Does Windows RT Have A Future? Samsung Cancels More Tablet Launches As Uncertainty Rises

When Microsoft announced that it would build an entirely separate version of Windows for ARM processors in 2011, it galvanized the entire computing industry. For decades, Windows and x86 had been synonymous terms, so this move to support alternative architectures was seen as a fundamental change in how Microsoft would approach future product development and software compatibility.

Fast forward to the present day, and the future prospects for Windows RT are dimming fast. Samsung -- already having decided not to bring its Ativ RT tablet to the US due to low sales -- has now given notice that it won't sell the device in Germany, either. Windows RT sales have generally been lower than expected; Microsoft's own Surface RT hasn't lit up sales charts, either.

The reason why is simple: Current Windows RT devices are outperformed by cheaper Clover Trail-based tablets. Samsung's Ativ 500T includes a keyboard, 11.6" screen, digitizer, 64GB of storage, micro-HDMI, and a USB 2.0 port for $649. A Surface RT with a Touch Cover and 64GB of storage is $699. It feels nicer in hand than the Ativ 500T (I've used both), but if you want video output, for example, you've got to buy the Surface RT adapter for another $40. At that point, you're nearly $100 over the Ativ's price.

And what are you getting for that extra $100?  Less software compatibility. A version of Office 2013 that doesn't include some of the suite's important business features. There's supposedly an Outlook version in the works for RT, but battery life problems and bug-fixing has delayed its introduction. Atom systems tend to be a bit faster than RT -- USB copy speeds in particular are twice as fast on the Samsung Ativ 500T as on the Surface RT -- but I don't think that's actually the problem.

The problem with RT is that it lives and dies on the strength of the Windows Store, and the Windows Store isn't anywhere near strong enough to carry that burden. x86 compatibility, in this context, isn't an added performance feature, but a fundamental safety net. Want to play MKVs without paying for dodgy software that may or may not function as advertised? You need x86. Want genuine selection as far as messaging apps is concerned, or do you want to stick with a messaging platform you're already accustomed to? You need x86. Need to run even a handful of critical applications or services that don't have Windows Store equivalents yet? You need x86.

Microsoft really dropped the app side of the ball and it may kill the RT product. The News app for Windows 8 is virtually the only stand-out application. The Video app functions, but is clearly designed to sell you content, not play it back optimally. The front page is forever stuffed with advertising, as opposed to customized views of your own pre-existing library.

With new ARM SoCs dropping this year from multiple vendors, Microsoft has a number of options for improving Surface RT's baseline performance -- Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Samsung all have next-generation quad-cores ready to go in 2013. Better hardware alone, however, won't fix RT's problems. The only way for Microsoft to establish RT as a viable option is to create apps for the platform that go beyond "barely functional" and mature into "So good, you won't need anything else."

Right now, the baked-in Photos app on RT isn't as functional as Windows Paint for the most basic of photo editing tasks. Virtually every single app needs a major overhaul. On Windows 8 x86 devices, the x86 safety net fixes this problem. With Windows RT, it can't.

Absent a credible new strategy, RT will die an unmourned death. As much as I like Surface RT's physical design, there's no upside to investing $700 in a tablet when better,faster, more compatible devices with equivalent battery life are available for less money.