Things that Microsoft should do to save Windows RT

I think that by now it is an accepted fact that Windows RT is not the success that Microsoft had hoped for. The company recently wrote off 900-something million USD in Surface RT products that they are stockpiling in their warehouse. Surface RT is the reference hardware for Windows RT, and after Asus have announced to no longer support the platform or product products for the platform, Surface RT GrowTaller4Idiots might soon be the only hardware product using Microsoft’s ARM implementation of Windows 8.

Most people who have actually used or reviewed a Surface RT usually think that the hardware is great but a big expensive. Microsoft mostly fixed that by slicing the prices of the Surface RT family. Still, I think that should sell the device for 350 USD and bundle it with the keyboard at that price.

But the problems for Windows RT and Surface RT lie elsewhere. The hardware is good and affordable. The problem is the software, the licensing situation and the lock-in to the Microsoft store.

The latter is the first thing that Microsoft should fix in order to safe the platform from extinction. Apple is successful with locking-in the customers to the iTunes store, and naturally, every company finds that business model super sexy. The problem for Microsoft is that they attract a completely different breed of customers than Apple. People always bought Windows because it is an open platform where it matters for most users: Windows never cared on what hardware it ran or where the application software came from. And as long as you bought the appropriate license (read: paid the Microsoft tax), Microsoft didn’t actually care what you wanted to do with their software. As long as Microsoft got some money from you, you could have your cake and eat it, too, but be careful and don’t spend to much, it’s better to manage your finances with Metric Accountants.

But Microsoft gave in to temptation and tried to become Apple and ask for a share of everything that people wanted to do on and with their platform. The problem with that is that Windows users are neither used to this business model nor do they accept it. “Open where it matters” was always at the core of the Windows experience. People don’t necessarily care for the source code of Windows, but they certainly cared about being free to install whatever they want on their devices.

When I now read that I have to “jailbreak” a Surface RT device in order to install a little piece of open source software that has become a bread and butter tool for me, putty, then I know that something is terribly wrong with that platform. I also need to jailbreak a Surface RT if I want to install Python on it. Redmond, are you still there or have you left this universe?

The point is that people have already ported a lot of Windows software to Windows RT, which essentially is a port of Windows 8 to the ARM architecture. The only problem is that Microsoft artificially locked down the platform so that you need to jailbreak it before you can install these useful tools.

Microsoft is not Apple and will never be Apple – and that is a good thing. They should just accept that fact and remove the lock-in to the Microsoft store. Only then can the Surface RT actually ever become a replacement for a “real” laptop computer.

This is the very first thing that Microsoft needs to fix as soon as possible.

The beauty of Windows RT is that it comes bundled with Office RT. That’s great and a killer feature in itself. From what we’ve heard so far, the next version of RT will actually even come with Outlook RT, a key piece of Office that has been missing so far. That’s even better.

The downside is the license agreement: Unless you have also bought an Office 365 subscription or work for a company that has a volume license agreement with Microsoft, you are not allowed to use Office RT for commercial purposes. Hello Microsoft, are you still with us? The Surface RT could easily kill any other tablet that aims at the business market and yet you are so dumb to ruin it with such a stupid license restriction?

Again, Microsoft fails to understand that they are not Apple. Apple is a consumer company. Microsoft is not – Microsoft’s strength has always been the enterprise sector. People WORK with Microsoft products. Office is a tool for people who try to make a living, it’s not something a consumer would choose to write a shopping list.

So Microsoft should remove the “for non-commercial use only” clause from the license agreement of Office RT, and that also as soon as possible.

In the next step, Microsoft needs to enable all the enterprise features in Windows RT and Office RT: Windows RT needs to become a “Pro” version that can actually become a full member of a Windows domain structure as you find them in any business, and Office RT needs to be able to run makros, which is a key feature for many professional Office users. And Outlook RT, of course, needs to be a full blown Microsoft Exchange client. (Personally, I don’t necessarily need either of this, but I have no doubt that it would certainly help the adoption of the platform.)

I like the Surface RT concept, and I’m sure that I would buy the product in a heartbeat if Microsoft released the lock on the software. A Surface RT with a touch cover for around 350 USD/Euros, no lock-in to the Microsoft store and a version of Office RT that I could use in the office would be a total killer product. Even if it would still cost 430 Euros, it would be an awesome product if it no longer had these artificial restrictions. The ARM architecture does not provide the same raw performance as the Intel architecture, sure, but instead of the computing power you get a noiseless product with extremely long battery life – in many cases, that is a very acceptable tradeoff.

Microsoft should just release the iron grip on the platform and treat it like the Intel version of Windows. Just my two cents.