Tag Archives: surface rt

Windows RT and Surface RT: Why Microsoft should persevere

Microsoft has reported a $900 million write-down on Surface RT inventory in its latest financial results. Was Surface RT a big mistake?

A loss of that size is a massive blunder, but the concept behind Surface RT is good and Microsoft should persevere. Here’s why.

Surface RT is experimental in two ways:

  • It was the first Microsoft-branded PC (or tablet if you prefer).
  • It was among the first Windows RT devices. Running on the ARM processor, Windows RT is locked down so that you can only install new-style Windows 8 apps, not desktop apps. However, the desktop is still there, and Microsoft bundles Office, a desktop application suite.

Microsoft had (and has) good reason to do both of these things.

Historically, DOS and Windows prospered because it was open to any hardware manufacturer to build machines running Microsoft’s operating system, creating a virtuous circle in which competition drove down prices, and abundance created widespread application support.

This ecosystem is now dysfunctional. The experience of using Windows was damaged by OEM vendors churning out indifferent hardware bundled with intrusive trial applications. It is still happening, and when I have to set up a new Windows laptop it takes hours to remove unwanted software.

Unfortunately this cycle is hard to break, because OEM vendors have to compete on price, and consumers are seemingly poor at discriminating based on overall quality; too often they look for the best specification they can get for their money.

Further, Windows remains a well understood and popular target for malware. One of the reasons is that despite huge efforts from Microsoft with User Account Control (the technology behind “do you really want to do this” prompts in Windows Vista onwards), most users outside the enterprise still tend to run with full administrative rights for their local machine.

Apple exploited these weaknesses with Mac hardware that is much more expensive (and profitable), but which delivers a less frustrating user experience.

Apple has been steadily increasing its market share at the high end, but an even bigger threat to Windows comes from below. Locked-down tablets, specifically the Apple iPad and later Android tablets, also fixed the user experience but at a relatively low price. Operating systems designed for touch control means that keyboard and mouse are no longer necessary, making them more elegant portable devices, and a wireless keyboard can easily be brought into use when needed.

Microsoft understood these trends, although late in the day. With Surface it began to manufacture its own hardware, an initiative which alongside the bricks-and-mortar Microsoft Stores (supplying trialware-free Windows PCs) aims to counter the corrosive race to the bottom among OEM vendors.

Windows 8 also introduces a new application model which is touch-friendly, secure, and offers easy app deployment via the app store.

In Windows RT the experiment is taken further, by locking down the operating system so that only these new-style apps can be installed.

Surface RT brings both these things together, solving many of the problems of Windows in a single package.

Why Surface RT failed

Surface RT is well made, though performance is disappointing; it seems that Nvidia’s Tegra 3 chipset is not quite sufficient to run Windows and Office briskly, though it is usable, and graphics performance not bad.

There were several problems though.

  • The price was high, especially when combined with the clever keyboard cover.
  • It may solve the problems of Windows, but for many users it also lacks the benefits of Windows. They cannot run their applications, and all too often their printers will not print and other devices lack drivers.
  • Surface RT launched when the Windows 8 app store was new. The new app ecosystem also has its problems (all these things are inter-related) and in consequence few compelling apps were available.
  • Microsoft’s built-in apps were poor to indifferent, and Office was bundled without Outlook.

I was in New York for the launch of Surface RT. There were “Click In” ads everywhere and it was obvious that Microsoft had convinced itself that it could sell the device in large numbers immediately. That was a fantasy. I suppose that if consumers had taken Windows 8 to heart quickly (as opposed to resisting the changes it imposes) and if the app ecosystem had flourished quickly then it could have taken off but neither was likely.

Surface RT positives

Despite all the above, Surface RT is not a bad device. Personally I was immediately drawn to its slim size, long battery life, and high build quality. The keyboard cover design is superb, though not everyone gets on with the “touch” cover. I purchased one of the launch machines and still use it regularly for cranking out Word documents on the road.

