David Pogue at the New York Times expresses a common view in his take on Windows 8.1:
The more you work with Windows 8, the more screamingly obvious the solution becomes: Split it up. Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets. That way, everyone has to learn only one operating system, and each operating system is suited to its task.
Simple, eh? One of several flaws in this argument though is that Microsoft did exactly that.
What is Windows RT? It is a Windows tablet OS where only Windows Store apps can be installed. Admittedly the presence of the desktop in Windows RT, in order to run Office and to access settings that would otherwise be unavailable, is a sign that Windows RT is not quite done; but you can ignore it if you want. If you are looking for Windows 8 for tablets only, here it is.
Did the market love Windows RT? No, on the contrary, Microsoft had to write down $900 million on excess Surface RT inventory and OEM partners have pretty much abandoned it, leaving Surface 2, which also runs RT, alone in the market.
What was wrong with Windows RT? While you can identify missteps in naming and marketing, the fundamental reason is the weak app ecosystem, which limits what you can do.
There is no reason to think that some other variant of Windows RT – for example, one without a desktop at all, or renamed “Surface OS” – would have fared any better. It would probably have been a bigger disaster, lacking even the benefit of Microsoft Office.
Right now, Microsoft has two ARM-based Windows operating systems: The Windows Phone OS and the Windows RT OS. The thinking is these will be one by Spring 2015. Because it tends to be easier to take a “smaller” OS and add to it than to take a larger one and remove features from it, it’s likely that the Windows Phone OS is the one on top of which the new operating systems group will build.
The reasoning, incidentally, does not altogether make sense, though I do not doubt Mary Jo Foley’s reporting. Windows Phone itself is based on a cut-down version of a larger operating system, with the Windows 7 range built on Windows CE and the Windows 8 range built on the full Windows NT kernel. What we will get, I suspect, is unification of the app platform in Windows Phone and Windows 8, and the question will be what happens to the desktop and ability to run full Office in this ARM Windows vNext.
Aside: of all the gadgets I carry around, it is Surface RT that draws the most approving comment from non-technical friends, thanks to its small size, excellent screen, long battery life, and ability to run Word and Excel as well as tablet apps. Of course it is too expensive and too slow, in its first release, and while Surface 2 may fix performance, it will not fix the premium price.