Microsoft’s hardware business has always felt like something of an also-ran, with the notable exception being the Xbox of course. It’s not that the products were bad per se, indeed many of my friends still swear by the Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard, more that it just seemed to be an aside that never really saw much innovation or effort. The Surface seemed like an attempt to change the perception, pitting Microsoft directly against the venerable iPad whilst also attempting to bring consumers across to the Windows 8 way of thinking. Unfortunately the early years weren’t kind to it at all with the experiment resulting in a $900 million write down for Microsoft which many took to indicate that the Surface (or at the very least the RT version) weren’t long for this world. The 18 months that have followed however have seen that particular section of Microsoft’s business make a roaring comeback, much to my and everyone else’s surprise.
The Microsoft quarterly earnings report released today showing that Microsoft is generally in a good position with revenue and gross margin up on the previous quarter of last year. The internal make up of those numbers is a far more mixed story (covered in much better detail here) however the standout point was the fact that the Surface division alone was $1.1 billion for the quarter, up a staggering $211 million from the previous quarter. This is most certainly on the back of the Surface Pro 3 which was released in June 2014 but for a device that was almost certainly headed for the trash heap it’s a pretty amazing turn around from $900 million in the hole to $1.1 billion in revenue just 1.5 years later.
The question that interests me then is: What was the driving force behind this comeback?
To start off with the Surface Pro 3 (and all the Surface Pro predecessors) are actually pretty great pieces of kit, widely praised for their build quality and overall usability. They were definitely a premium device, especially if you went for the higher spec options, but they are infinitely preferable to carting around your traditional workhorse laptop around with you. The lines get a little blurry when you compare them to an ultrabook of similar specifications, at least if you’re someone like me who’s exacting with what they want, however if you didn’t really care about that the Surface was a pretty easy decision. So the hardware was great, what was behind the initial write down then?
That entirely at the feet of the WinRT version which simply failed to be the iPad competitor it was slated to be. Whilst I’m sure I’d have about as much use for an iPad as I would for my Surface RT it simply didn’t have the appeal that its fully fledged Pro brethren had. Sure you’d be spending more money on the Pro but you’d be getting the full Windows experience rather than the cut down version which felt like it was stuck between being a tablet and laptop replacement. Microsoft tried to stick with the RT idea with the 2 however they’ve gone to great lengths now to reposition the device as a laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor.
You don’t even have to go far to see this repositioning in action, the Microsoft website for the Surface Pro 3 puts it in direct competition with the Macbook Air. It’s a market segment that the device is far more likely to win in as well considering that Apple’s entire Mac product line made about $6.6 billion last quarter which includes everything from the Air all the way to the Mac Pro. Apple has never been the biggest player in this space however so the comparison might be a little unfair but it still puts the Surface’s recent revival into perspective.
It might not signal Microsoft being the next big thing in consumer electronics but it’s definitely not something I expected from a sector that endured a near billion dollar write off. Whether Microsoft can continue along these lines to capitalize on this is something we’ll have to watch closely as I’m sure no one is going to let them forget the failure that was the original Surface RT. I still probably won’t buy one however, well unless they decide to include a discrete graphics chip in a future revision.
Hint hint, Microsoft.
It may seem like scientists spend an inordinate time studying water but there’s a pretty good reason for that. Water is fundamental to all forms of life on Earth so understanding its origins and what roles it plays is crucial to understanding how life came to be and where we might find it. The vast majority of Earth’s water is contained in its oceans which were thought to have formed when comets bombarded its surface, seeding them across the world. However recent research has shown that the oceans may have formed in a different way and that Earth may have much more water contained in it than previously thought.
A recent study done by Steven Jacobsen and his team at Northwestern University has revealed that Earth has a subsurface reservoir that may contain 3 times the volume of the Earth’s surface oceans. They discovered this information by using data from a wide variety of seismometers, those instruments that measure the intensity of the pressure waves of earthquakes, and figuring out how the waves travelled through the Earth’s interior. This is nothing new, it’s how we’ve figured out the rough compositions of the different layers of the Earth’s inner layers previously, however Jacobsen postulated that water in ringwoodite would slow the waves. After testing a sample of ringwoodite to confirm this theory (shown above) his team found data to support the existence of a large layer of ringwoodite in the Earth’s mantle. Whilst this isn’t a subsurface ocean like some heavenly bodies in our solar system have it is a rather interesting discovery, one that supports an entirely different theory of how our surface oceans formed.
