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When Microsoft launches Windows 8 on October 26, it also will unveil Windows RT, a new version of Microsoft's operating system designed specifically for ARM-based devices. Windows 8 and Windows RT have much in common, particularly the Modern UI Style (formerly Metro) design, with Live Tiles that dynamically display personalized information such as the current weather or the number of messages in your inbox. However, they have dramatic differences as well, most notably Windows RT's inability to run legacy (Intel X86-based) Windows apps.
It's tempting to think of Windows RT as an OS built only for consumer tablets, but Redmond says that's not necessarily the case.
"Windows RT is not just for tablet form factors. Some of our Windows RT PCs come with full keyboard and touchpad solutions, whether removable/dockable or a traditional clamshell," wrote Mike Angiulo, VP of Microsoft's ecosystem and planning team, in a recent post on the company's Building Windows 8 blog.
In an August 12 podcast, Forrester VP and principal analyst Frank Gillett said that Windows 8 and the upcoming Windows Phone 8 are intended to bring Microsoft--and Windows PCs--into the "highly multitouch-enabled world of mobile devices."
So where does Windows RT fit into this strategy? RT-based tablets like the Microsoft Surface RT are "meant to try to go head-to-head with the iPad," said Gillett. Windows RT slates lack key enterprise features--which we'll discuss in the following slideshow--but are thinner and less power-hungry than Windows 8 tablets.
The growing popularity of business devices that run non-Microsoft operating systems, most notably Google's Android and Apple's Mac OS and iOS, means that Redmond's days of enterprise-computing dominance may be over.
"Microsoft will not be dominant again--Microsoft will be relevant. I think they're going to drop to 50% or less of the operating systems used for work," said Gillett, who added that Microsoft would remain "the largest player" in an increasingly fragmented market.
By 2016, Forrester estimates that Microsoft will attain a "distant" second place in tablet sales, trailing Apple's iPad but surpassing Android slates.
Android tablets, unlike Android phones, may have a tough future. "The OEMs have gotten frustrated with the tablet ecosystem with Android, and are switching their bets to Windows 8," Gillett said.
Dig into our slideshow to learn the key differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT.
Windows RT tablets will ship with Microsoft Office 2013, which will feature touch-optimized versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Windows 8 devices won't come with Office, however. It's unclear at this point just how full-featured Office for RT will be--particularly from an enterprise user's perspective-- given RT's consumer focus. Rumor has it that the Windows RT edition of Office won't include such business-oriented tools as third-party add-ins, macros, and Visual Basic for Application (VBA) support.
Security differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 provide a clear example of how Microsoft is targeting Windows 8 Pro tablets at the enterprise. Windows RT has always-on device encryption to protect your data, but Windows 8 will not. Windows 8 Pro has advanced security features, however, including Microsoft's Encrypting File System (EFS) as well as BitLocker and BitLocker To Go drive encryption.
BitLocker To Go is particularly useful to enterprises with mobile workers who make frequent use of removable storage devices (e.g., USB flash drives). This feature extends BitLocker encryption to these devices and allows administrators to manage them via Windows' Group Policy feature.
Windows RT devices--which Microsoft says won't be limited to tablets, but may include laptops as well--won't run legacy x86 Windows apps such as Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Visio Professional, and untold numbers of custom enterprise programs. With the exception of Office 2013, all RT apps will conform to the Modern UI style (formerly known as Metro). Given the platform's newness and market uncertainty, a mad rush to develop for the Windows RT platform seems unlikely--unless, of course, Windows RT slates sell like hotcakes from the get-go.
Windows 8 has a new feature called Storage Spaces, which is absent from Windows RT. The omission makes sense, as Storage Spaces is geared toward enterprise and power users. The feature lets you save files to two or more drives. If you run low on capacity, you can add more drives to a "storage pool" of drives. Pooled disks are connected via USB, SATA (Serial ATA), or SAS (Serial Attached SCSI). Microsoft uses a technology called "thin provisioning" to expand the storage capacity of physical disks beyond their stated size. A storage pool of two 2TB hard disks (4TB), for instance, becomes a 10TB mirrored space.
Remote Desktop is an enterprise app that's handy for controlling PCs remotely from a centralized location. A PC running Windows 8 Pro can act has a Remote Desktop host, but one running Windows 8 or Windows RT cannot. Large organizations can use Remote Desktop for training, software installations, sharing applications, and other collaborative tasks.
Windows 8, like previous versions of Microsoft's PC operating systems, will ship on new computers and will sell as a standalone product to do-it-yourself upgraders. Not so for Windows RT. According to a recent blog post by Microsoft's Mike Angiulo, "Windows RT software will not be sold or distributed independent of a new Windows RT PC, just as you would expect from a consumer electronics device that relies on unique and integrated pairings of hardware and software."
In other words, you'll be able to upgrade a Windows 7 PC to Windows 8, but not to Windows RT.
Windows 8 includes the venerable Windows Media Player for managing, viewing, and listening to audio, video, and image files. Windows RT doesn't include Media Player but comes with built-in apps for consuming and organizing this content. Since Windows RT tablets don't have optical drives, they are obviously not well-equipped for burning CDs and DVDs--a popular pastime among Media Player aficionados.
Windows RT is developed specifically for ARM-based devices, whereas Windows 8 is for Intel X86-based PCs. The ARM processor allows hardware manufacturers to build Windows RT tablets and laptops that use less power--and cost less--than their X86 counterparts. According to Lenovo, which plans to sell both Windows RT and Windows 8 machines, RT-based devices will cost $200 to $300 less than those running Windows 8, Bloomberg reports. And while it's too early to say how well Windows RT devices will outperform their Windows 8 counterparts, battery-wise, both will reportedly stay on for more than 320 hours in a network-connected standby mode, Microsoft says.