Reviews on Amazon’s UK site are largely positive:


Surface RT is also improving as the software evolves. Windows 8.1, now in preview, adds Outlook and makes the device significantly more useful for Exchange users. Performance also gets a slight lift. The built-in apps are improving and app availability in general is much better than it was at launch, though still tiny compared to iPad or Android.

I have also been trying Surface Pro since receiving one at Microsoft’s Build conference last month. The Pro device has great performance and runs everything, but it is too bulky and heavy to be a satisfying tablet, and battery life is poor. I think of it more as a laptop, whereas Surface RT is a true tablet with a battery that gives pretty much a full day’s use when out and about.

Microsoft’s biggest mistake with Surface RT was not the concept, nor the quality of the device. Rather, they manufactured far too many thanks to unrealistic expectations of the size of the initial market. The sane approach would have been a limited release with the aim of improving and refining it.

I hope Microsoft perseveres both with Windows RT and with Surface RT. Give it better performance with something like Nvidia, Tegra 4, Windows 8.1, and improved app support, and it is near-perfect.

The future of Windows

Desktop Windows will remain forever, but its decline is inevitable. Even if it fails, we should recognise that Microsoft is trying to fix long-standing and deep-rooted problems with Windows through its Windows 8, Surface and Windows RT initiatives, and there is some sanity in the solutions it has devised. Despite a billion dollars thrown away on excess Surface RT inventory, it should follow through rather than abandon its strategy.

Microsoft financials: nearly a $billion lost on Surface RT but prospering in server and cloud

Microsoft has reported fourth quarter and full year results for its financial year ending June 30th 2013.

I am in the habit of tracking the results quarter by quarter with a simple table:

Quarter ending June 30th 2013 vs quarter ending June 30th 2012, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Profit Change
Client (Windows + Live) 4411 +259 1099 -1323
Server and Tools 5502 +452 2325 +285
Online 804 +69 -372 +6300
Business (Office) 7213 +889 4873 +745
Entertainment and devices 1915 +134 -110 -142

What is notable in the figures? Windows profits are down, not so much due to declining PC sales but rather this:

These financial results include a $900 million charge, or a $0.07 per share impact, related to Surface RT inventory adjustments.

That said, Microsoft reports that after adjusting for deferred revenue, Windows client decreased 6% quarter on quarter and 1% for the full year, so the PC decline is having an impact.

Business, which includes Office, SharePoint and Office 365, is performing well and the company reports $1.5 billion annual revenue for Office 365.

Server and Tools (almost all Server) continues to shine:

Server & Tools revenue grew 9% for the fourth quarter and 9% for the full year, driven by double-digit percentage revenue growth in SQL Server and System Center.

Even Online, which is essentially Bing-related advertising income, is showing signs of life, despite yet another loss:

Online Services Division revenue grew 9% for the fourth quarter and 12% for the full year, driven by an increase in revenue per search and volume. Bing organic U.S. search market share was 17.9% for the month of June 2013, up 230 basis points from the prior year period.

Windows Phone is hidden in Entertainment and Devices, which reported a loss despite $1.9 billion revenue. Microsoft says:

Windows Phone revenue, reflecting patent licensing revenue and sales of Windows Phone licenses, increased $222 million.

This means that Xbox is slightly down but overall revenue slightly up thanks to Windows Phone.

Overall both revenue and profit are a little higher than the previous year.

Losing a billion dollars on Surface RT is careless. Put simply, Microsoft ordered far too many of its experimental new ARM-based version of Windows, at a time when few new-style apps were available. I do not regard this as proof that the entire concept was wrong, though it is a significant mis-step however you spin it. See further post coming shortly.

Hacking Windows RT and Surface RT to run desktop apps

A developer on the XDA Developers forum, known as clrokr, has figured out how to run unsigned applications on Windows RT (Windows on ARM), including Microsoft’s own-brand Surface RT device.

