Microsoft's ambitions for Windows RT revealed: Phablets

The larger-than-a-smartphone, smaller-than-a-tablet market proved a boon for Samsung; looks like Microsoft wants to ride that wave too

If the words spoken at Microsoft's financial analyst meeting yesterday were any hint, Microsoft has finally figured out the target market for its beleagured Windows RT: phablets.

Originally the object of scorn -- not least of all for their clumsy name -- phablets are the halfway-house form factor between smartphone and tablet. They have also turned into a major draw for phone makers like Samsung, whose Galaxy Note line has sold more than 38 million devices.

Those are numbers Microsoft would love to have for its mobile devices, and Windows RT might prove to be the way to make that happen.

Microsoft has struggled for years, even decades, to become a presence in the mobile market, but has consistently lagged in that race. From Windows CE to Windows Phone 8, each version of Windows designed for mobile devices has shown intriguing ideas but troubled execution. Galen Gruman eyed Windows Phone 8 on the HTC 8X and Nokia Lumina 800, and while he admired the hardware, the software remained for him "a frustrating blend of simplistic and difficult, with occasional touches of brilliance that render the poor usability even more frustrating."

Would a full-blown version of Windows on an ARM-powered phablet-sized device be a step in the right direction then? It might be, and here's how that could work.

The Modern UI/Metro side of Windows 8 has consistently shown itself to be well-suited to touch devices with screens of various sizes. A phablet with a full-HD display running Metro apps (or whatever they're called now) would work reasonably well.

It's the desktop side that would be nearly unworkable in such a form factor, touch additions to the OS notwithstanding. Trying to run the desktop side of Windows 8 on a device like that brings to mind Sony's ultracramped Vaio UX series of supersmall notebooks, which were a scant 5.91 inches wide, sported a 4.5-inch 1,024-by-600 touchscreen, featured a calculator-style keyboard, and ran the x86 edition of Windows XP. Needless to say, they didn't fly off the shelves.

Perhaps Microsoft's future plan for Windows RT is to ditch the desktop side entirely in that incarnation of the OS and leave it for the full-blown x86/x64 incarnation of Windows. That would put RT all the more in a position to be a successor to Windows Phone, which seems ill-fated to gain any traction.

If phablets are indeed Windows RT's future, Microsoft needs to be careful about which hardware partners to pick for a possible Windows RT phablet venture. The last thing Microsoft wants is to have devices like the feeble Acer Iconia W3 as flagships for the Windows RT sub-brand.

The obvious partner for such things is Nokia, and sure enough rumors of a Nokia-made, ARM-powered Windows RT tablet have surfaced by way of Paul Thurrott.

Another issue is applications, since desktop apps for conventional Windows must be recompiled for ARM to run in RT. That said, touch apps for Windows 8 are far easier to put on RT machines. If Microsoft exorcises the desktop entirely from RT, the problem might well solve itself.

Microsoft has long tried to make Windows a mobile item by stripping it down and then building it back up again. The irony of using Windows 8 RT as a mobile platform on phablet devices is that the company won't even have to build it back up again. It'll just have to take out the desktop -- the part that has long been most directly used to call it "Windows."

This story, "Microsoft's ambitions for Windows RT revealed: Phablets," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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