The initial hypothesis (at least the one I’m familiar with) is that the Earth bound itself together out of all the varying bits of debris that existed after the sun had formed itself. At this point Earth was a ball of lava, a fiendishly unfriendly environment devoid of any kind of life. Then, as the planet cooled, comets rained down on its surface, supplying the vast amounts of water we now see today. The discovery of this layer of ringwoodite on the other hand suggests that the water may have been present during the initial formation and that instead of other comets providing all the water it instead seeped up, filling all the crevices and crags of the Earth’s surface. It’s interesting because it now links Earth more directly to our other celestial neighbours, those which you’d never consider Earth-like at all.
Saturn’s Europa and Jupiter’s Ganymede for instance are both hypothesized to have vast bodies of water under their surfaces. Up until this discovery you would be forgiven for thinking that their initial formation was likely due to their immediate environment (I.E. those massive gas giants right next to them) however it’s more likely that all heavenly bodies form along a similar path. Thus oceans like ours are probably more likely than not for planets of similar size to ours. Of course there are also numerous other factors that can push things in one way or another (see Mars and Venus for examples of Earth like planets are nothing like Earth) but such similarities really can’t be ignored.
In all honesty this discovery surprised me as I had always been a subscriber to the “comet bombardment” theory of Earth’s oceans. This evidence however points towards an origin story where water formed a core part of Earth’s structure, only to worm its way to the surface long after it cooled. Come to think of it this probably also explains (at least partially) how Earth’s atmosphere likely came to existence, the gases slowly seeping out until it was blanketed in carbon dioxide, only to be turned into the atmosphere we know today by plants. I’m keen to see what other insights can be gleaned for this data as I’m sure this isn’t the only thing Jacobsen’s team discovered.
Correction: My good friend Louise correctly pointed out that our atmosphere started off being almost completely carbon dioxide and only had the composition we know today thanks to plans. She also pointed out I used the wrong “it’s” in the title which, if I didn’t know any better, would say to me that she wants to be my copy editor 😉
In the time that Microsoft has been a company it has only known two Chief Executive Officers. The first was unforgettably Bill Gates, the point man of the company from its founding days that saw the company grow from a small software shop to the industry giant of the late 90s. Then, right at the beginning of the new millennium, Bill Gates stood down and passed the crown to long time business partner Steve Ballmer who has since spent the better part of 2 decades attempting to transform Microsoft from a software company to a devices and services one. Rumours had been spreading about who was slated to take over Ballmer for some time now and, last week, after much searching Microsoft veteran Satya Nadella took over as the third CEO of the venerable company and now everyone is wondering where he will take it.
For those who don’t know him Nadella’s heritage in Microsoft comes from the Server and Tools department where he’s held several high ranking positions for a number of years. Most notably he’s been in charge of Microsoft’s cloud computing endeavours, including building out Azure which hit $1 billion in sales last year, something I’m sure helped to seal the deal on his new position. Thus many would assume that Nadella’s vision for Microsoft would trend along these lines, something which runs a little contrary to the more consumer focused business that Ballmer sought to deliver, however his request to have Bill Gates step down as Chairman of the Board so that Nadella could have him as an advisor in this space says otherwise.
As with any changing of the guard many seek to impress upon the new bearer their wants for the future of the company. Nadella has already come under pressure to drop some of Microsoft’s less profitable endeavours including things like Bing, Surface and even the Xbox division (despite it being quite a revenue maker, especially as of late). Considering these products are the culmination of the effort of the 2 previous CEOs, both of which will still be involved in the company to some degree, taking an axe to them would be a extraordinarily hard thing to do. These are the products they’ve spent years and billions of dollars building so dropping them seems like a short sighted endeavour, even if it would make the books look a little better.
Indeed many of these business units which certain parties would look to cut are the ones that are seeing good growth figures. The surface has gone from a $900 million write down disaster to losing a paltry $39 million in 2 quarters, an amazing recovery that signals profitability isn’t too far off. Similarly Bing, the search engine that we all love to hate on, saw a 34% increase in revenue in a single quarter. It’s not even worth mentioning the Xbox division as it’s been doing well for years now and the release of the XboxOne with it’s solid initial sales ensures that remains one of Microsoft’s better performers.
