Analysis: What Businesses Should Know About Windows RT

Yes, Windows RT is almost entirely consumer-focused. There are cases in which it makes sense for businesses, but partners must make sure their customers fully work through the pros and cons.

The biggest early buzz around Windows 8-generation devices involves the Microsoft Surface and a few of the other ARM tablets. The Surface (until next month, when the Surface Pro will be released) and the other ARM-based tablets run only Windows RT, the less-functional version of Windows 8 that offers a cleaner break with the past. Is Windows RT only for consumers?

"Windows RT is primarily designed for consumer devices," Hiroshi Sakakibara, a Microsoft senior product marketing manager, acknowledged up front in a TechEd presentation earlier this year. But the presentation's title, "Windows 8: Windows RT Devices for Business," suggested that there's slightly more to the story. (The session is available for replay from Microsoft MSDN Channel 9 here.)

Partners talking to customers about Windows 8 versions sometimes will have reasons to bring Windows RT into the conversation, but it's important that businesses understand some of the key differences that will apply to ARM-based devices.

Main Obstacles for Windows RT
Office Licenses
One of the major selling points of Windows RT devices is that Office 2013 will be included. Businesses not careful about their Office license management, though, could find themselves out of compliance for Windows RT-based devices. The preview version of Office 2013 that shipped at first -- and the full version shipping now -- is a Home and Student version. Commercial use is expressly forbidden. Employees can use Office on Windows RT if the business gets or applies commercial use rights through Office 365, Office Standard/Professional Plus or Volume Licensing.

Legacy Desktop Apps
Like Windows 8, there's a desktop mode in the Windows RT OS, but it's not nearly as flexible as its big brother of an OS. Windows 8 will be able to run legacy x86 apps; Windows RT will not. The Windows RT devices will be limited to the new style of apps (now officially called Windows Store apps by Redmond), mainly whatever software ships with the system or is available in the Windows Store -- about 7,000 apps in the U.S. version as of Nov. 7. There are a few workarounds within the Microsoft solution stack for more sophisticated IT shops: virtual desktop infrastructure and RemoteApp. Both options allow corporate apps to run in the datacenter while being controlled by the Windows RT device user.

Active Directory
Windows RT devices won't be able to join an Active Directory domain or be managed by Group Policy. Microsoft's intended tools for management of Windows RT devices (and Windows Phone 8 devices) are System Center Configuration Manager 2012 SP1 or Windows Intune Wave C.

Giving Windows RT a Chance
Given all the caveats, there are a few reasons for businesses to give Windows RT a close look.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is less a choice than a surrender to the working reality created mainly by the Apple iPad and smartphones. A lot of top employees expect to be able to use their own devices with corporate resources, and their productivity gives them power in the battle over IT control. If Windows RT tablets and convertibles become popular with productive users, companies will need to be ready to accommodate their needs.

A more top-down consideration is that the price of Windows RT devices will be less than the x86-based tablets and convertibles running Windows 8, all other things being equal. In cases of single-purpose apps being developed by a business in the new Windows 8 style, the lower price may mean a Windows RT device is the best for the job -- especially if large fleets of devices are being deployed.

Ultra Mobility
Just as their prices are generally lower, Windows RT devices might also be superior in ultra-mobile business scenarios. The ARM processors theoretically enjoy longer battery lives, and the simpler requirements allow for Windows RT devices to be smaller and lighter than their Windows 8 counterparts. For example, the Microsoft Surface RT is 9.3mm thick and weighs 1.5 pounds. The Microsoft Surface Pro will be 13.5mm thick and weigh 2 pounds. Not a big difference, but for a device that's going to be lugged around all day and doesn't need the additional horsepower or capabilities of Windows 8, every ounce and millimeter counts. Some of Microsoft's early-adopter testers of Windows RT devices included an airline's cabin crew, a retail chain, an oil and gas company (which used the devices for counting and visiting drilling rigs) and a telecom company's field crews.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.