 3 microkernel, various elements of BSD (including the process model, network stack, and virtual file system), and an object-oriented device driver API called I/O Kit.[6] The hybrid kernel design compromises between the flexibility of a microkernel and the performance of a monolithic kernel." All this came from NeXTSTEP and BSD before that. There is no Linux in iOS.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Yeah notable features at least in my mind is that Android uses ( as standard ) A virtual machine to run each application. Kind of, but not the same as JRE..

    Big difference from Linux just in that. The architecture is really interesting. Despite the fact that java is the primary development language used for creating apps. Unless you choose to write native C/C++, or use a third party "scripting language". Passed that I'm sure you'd be able to write standard kernel level drivers, but yeah . . .

    Mono for android is particularly interesting to me, but a bit pricey.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Ubuntu is garbage.

    Architecturally it can be unstable, it has a very poor upgrade path track record, and they want to put google search on your desktop.

    All that despite the fact that is based on one of the better distro's around IMHO. Debian.
  • yyrkoon - Sunday, October 28, 2012 - link

    Oh and yeah to follow up on what was left out of the comments to your post.

    Most network admins I know that want the least bit of hassle when dealing with servers do not always opt for Linux. Just for the sake of using Linux. These people realize that an operating system is a tool, all of which have their strong and weak points. With OSX being somewhere in the middle. My post above down to the first four lines of text were pure sarcasm. With the fifth and sixth lines being tongue in cheek.

    Any operating system is only as good as the user using it. It does not matter what it is. IF the user is a dumbshit, or does not care .The given OS will probably not work optimally (ever). With varying degrees of optimal operation in between, based on how well the user understands his/her operating system.

    Also, we're talking computers here, not gaming consoles. With *ALL* PC games being written on some form of a PC. For the PC. Some being Linux dev machines for cross platform development, but most being Windows / visual studio developers. Ask around the game development community sometime, and ask who uses Windows / visual studio versus Linux / eclipse or some other IDE. You'll find out for yourself. This is for a good reason too. Windows / directx being the prevalent software gaming platform. For the PC. Not to mention the fact that porting games to the xbox is fairly trivial now days. Depending on the tool set you use.

    "Ubuntu is for geeks/scientisc/developers and not for average uneduceted joes"

    Uh yeah . . . I think this "sentence" speaks for its self.

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