The question then becomes whether Nadella, and the board he now serves, sees the on-going value in these projects. Indeed much of the work they’ve been doing in the past decade has been with the focus towards unifying many disparate parts of their ecosystem together, heading towards that unified nirvana where everything works together seamlessly. Removing them from the picture feels like Microsoft backing itself into a corner, one where it can be easily shoehorned into a narrative that will see it easily lose ground to those competitors it has been fighting for years. In all honesty I feel Microsoft is so dominant in those sectors already that there’s little to be gained from receding from perceived failures and Nadella should take this chance to innovate on his predecessor’s ideas, not toss them out wholesale.
There’s no question that Microsoft’s attempt at the tablet market has been lacklustre. Whilst the hardware they have powering their tablets was decent the nascent Windows Store lacks the diversity of its competitors, something which made the RT version of it even less desirable. This has since resulted in Microsoft writing down $900 million in Surface RT and associated inventory something which many speculated would be the end of the Surface line. However it appears that Microsoft is more committed than ever to the Surface idea and recently announced the Surface 2, an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor.
The new Surface 2 looks pretty much identical to predecessor although it’s a bit slimmer and is also a bit lighter. It retains the in built kick stand but it now has 2 positions instead of one something which I’m will be useful to some. The specifications under the hood have been significantly revamped for both versions of the tablet with the RT (although it’s no longer called that) version sporting a NVIDIA Tegra 4 and the Pro one of the new Haswell i5 chips. Microsoft will also now let you choose how much RAM you get in your Pro model, allowing you to cram up to 8GB in there. The Pro also gets the luxury of larger drive sizes, up to 512GB should you want it (although you’ll be forced to get the 8GB RAM model if you do). Overall I’d say this is pretty much what you’d expect from a generation 2 product and the Pro at least looks like it could be a decent laptop competitor.
Of course the issues that led Microsoft to write down nearly a billion dollars worth of inventory (after attempting to peddle as much of it as they could to TechEd attendees) still exist today and the upgrade to Windows 8.1 won’t do much to solve this. Sure in the time between the initial Surface release and now there’s been a decent amount of applications developed for it but it still pales in comparison. I still think that the Metro interface is pretty decent on a touch screen but Microsoft will really have to do something outrageous to convince everyone that the Surface is worth buying otherwise it’s doomed to repeat its predecessor’s mistakes.
The Pro on the other hand looks like it’d be a pretty great enterprise tablet thanks to its full x86 environment. I know I’d much rather have those in my environment than Android or iPads as they would be much harder to integrate into all the standard management tools. A Surface 2 Pro on the other hand would behave much like any other desktop allowing me to deliver the full experience to anyone who had one. Of course it’s then more of a replacement for a laptop than anything else but I do know a lot of users who would prefer a tablet device rather than the current fleet of laptops they’re given (even the ones who get ultrabooks).
Whilst the Pro looks like a solid upgrade I can’t help but feel that the upgrade to the RT is almost unnecessary given the fact that most of the complaints levelled at it were nothing to do with its performance. Indeed not once have I found myself wanting for speed on my Surface RT, instead I’ve been wanting my favourite apps to come across so that I don’t have to use their web versions which, on Internet Explorer, typically aren’t great. Maybe the ecosystem is mature enough now to tempt some people across but honestly unless they already own one I can’t really see that happening, at least for the RT version. The Pro on the other hand could make some headway into Microsoft’s core enterprise market but even that might not be enough for the Surface division.
Just like any new tech gadget I’ve been ogling tablets for quite some time. Now I’m sure there will be a few who are quick to point out that I said long ago that an ultrabook fills the same niche, at least for me, but that didn’t stop me from lusting after them for one reason or another. I’d held off on buying one for a long time though as the price for something I would only have a couple uses for was far too high, even if I was going to use it for game reviews, so for a long time I simply wondered at what could be. Well whilst I was at TechEd North America the opportunity to snag a Windows Surface RT came up for the low price of $99 and I, being able to ignore the fiscal conservative in me and relent into my tech lust, happily handed over my credit card so I could take one home with me.
