How to Save Windows RT

Why Save Windows RT?

Since its inception, Windows RT has gathered its fair share of criticism. While I do acknowledge that its app ecosystem is severely inadequate and the existence of quirks like the "desktop mode", Windows RT is still worth saving because it has a great deal of potential. Microsoft’s take on tablet computing is by far the most productive as compared to its rival operating systems – iOS and Android. As a matter of fact, I’m typing this article now on my Surface RT. Windows RT is also arguably superior to its competitors in a sense that it utilises the extra real estate of a tablet the most efficiently. As far as I love Android running on smartphones, its tablet equivalent continues to feel less than optimised. I can’t imagine myself using a large Android tablet because of how I have to treat it as an oversized smartphone when I’m using apps that aren’t optimised for tablets. (Some apps even require usage in portrait mode) On smaller tablets like the Nexus 7 however (which I previously owned), the improved ease of handling alleviates this issue. As for the iPad, iOS remains on the far end of "play" in a "play vs work" continuum. Apple may be pushing for its iWork suite on iOS devices but the fact remains that Windows RT offers a better office experience.

Windows RT shines in some places where it is really commendable. The default browser for one is really smooth and fast, albeit the Internet Explorer moniker. It has many laptop-like capabilities which makes it really productive. For example, the Surface RT supports USB mice and keyboards even speakers. I can even use its USB port to charge my phone or manage files on my phone. The way Windows RT runs is also extremely efficient and lightweight. The difference in performance between the Surface RT and a competing Android tablet with similar hardware specifications probably makes it self-explanatory.

Because there is such a huge void in the tablet market for Windows RT to fill, there is really no reason to consider giving it up unless Microsoft botch to the point where consumers’ negative impression on Windows RT is irreversible. At this point, we are far from it as many don’t even have a clue what Windows RT is.

Problem 1: Apps

This is a self-perpetuating cycle – the platform doesn’t have the apps users want, users shun the platform, hence developers stay away from the platform, causing the lack of apps users desire. It is a hen and egg problem that has plagued not only Windows RT but also Windows Phone 8. Currently, the Windows Store is filled with third-party replacements for essential apps like YouTube, Facebook and Google Play Music. The efforts of these third-party replacements are laudable – MetroTube (a YouTube replacement) is fully function, gMusic for Windows (a Google Play Music replacement) is also impressive in its complete functionality although it can sure look more professional. However, some of these third-party replacement omit key functions due to the unavailability of APIs.

The solution is almost already known to Microsoft. *inserts video of Steve Ballmer yelling "developers"* It is to get developers to jump on board. Not just any developers – developers of popular apps on iOS and Android. I’m talking about Pocket, SoundHound, Instagram and gaming titles. Don’t bother promising to share higher revenues with developers, Microsoft! You should be throwing cash at them to develop the apps users want. The money Microsoft gets from app revenue is likely to be negligible anyway, so why hold on to that little money when you can give everything away and get more developers on board your platform?

Perhaps a reward system for developers could be set up based on downloads and ratings of apps. This would incentivise indie developers to create high quality apps and popular apps, as well as attracting developers of established titles as their popularity on other platforms already give them a head start. At this point, Microsoft should desperately get the apps that people use on competing platforms on Windows RT and not focus on monetising its Windows Store.

Problem 2: Hardware

Currently, Microsoft is essentially alone in making Windows RT tablets after the poor sales of Windows RT tablets made manufacturers ditch the platform. What Microsoft need now is really impressive hardware to attract consumers on board the platform. The recently-announced Surface 2 may be a spec bump in every way, but the Surface needs more than a spec bump. It needs a boost that would make it way ahead of the competition in some aspect (perhaps a ludicrously high resolution screen or an insanely fast 64-bit processor). Windows RT hardware must give owners a sense of pride to own them. The rigid construction, the clever kickstand and novel keyboard covers of the Surface are good example and Microsoft needs Windows RT tablets, or the next Surface(s) for that matter, to have more of such palpable hardware prowess.

