Microsoft's Windows RT isn't dead...yet

The software giant says it's working on an update for the versions of its Surface tablet that used an ARM-based chip. But it will only have some of the functionality of Windows 10.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read

Microsoft's Surface tablet that runs Windows RT hasn't sold well. Josh Miller/CNET

Looks like Microsoft's long-suffering Windows RT software isn't dead quite yet.

Windows RT, which hit the market in late 2012 alongside the heavily redesigned Windows 8, was the version of Microsoft's operating system that ran on the ARM chips typically used in cell phones. The software struggled immediately and failed to gain traction with users, in part because traditional Windows programs, like Outlook, wouldn't run on the operating system. Microsoft also tightly controlled the development process for Windows RT devices, limiting the number of companies the chipmakers could work with, in order to make better products. But that meant few products, outside Microsoft's Surface, ever hit the market with the software.

The company on Wednesday spent nearly two and a half hours at a press event talking up Windows 10, the latest version of its operating system that's trying to fix the problems from Windows 8. But it devoted only a few seconds to Windows RT, saying during a Q&A with reporters that it is "working on an update for Windows RT as well."

Microsoft Surface 2 (Windows RT)

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Microsoft later said in a statement provided to CNET that "Surface Pro 3 (and the entire Surface Pro lineup) will update to Windows 10. We are working on an update for [the Windows RT version of] Surface, which will have some of the functionality of Windows 10. More information to come." The company declined to comment further.

Microsoft's Windows software is the most used operating system in the world, but the majority of devices sold in the future will be smartphones and tablets -- products where Windows and the traditional PC vendors like Hewlett-Packard and Dell have struggled. Because the x86 processors from Intel and AMD found in Windows-powered laptops and PCs required more power, they weren't well suited to mobile devices like the ARM processors that powered the vast majority of the world's smartphones and tablets. That's why Microsoft created Windows RT (and also why it reached a deal to buy Finnish handset Nokia for $7.2 billion in September 2013).

All of the major device makers working with Windows RT scrapped their products either before they hit the market (such as HP and Toshiba) or following dismal sales once the products were released (in the case of Dell). To say interest in the software was -- and remains -- low is an understatement. Even the ARM chipmakers who were to benefit from the operating system, including Nvidia and Qualcomm, largely threw in the towel, focusing their investments and efforts elsewhere.

The only device to really utilize the software has been Microsoft's own Surface tablet. The company released the first generation of its Windows RT-based Surface in late 2012 but revealed in July 2013 that it lost $900 million on the device.It released Surface 2 later that year but hasn't created any more Windows RT tablets since then. At the same time, Microsoft has released three generations of the Surface Pro lines of tablets that run Intel chips, and it continues to heavily advertise the devices.

Microsoft has a lot riding on Windows 10. The company is hoping the move to the software -- from the current Windows 8.1 -- will provide a catalyst for interest in Windows-powered mobile devices, which has lagged far behind Google's Android and Apple's iOS. The company is pitching Windows 10 as a consistent experience across all devices, even if there is a specific version created for smaller gadgets, as it revealed Wednesday.

Microsoft hasn't said much about Windows RT over the past year, and there's been some speculation the software would be killed off. Microsoft's comments Wednesday didn't clarify the situation much, though. For now, it appears Windows RT will live on, at least in the Surface devices.