Why I won’t be buying a Windows RT tablet (And why Microsoft doesn’t mind)

surface rt tablet microsoft surface windows 8Microsoft yanked back the veil obscuring its Surface RT tablet earlier this week, and if you ask me, it’s the finest example of tablet hardware that we’ve seen to date. Microsoft poured a ton of mental and engineering resources into the Surface, and it shows; the Surface tablet and its oh-so-attractive Touch Cover keyboard is one of just three tablets to ever make me drool with desire. It even has Office 2013! And the new-look Windows is actually kind of awesome on mobile devices once you make a few tweaks.

Even still, I won’t be buying a Surface RT tablet on October 26th. The same goes for any Windows RT tablet. There’s no chance. Nada, nil, zero.

My reluctance doesn’t have anything to do with pricing concerns. Some people think the Surface RT is overpriced at $500 to start, but not me. The Surface RT is a top-tier piece of hardware worthy of a top-tier price point. My concerns lie in Windows RT’s crippled nature, and before you grab your pitchforks, they have nothing to do with the Modern-style overhaul.

Here’s the kicker, though: Microsoft doesn’t need me or you or anybody to buy Windows RT tablets on October 26th. They can be a complete flop in the short term and still be a massive success in the long run.

Let me explain.

Why I won’t buy a Windows RT tablet

In a word: apps.

Windows RT and Windows 8 may look the same on the surface (get it?), but they’re two totally different beasts under the hood. Windows 8 runs on x86-based processors, which means it can run both the new Modern-style Windows apps as well as the programs currently available for Windows 7 PCs.

Windows RT, on the other hand, runs on the ARM-based processors — such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon and Nvidia’s Tegra 3 — that thoroughly dominate the mobile gadget world. That makes Windows RT tablets incompatible with the legion of programs written for past generations of Windows-based operating systems. Basically, Windows RT can only run the new Modern-style apps.

Modern-style apps can only be purchased through the Windows Store, and as it stands today, there simply aren’t enough Windows apps — either in quality or quantity — to make purchasing a Windows RT tablet worthwhile. Not even the breathtaking Microsoft Surface RT with its baked-in Office app.

windows app store microsoft surface tabletThe vast majority of 4,326 current Windows Store apps are tablet-style games or instantly forgettable novelties. (Fart Soundboard, anyone?) Aside from standout apps by Netflix, Evernote and Slacker, most of the must-have essentials aren’t there. I’ve spoken to several developers about the situation; it seems as though quite a few apps are waiting in the wings, set to appear in the Windows Store when it officially launches on October 26, but I don’t expect the Windows Store selection to skyrocket out of the gate.

That’s a big problem

Windows 8 devices can lean on the current Windows programs we know and love until the Modern-style apps hit full speed. Windows RT tablets don’t have that luxury.

Knowing that, the little flaws in Windows’ new Modern-style apps take on a whole new light. Intel CEO Paul Otellini was recently reported as saying that Microsoft is releasing Windows 8 before it’s ready — a statement that Intel didn’t exactly deny — and I’m inclined to agree with him. As a whole, Windows 8 is a joy on a tablet, but odd little quirks occasionally prove frustrating.

Those rough edges could be a whole post in and of themselves — tune in next week! — but let’s talk about a particular frustration that highlights Windows RT’s issues: The native Mail app’s complete lack of POP3 support. A recent update to the Mail app fleshed out support for the vastly superior IMAP protocol, but if your email provider only provides POP3 remote access (as is the case with many Internet Service Providers, including Comcast and Fairpoint) you’re in trouble.

Windows 8 users can just switch to desktop mode, download Thunderbird or one of the dozens of other freely available POP-compatible classic Windows programs, and start slinging messages in no time. Windows RT users are just screwed unless they switch to a webmail service or perform complex workarounds that Everyday Joe would never figure out for himself.

Nope, Windows RT just isn’t worth the hassle. Gimme a Nexus 7 for half the price instead.

Getting Over the Hump

Manufacturers aren’t stupid. They know Windows RT tablets will be limited at the outset. That’s why we’re seeing an overload of x86-based Windows 8 devices, but only a handful of Windows RT tablets. And that’s totally fine; Windows RT tablets will have their day in the sun. Microsoft’s very future depends on becoming as mobile-friendly as possible — and the company knows it.

Even if Windows tablets fizzle from the get-go, Windows 8 will still be installed on damn near every PC and laptop sold after October 26. Even if traditional computer sales are somewhat lagging, hundreds of millions of them are sold year in and year out.

win8 metro microsoft surfaceNothing attracts developers faster than a massive user base; Windows’ tremendous desktop presence will eventually draw them like flies, and Microsoft is doing everything it can to make developing Windows apps as painless as possible. Modern-style apps and their associated Live Tiles are the heart of the new Windows experience, and those apps will come. There’s no way the major software and service providers will leave the world’s most popular desktop operating system by the wayside.

Sure, those Modern-style Windows apps might be developed to satisfy the hordes of PC users clamoring for Modern-ized versions of classic Windows programs, but they’ll work just as well on mobile devices — regardless of whether those devices run on ARM or Intel processors. Microsoft and its partners don’t need to sell a single Windows RT tablet; a year or two down the line the Windows Store will be packed with Metro apps even if Microsoft’s initial mobile ambitions flop.

It’s genius.

So no, I won’t be buying a Surface RT tablet on October 26, even though the thought of holding it makes my fingers twitch with excitement. Microsoft’s mobile future — its entire future — hinges more on what I will be doing that day, anyway: Taking advantage of the dirt-cheap upgrade offers to upgrade some of my secondary PCs to Windows 8.

In the meantime, check out our review of the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.