It’s quite a solid device with a noticeable amount of heft in it despite its rather slim figure. Of particular note is the built in kick stand which allows you to sit the Surface upright, something which I’ve heard others wish for with their tablets. It’s clear that the Surface as been designed to be used primarily in landscape mode which is in opposition to most other tablets that utilize the portrait view. For someone like me who’s been a laptop user for a long time this didn’t bother me too much but I can see how it’d be somewhat irritating if you were coming from another platform as it’d be just another thing you’d have to get used to. Other than that it seems to be your pretty standard tablet affair with a few tweaks to give it a more PC feel.
The specifications of it are pretty decent boasting a WXGA (1366 x 768) 16:9 screen powered by a NVIDIA Tegra3 with 2GB RAM behind it. I’ve got the 64GB model which reports 53GB available and 42GB free which was something of a contentious point for many as they weren’t getting what they paid for (although at $99 I wasn’t going to complain). It’s enough that when using it I never noticed any stutter or slow down even when I was playing some of the more graphically intense games on it. I didn’t really try any heavy productivity stuff on it because I much prefer my desktop for work of that nature but I get the feeling it could handle 90% of the tasks I could throw at it. The battery life also appears to be relatively decent although I have had a couple times where it mysteriously came up on 0 charge although that might have been due to my fiddling with the power settings (more on why I did that later).
Since I’ve been a Windows 8 user for a while the RT interface on the Surface wasn’t much of a shock to me although I was a little miffed that I couldn’t run some of my chosen applications, even in desktop mode, notably Google Chrome. That being said applications that have been designed for the Metro interface are usually pretty good, indeed the OneNote app and Cocktail Flow are good examples of this, however the variety of applications available is unfortunately low. This is made up for a little by the fact that the browser on the Surface is far more usable than the one on Windows Phone 7 enabling many of the web apps to work fine. I hope for Microsoft’s sake this changes soon as the dearth of applications on the Surface really limits its appeal.
The keyboard that came with the Surface gets a special mention because of just how horrid it is. Whilst it does a good job of being a protective cover, one that does have a rather satisfying click as the magnets snap in, it’s absolutely horrendous as an input device, akin to typing on a furry piece of cardboard. Since there’s no feedback it’s quite hard to type fast on it and worse still it seems to miss key presses every so often. Probably the worst part about it is that if your surface locks itself with it attached and then you remove it you will then have no way to unlock your device until you re-attach it, even if you’ve set a PIN code up. I’ve heard that the touch cover is a lot better but since it was going for $100 at the time I wasn’t too keen on purchasing it.
The Surface does do a good job of filling the particular niche I had for it, which was mainly watching videos and using it to remote into my servers, but past that I haven’t found myself using it that much. Indeed the problem seems to be that the Surface, at least the non-pro version, is stuck halfway between being a true tablet and a laptop as many of its features are still computer-centric. This means that potential customers on either side of the equation will probably feel like they’re missing something which I think is one of the main reasons that the Surface has struggled to get much market share. The Pro seems to be much closer to being a laptop, enough so that the people I talked to at TechEd seemed pretty happy with their purchase. Whether that translates into Microsoft refocusing their strategy with the Surface remains to be seen, however.
The Surface is a decent little device, having the capabilities you’ve come to expect from a tablet whilst still having that Microsoft Windows feel about it. It’s let down by the lack of applications and dissonance it suffers from being stuck between the PC and tablet worlds, something that can’t be easily remedied by a software fix. The touch cover is also quite atrocious and should be avoided at all costs, even if you’re just going to use it as a cover. For the price I got it for I think it was worth the money however getting it at retail is another story and unless you’re running a completely Microsoft house already I’d struggle to recommend it over an ultrabook or similarly portable computing device.
I don’t know what it is about holidays or trips away but I seem to spend the first half dreading everything about the place I’m in and then once I’m past the halfway point I seem to yearn for it not to end. This trip is no different as I wasn’t too crash hot on the whole idea but late yesterday I felt like I hit a turning point. My article that I dreamed up went down a treat and today the vague layout I had given myself helped to focus me on the important points of the sessions I was attending. Now I feel like the little amount of time I have left here isn’t enough and I curse my former self for being so impudent.
Most of today was fairly uneventful as I had managed to choose a few sessions that had significant overlap with each other. This is despite them claiming that “no one else has seen this content yet” so I ended up spending an undue amount of time on Reddit just waiting for it to finish so I could move onto the next one. Thankfully I had 2 sessions that were really quite awesome, especially the Azure Internals one done by Mark Russinovich who’s fast becoming my favorite presenter for everything Microsoft. I’m less worried about what I’m going to see tomorrow since I can do a reflective post about everything and I expect the chances of me finding out anything amazing on the last day are slim to nil.
