Is Microsoft distancing itself from Surface RT?

A couple of days ago I discussed an article on PCWorld.com comparing Microsoft’s Surface Pro and its $1000 price tag to its competition, similarly priced and outfitted. In the course of that discussion the Surface RT was briefly mentioned as a comparison.

It looks like a brief mention is better than none at all. PCWorld.com has reported that there was hardly a mention from Microsoft about the Surface RT at the 2013 CES, held earlier this month.

This brings up the question: is Microsoft attempting to distance itself from the poorly-accepted tablet? If so, why would that be…is it due to its poor sales? Because many in the tech world have branded it a failure?

If you accept this premise–is this one of the reasons Windows chief Steve Sinofsky was shown the door?

The article, titled “Why Windows RT is hurtling toward disaster,” makes a fairer case for the device than its brutal and dramatic headline would suggest. Still, there it is again–is Microsoft distancing itself from the Surface RT?

Ah, Vegas. It’s the place where dreams are realized, and hearts are shattered. As such, probably no more appropriate venue exists to showcase the massive gamble that is Windows RT, Microsoft’s first tablet-focused operating system, and the first Windows version created expressly for ARM processors.

The bet didn’t pay off. Microsoft and ARM rolled snake eyes at CES 2013. Windows RT was not out in full force at the show, and for all intents and purposes, Windows RT died in the desert last week.

A no-confidence vote

Windows RT actually started CES with a bang: When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bounded onstage during Qualcomm’s opening night keynote, he showed off two Windows RT tablets. One was the Samsung ATIV Tab, and Ballmer lauded Samsung as one of Microsoft’s key hardware partners.

But just three days later, Samsung told CNET that it won’t be bringing the ATIV Tab stateside, citing poor demand for Windows RT tablets in general. Samsung SVP Mike Abrary also said that consumers don’t understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8.

“There wasn’t really a very clear positioning of what Windows RT meant in the marketplace, what it stood for relative to Windows 8,” Abrary told CNET. “When we did some tests and studies on how we could go to market with a Windows RT device, we determined there was a lot of heavy lifting we still needed to do to educate the customer on what Windows RT was.”

The article goes on to tell how both HP and Toshiba dropped plans to build a Surface RT competitor:

But Samsung isn’t the only OEM to retreat from Windows RT. Both HP and Toshiba squashed plans for a Windows RT tablet before the operating system even hit the streets, while Acer announced that its own Windows RT tablet won’t appear before the second quarter of this year, if it comes out at all.

At this point the Dell XPS 10, Asus VivoTab, and Lenovo Yoga 11 are the only Windows RT devices available aside from Microsoft’s own Surface RT. And all of them have landed with a thud, Surface arguably—very arguably—aside.

While CES was awash in Windows 8 devices, Windows RT was a complete and utter no-show. Adding even more insult to injury, Lenovo’s follow-up to the Yoga 11—the Yoga 11S—is swapping out ARM for Intel’s Core processors. Microsoft itself was showing off the Intel Core i5-powered Surface Pro behind closed doors, with nary a public announcement of Surface RT and its roadmap.

There’s further discussion of how the ARM processor–heralded as it is–might soon be replaced with a new Intel processor that’s based on the standard x86 architecture (think: every PC you have owned in your lifetime–depending on how old you are).

Although they can’t run legacy desktop programs, the ARM processors powering Windows RT tablets generally offer better power efficiency and cost less than the x86-based processors made by Intel and AMD—hence their presence in so many Android and Apple tablets, where battery life and competitive pricing are two major concerns.

However, these two ARM benefits are already being challenged by x86 processors, specifically Intel’s Atom Z2760 “Clover Trail” CPU. In fact, Intel’s tablet-focused chip is so energy efficient, the Z2760-based Samsung ATIV Smart PC lasted a whopping 9 hours, 14 minutes in PCWorld’s battery life test, besting the time of ARM-powered Windows RT slates like the Asus VivoTab RT and Microsoft’s own Surface RT. The Atom Z2760 lags far behind Intel’s Core processors in sheer performance, but delivers decent pep compared with ARM’s offerings.

So, Microsoft has a problem–the pressure is really on Surface Pro to succeed.

It looks like RT was designed to appeal to the tablet market, the iPad/Nexus 7/Fire HD/Nook HD crowd. Handicapping it by taking away Microsoft’s strongest point–all the software it has developed and refined over the years–by choosing the ARM processor, thus not allowing any of that software to run on that architecture. It forced would-be users to make a choice.

Since, to be polite, it hasn’t done as well as Microsoft would have hoped, it’s up to the Surface Pro to now carry the load. As I mentioned at the start about the other options available, there’s no guarantee that it will be as big of a success as Microsoft requires.

And for the entire Surface gamble to pay off for Microsoft, it does require a huge success.

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