Windows RT May Be Microsoft's Answer to Apple and Google in the BYOD Game

CIO.com columnist Rob Enderle says enterprises won't rush to roll out Windows 8. However, they may see the new OS in the form of Windows RT, the ARM version that combines the snazzy UI that users like with management and security controls that IT likes. In other words, Microsoft may finally make a foray into BYOD endeavors.

There is an interesting post from the Microsoft Windows team on the Windows On ARM (WOA) version of Windows 8 that was recently renamed Windows RT—which reminded me why I'll never do Microsoft naming again. Windows RT is targeted directly at the iPad users who are bringing that product into the enterprise today on a wave of trend we are alternatively calling consumerization of IT or Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) because we evidently can't come to a consensus on just one term.

For the last couple of cycles, IT has driven PC deployments in large business. Lately, iPads, and increasingly Apple PCs, have appeared to bypass IT of late, and Microsoft has mostly been missing out on this trend. However, the ARM version of Windows 8 could be a compelling offering that users are more likely to drive. IT will in turn prefer to create something that could move even more quickly than Apple's offerings recently have. Let's explore that.

IT departments and Windows

Windows, prior to Windows 98, generally came into the enterprise with users—a precursor to the BYOD movement. IT didn't embrace Windows and control its movement until the Windows 2000 launch, when Y2K issues forced an early march to this new platform. Since then, IT departments have driven Windows migration.

Microsoft's tight focus on IT departments created a disconnect with consumers with their PC and, prior to Windows Phone 7, their phone platforms. As a result, Microsoft has seen its OS market share decline, particularly on smartphones and especially as iPads have come into businesses without a credible Windows challenger. If one regard smartphones are handheld PCs and tablets are touch PCs, then one gets estimates suggesting that the Windows market share has dropped from better than 90 percent at the beginning of the last decade to around 40 today.

IT departments and Apple

While Microsoft embraced IT much more closely over the last decade, Apple ignored it. Steve Jobs, on his return to Apple, shifted the company's focus away from business customers and discontinued many related product lines. This allowed Apple to better target the consumer market. The rest is history—iPod, iPhone and iPad sales have catapulted Apple past Microsoft in both valuation and mindshare.

However Apple's consumer-driven approach has left it vulnerable in critical areas such as security. For instance, Microsoft addressed the recent Flashback software flaw in three weeks. It took Apple three months. By then 600,000 machines had been infected, leaving Eugene Kaspersky to suggest that Apple's security is 10 years behind Microsoft's.

This suggests vulnerability for an enterprise's consumer products, since end users are the ones responsible for installing patches and updates on Apple devices. Microsoft's focus on security, combined with its 90 percent share of the traditional laptop and desktop PC market, makes it a much better fit for enterprise IT departments—and Redmond's recent developments may finally help it address is tablet and smartphone shortcomings.

Will Windows RT change the game?

Unlike other Windows 8 products, Windows RT steps away from the Windows legacy code base—which means there's no legacy interface, either—and is largely focused on tablets and devices like them. Like Apple iOS and Google Android, Windows RT users will add applications largely through app stores. However, Windows RT devices are designed to be centrally managed; IT departments can deploy network access controls to keep tabs on user behavior.

It certainly helps that Metro, Microsoft's new tile-based UI introduced last year, is actually picking up traction on smartphones. The Nokia Lumia 900 has sold out in a number of stores and reviews have generally been positive, suggesting buyers are growing to like the simpler interface. Most of the negative reviews on Windows 8 are tied to the non-ARM version and appear connected to issues either using Metro on PCs without touch functionality or having to switch between two interfaces. Windows RT uses Metro only and thus appears to have most of what people like and none of what they find annoying about Windows 8, at least when it's delivered in a touch-enabled product.

With it cutting-edge interface, lack of legacy code, tablet form factor and lower price, devices running Windows RT essentially have finally caught up to the iPad. Users and IT departments also get the tablet most like a PC thanks to its management tools, built-in Microsoft Office applications, stronger security, and the ability to run cloud sessions.

Initially, Windows RT will offer far fewer apps or accessories than iOS or Android. Users and developers have largely been unable to test Windows RT—but they couldn't test iOS or Android before they came out, either, so the Windows RT experience is no different than that of the tablets on the market today.

Aside from keyboards and cases, though, tablets aren't heavily accessorized, and tablet sales still trail smartphone sales. As long as Microsoft has some strong core tablet apps, the company shouldn't have a problem.

Ultimately, I doubt IT departments will officially include Windows RT in their Windows 8 deployments, if they roll it out at all. From my perspective, enterprises are likely to skip Windows 8, much like they skipped Windows Vista. Nonetheless, Windows RT may be a near-term business play due to the demands of end users—and, in the end, it may be the only Windows 8 version that penetrates businesses in significant numbers.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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