I finally decided to brave the line for a Surface¹ as I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t take them up on the offer. Like most I was planning to go for the duo, getting one of both to take advantage of the price difference, however thinking about it I have no need for 2 tablets (my wife swears by her Macbook Air and I my Zenbook) but for $99 I figured the RT was cheap enough for those rare times I’ve found myself thinking “Hey a tablet would rock here”. All told I was in the line for about an hour or so when all I would’ve been doing otherwise was surfing the web so it wasn’t time wasted and the short line for lunch afterwards was a nice bonus.
We all managed to catch up for beers and dinner after we’d all finished writing our posts which was bloody fantastic and was most definitely one of the key things that had been missing from this trip. It was also very interesting to hear the journos war stories about the various tech press and the media in general and even better still being able to relate to them as a blogger (and not be ridiculed for it, omg). I did feel a little bad for the other guys though as whilst they we were all talking shop I felt like we might’ve been excluding them a little bit, but thankfully the conversation didn’t circle around journalism for the whole night.
Tomorrow is shaping up to be a pretty excellent day with the sessions stopping early and the big Microsoft piss up happening shortly after. I know we’re all looking to exploit this for all its worth so it should be a good time to get loose with everyone after a hard week’s blogging. Whilst that might preclude doing anything particularly interesting the day after it’ll all be worth it if we enjoy ourselves. I’ll just have to make sure to not get too wrecked as we’ll be shipping out the next day and flying hungover isn’t exactly one of my most favorite things to do.
¹For those not in the know they’re offering them to TechEd attendees at a ridiculous price point, $99 for the RT and $499 for the Pro.
I’ve been using Windows 8 for a good 6 months now and as someone who’s use all previous Windows versions going back to 3.1 it’s easy for me to say that it’s the best of the lot so far. Sure I don’t use the Metro interface a lot but that’s mostly because it’s not designed for the current platform I’m using it on (a PC that doesn’t have a touch interface). Still it seems I can’t go a day where someone, usually an executive from a large OEM, is bashing Windows 8 in one way or another. Considering that nearly everyone I talk to, including people who aren’t that technically inclined, seems to say the direct opposite of what they say I figured it was something worth looking into.
A lot of the criticisms seem to stem from the awkward launch that Windows 8 had. Now I’m not going to try and be an apologist for this as it’s well known that even Microsoft was disappointed with the initial release. For those of us who endured the Vista launch however it’s pretty obvious why this occurred as whenever a new Windows release deviates heavily from the previous one (whether in terms of interface or underlying architecture) the sales are always lackluster as their biggest customers, the enterprise buyers, don’t want to take the risk until all the teething issues have been sorted out. More crucially though is that whilst the launch might have been an all round disappointment it didn’t take long for Windows 8 to gain some significant steam, getting on par with Windows 7 after 90 days.
Several other high profile people have gone on record saying that the Surface is also seeing lackluster sales. This coming not long after many people have called the ultrabook market a failure (which is not unjustified) makes it look like Windows 8 ‘s introduction can’t have any impact on what looks like a declining PC market. Now I’m not going to argue against those numbers however if you look at past Windows releases, take 7 for instance which was released in Q4 of 2009, you’ll see that whilst there was a small boost (which wasn’t out of line with current trend growths) the previous quarter it was back to where it was before. What this means is that while you’d expect people to be buying a new computer in order to get the latest version of Windows many in fact don’t. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise as the system requirements between Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 aren’t that great and indeed any PC bought during the time that these operating systems has been available would be more than capable of running them. Indeed many computers have reached the level of good enough half a decade ago for the vast majority of the population so the lackluster growth isn’t surprising, nor is it anything to worry about in my point of view.
I think the reason for the backlash is due to two reasons, both of which the blame does actually lie with Microsoft. The first is a bit of speculation on my part as I think Microsoft promised a boost in PC sales to the various OEMs in order to get them on board early with Windows 8. This is pretty much par for course when you’re working with OEMs on a new and risky product as otherwise they’ll be waiting until the product catches on before they throw their hat in the ring. Now whilst Microsoft could probably handle Windows 8 not getting a lot of OEM support for a while it would have been likely that Windows 8 wouldn’t have caught up to 7’s sales in the first 90 day period, severely stunting its future growth. Whilst they wouldn’t have a Vista level disaster on their hands it would’ve been much worse than what they’re dealing with now.