The Windows RT tablets need to be a differentiated in terms of hardware. They must give customers the bragging rights they deserve for buying a tablet which would likely be scorned by iPad-users. They must work so well in a way that when a Windows RT user props his or her tablet and start using it, the iPad user gets blown away by how different yet awesome the device is.

Microsoft really have to get creative on this one. I personally think a touch cover which entire surface functions as a touchpad with multi-touch gestures as well would do the trick, but that’s just me.

Problem 3: Price

I get that Microsoft is trying to market Windows RT as a platform against the iPad, but it has to acknowledge that it is late to the game (almost 2 years) and the price to pay is not charging premium prices for a premium device. This is where Microsoft has to play Amazon if it ever wants Windows RT to get anywhere. The Surface 2 is an amazing tablet but nobody is going to buy into a platform that is still trying to figure itself out if they can get an iPad – a tablet with a tried and tested platform – for the same price. I would say in order to compete, the Surface would have to undercut the iPad’s price by a hundred, putting it around the same price as the Nexus 10. And for god sake, the touch and type covers should be bundled as well! It’s clearly an integral part of the Surface experience!

Problem 4: Integration with other Services

One problem with Windows RT is how it doesn’t play nice with services other than Microsoft’s offerings. As a Google user, having to find third party replacements that sync with Google Calendar, Google Task and Google Contacts is a real bummer. Although Microsoft couldn’t do anything about Google ending support for Exchange Activesync earlier this year, it could perhaps tweak its Mail, People and Calendar apps to support Google’s APIs and standards instead of suggesting long-time Google users to switch to its Outlook platform.

I get what Microsoft is trying to do here. It is trying to capitalise on this opportunity to get more users on Outlook by building a symbiotic relation between Outlook and Windows RT, but it has to understand that neither platform are doing great on their own and customers will end up ditching both when they realise Microsoft’s tablet offering only play nice with their own set of services.

So what I suggest is really for Microsoft to stop trying to pull off the "Apple" and building its walled garden. Apple could afford to do that because they were the first to provide a truly comprehensive service and they have a huge fan base. When Apple erects the walls, they keep users in; but when Microsoft does the same, they keep users out. Building a walled garden is a luxury Microsoft cannot afford. And that brings me to the next problem Microsoft have to solve.

Problem 5: Bing

Let’s get real: Bing is nowhere near Google, in terms of capabilities nor reputation. Sticking to Bing as Windows RT’s default search engine is akin to choosing not to abandon a sinking ship – not only do you not save the ship, you perish along with it.

Google Search has become incredibly useful and powerful and it is a force not to be reckoned with. By not giving users to change their default search engines, Microsoft has essentially deprived Windows RT of what could possibly be a key feature.

I’m not saying Microsoft should ditch Bing, but making it compulsory for users to use it in the RT’s Internet Explorer is kind of inflexible. Granted, the Google Search app is available in the Microsoft Store but who wants to be browsing in an integrated browser within an app?

Problem 6: Desktop Mode

It's almost unequivocal that desktop mode shouldn't exist on Windows RT so I won't talk much about this. Of course, Microsoft needs to provide a file manager and the Office suite to the modern UI.

Problem 7: The "RT" moniker

When I tell my friends that I'm using a Surface RT, I get quizzical stares. "What does RT mean?" It stands for runtime but seriously, what does that even mean? An average consumer doesn't have to know that. It is good to see that Microsoft has named the Surface RT's successor the "Surface 2" but the "RT" remains in the name of the operating system. Ditch the "RT" and call it WinTab or something! (I'm just suggesting a random name that makes more sense than "Windows RT"! Don't lecture me on how poor it sounds)

The Future of Windows RT

While Windows RT will not be going anywhere anytime soon, it faces the constant risk of being eclipsed by competition. This is especially so in the face of Google’s and Apple’s aggression in marketing and innovation. It is unlikely for Microsoft to take the aforementioned actions because of a plethora of reasons: short-changing its other core services like Bing and Outlook, its long-established rivalry with Google, short-term revenues, shareholders’ confidence, etc. Essentially, Microsoft needs to be cognizant of its prime concern, which is market share. After getting a foothold in the tablet market, every other interest would become a less distant dream.

Update: Added point 6 and 7.