Secondly I get the feeling that many of the OEMs aren’t too enthused about the Surface and I don’t blame them. I said a while back that Microsoft needed to keep their product in the premium range in order to not piss off their partners and they’ve done that to some extent however with the exorbitant license cost for OEMs it’s incredibly hard for them to make a comparable tablet for the same cost as the low end Surface RT. This has no doubt generated a bit of animosity towards Microsoft with many OEM executives bashing Surface at every chance they get despite it selling out almost immediately upon release. Whether Microsoft can repair this relationship remains to be seen however as the platform’s long term survivability will be made or broken by their OEMs, just like it has been in the past.
Microsoft took a risk with Windows 8 and by most accounts it appears to be paying off for them, unlike their previous experience with Vista. It might not be the saving grace of the PC industry nor might it be a runaway success in the tablet market however Microsoft is not a company that plays the short term game. Windows 8 is the beginning of a new direction for them and by all accounts it’s creating a solid foundation with which Microsoft can further build on. Future Microsoft releases will then be able to deliver even more capabilities on more platforms than any other ecosystem. This isn’t the first time they’ve been on the back foot and then managed to managed to dominate a market long after it has established itself (Xbox anyone?) and I’d be really surprised if they failed this time around.
As far back as I can remember the differences between the full version of Windows 8 and the tablet version, now dubbed Windows RT, were made pretty clear. Whilst the Modern UI section of them was going to be essentially identical the full version of Windows wasn’t going to run on anything that wasn’t x86 compatible and RT would be the version that could run on low power systems like ARM. This, logically, came with some draw backs the largest of which is the omission of the desktop environment on Windows RT devices. In all honesty this didn’t bother me as Microsoft is making a version of their Surface tablet (and I’m sure others will as well) that would run the full desktop anyway.
The delineation also made a lot of sense due to the different markets that both versions were targeting. The full version is squarely aimed at the desktop/laptop space whilst the RT version is strictly for mobile computing. In terms of functionality there’s a lot of crossover between these two spaces but the separation essentially meant that you had your desktop with its oodles of backwards compatibility that Microsoft is known for whilst also getting that nice, highly focused tablet environment should you want it.
However as it turns out Windows RT is far more full featured that I first thought and is capable of running Win32 applications:
Thanks one intrepid user, Clrokr, over at XDA Developers it has been found out that Microsoft actually included full Win32 compatibility in Windows RT devices that run on the ARM architecture. Whilst this doesn’t mean you can straight up run those executables on said platform it does mean that any Windows application that you have the source of can be recompiled to run, without issue, on Windows RT devices. The above screenshot is from another user, peterdn, who has recompiled PuTTy to run on ARM and it appears to be functioning quite fine. Other applications have also been tested as well and shown to work as you’d expect.
Thinking about it more clearly this shouldn’t have come as a surprise as the architecture diagram for Windows 8 clearly shows that C/C++/C# are fully supported on both platforms and the inclusion of the desktop on Windows RT devices (again something I wasn’t aware of) would have you thinking everything was there to support this. As it turns out the only thing that was stopping this from working in the first place was runtime authentication level that was hard coded to only allow Microsoft signed applications to run in such an environment. The jailbreak that Clrokr details in this post is simply an in memory overwrite of this value which will allow any application to run. From there you just need to recompile your application and you’re golden.
The reasons for the lock out make sense from a business point of view: Microsoft was trying to create a pristine tablet environment that was tightly controlled in order to create a better experience. However at the same time porting all of the underlying architecture to ARM would have required quite a bit of effort and locking this functionality away from people seems like a strange idea. Whilst I’m not going to say they should unlock it for everyone having it as a configurable option would have meant that most users wouldn’t know about it but power users, like the ones who discovered this, could take advantage of it. I haven’t seen if Microsoft has made an official response to this yet or not but I’m sure they’d win more than a couple fans if they did this and it doesn’t look like it would be that hard to implement.
I was genuinely surprised by this as I hadn’t caught on pretty much all of Windows, including everything that makes it tick under the hood, had been ported across to the ARM architecture. I had believed that it was just a port of the core functionality required to support the WinRT framework but as the above screenshots prove Windows RT devices are pretty much fully fledged copies of Windows, they just need their applications recompiled in order to work. Of course questions of how those applications fair vs their modernized counterparts in a tablet environment remains to be seen but it’s interesting that the option is there and that Microsoft has gone to such lengths to keep people from fiddling with it.
I’ve been using Windows 8 as my main system for the better part of 2 months now and, whilst I’ll leave the in-depth impressions for the proper review, I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. Sure I wasn’t particularly happy with the way things were laid out initially but for the most part if you just blunder along like its Windows 7 you’re not going to struggle with it for very long. I might not use any of the modern styled applications, they don’t feel like they’re particularly well suited to the mouse/keyboard scenario if I’m honest, but everything else about it works as expected. Of course whilst Microsoft has already sold 40 million licenses of Windows 8 most people are focusing on Windows RT, care of the Surface tablet.
For the technically inclined the differences between the two are pretty stark and we’ve known for a long time that the Surface is essentially Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. The lines are a little bit more blurry between Surface/RT and the full version of Windows 8, thanks to the Modern Styled UI being shared between them, but the lack of a desktop made it pretty clear where the delineation lay. It seems however that there’s a feeling among some the bigger media outlets that Windows 8 is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts which has been perplexing me all morning:
What we’re seeing, I think, is Microsoft dancing around an uncomfortable reality: Windows RT just doesn’t have much to offer, so it’s hard to explain how it’s different from Windows 8 without making it look inferior.
The only distinct advantage for Windows RT is its support for “connected standby,” a power-saving mode that lets the device keep an eye on e-mail and other apps while it’s not in use. It’s a nice feature to have, but on its own it’s a tough sell compared to Windows 8′s wider software support. (UPDATE: As Eddie Yasi points out in the comments, the Atom-based chips that Windows 8 tablets are using, codenamed Clover Trail, support connected standby as well.)
The main thrust of the article, and another one it linked to, is that there’s been no real information from Microsoft about the differences between the fully fledged version of Windows 8 and its RT cousin. I’ll be fair to the article and not use anything past its publication date but for anyone so inclined I wrote about the differences between the two platforms well over a year ago and I was kind of late to the party on it too. Indeed the vast majority of the tech press surrounding the Surface release understood these differences quite clearly and it appears that both Time and The Verge were both being willingly ignorant simply to get a story.
Granted The Verge has something of a point that the retail representatives didn’t know the product but then again why were you asking in depth technical questions of a low wage retail worker? Most people who are looking for a Surface/iPad like device aren’t going to want to know if their legacy applications will run on it because, to them, they’re not the same thing. You could argue that the customer might have seen the Modern UI at home and then assumed that the Surface was exactly the same but I’d struggle to find someone who had installed Windows 8 this early in the piece and wasn’t aware that the Surface was a completely different beast.
Indeed the quote paragraphs above imply that Jared Newman (writer of the Time article) isn’t aware that the RT framework, the thing that powers the Modern UI, is the glue that will join all of Microsoft’s ecosystem together. Not only does it underpin Windows 8 but it’s also the framework for Windows Phone 8 and (I am speculating here but the writing is on the wall) the upcoming Xbox. What Windows RT devices offer you is the same experience that you’ll be able to get anywhere else Microsoft ecosystem but on low power devices. Newman makes the point that they could very well run them on Atom processors however anyone who’s actually used one can tell you that their performance is not up to scratch with their i3/5/7 line and is barely usable for desktop applications. They’re comparable in the low power space, meaning they would have made a decent replacement for ARM, but considering that 95% of the world’s portable devices run on the ARM it makes much more sense to go with the dominant platform rather than using something that’s guaranteed to give a sub-par experience.
I don’t like doing these kinds of take down posts, it usually feels like I’m shouting at a brick wall, but when there’s a fundamental lack of understanding or wilful ignorance of the facts I feel compelled to say something. The Windows8/RT distinctions are clear and, should you do even a small amount of research, the motives for doing so are also obvious. Thankfully most of the tech press was immune to this (although TechCrunch got swept up in this as well, tsk tsk) so there’s only a few bad apples that needed cleaning up.
I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.
News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.
Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.
Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.
You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.