The technique is described here and involves patching the Windows kernel. Currently it is not possible to jailbreak Windows RT completely, because Secure Boot prevents tampering with the system files, but it can be done after booting by using the remote debugger:

The minimum signing level determines how good an executable’s signature is on a scale like this: Unsigned(0), Authenticode(4), Microsoft(8), Windows(12). The default value on x86 machines is of course 0 because you can run anything you like on your computer. On ARM machines, it defaults to 8.
That means that even if you sign your apps using your Authenticode certificate, the Surface or any other Windows RT device (at this moment) will not run them. This is not a user setting, but a hardcoded global value in the kernel itself. It cannot be changed permanently on devices with UEFI’s Secure Boot enabled. It can, however, be changed in memory.

There is further discussion on the forum here. The technique is not practical for most users yet.

According to clrokr:

The decision to ban traditional desktop applications was not a technical one, but a bad marketing decision. Windows RT needs the Win32 ecosystem to strengthen its position as a productivity tool. There are enough “consumption” tablets already.

Personally I have mixed feelings about this. If I understand the concept correctly, Windows RT is meant to have iPad-like ease of use as well as excellent security. Configuring the operating system so that only code signed by Microsoft or Windows Store apps will run is a key part of the implementation. Surface RT is not as good as it should be, in part because there is too much old-style Windows, not too little.

On the other hand, the usefulness of Windows RT is limited by the absence of key apps. There are certain things missing, like the ability to play FLAC files, and until recently, an SSH terminal client (there is one now). Looking at the thread on XDA Developers, note that among the first things users are keen to port are putty (open source SSH client) and VLC (open source multimedia player).


That said, personally I would rather see suitable apps come to the Windows Store, rather than introduce all the problems and complexities of desktop Windows to Windows RT.

How to test and debug an app on Surface RT in a hotel room

I wanted to test an app on Surface RT this morning, though I am out of the office with just a Samsung Slate (has Visual Studio), the Surface, and hotel wi-fi.

You can do remote debugging on Surface RT as explained here, however you need a private network.

I set up an ad-hoc network from the Samsung Slate as described here:

Open an elevated command prompt

netsh wlan show drivers

netsh wlan set hostednetwork mode=allow ssid="wireless name" key="password"

netsh wlan start hostednetwork

This allowed me to connect the Surface RT to a private network with the Slate.

Next, I needed to download and install the remote debugging tools for ARM from here.

I ran the remote debugger and was able to connect from Visual Studio on the Slate, but ran into a small issue. I needed a developer license for the Surface, but while on the private network it was not on the internet. When the remote debugger prompted to install a developer license, it could not retrieve it.

The solution was to disconnect, connect to the internet, then install the developer license using PowerShell. Run show-windowsdeveloperlicenseregistration from an elevated PowerShell window.


Then I returned to the private network and was able to launch my beautifully designed test app:



Note that for the actual test I did not run the app attached to Visual Studio. Rather, I deployed in release mode and then ran separately, to avoid the slowdown from the debugger. Once deployed, the test app remains in the Start screen for launching.

The Surface RT desktop: more here than I had expected

I have been surprised by how much of the Windows 8 desktop is present in Windows RT. I had been expecting something more cut-down, to support Office, Explorer, Control Panel and a few other utilities. In fact, it seems to me pretty much the desktop we are used to, though there are differences such as the inability to join a domain. Here are a few screen grabs.

Control Panel is here, though despite the presence of Office 2013, it claims that no programs are installed.

PowerShell is there – interesting, since you could write your own desktop utilities as scripts, making the desktop less locked down (and possibly less secure) that I had expected. The Windows Scripting Host is here too.


and a command prompt, of course:


Incidentally, for screen grabs the Snipping Tool is present. There is no Print Screen key on the touch keyboard cover, but this works fine with a Bluetooth keyboard (I don’t have a Type keyboard).

I’m intrigued by the presence of Windows Easy Transfer. Who might be upgrading their PC to Windows RT?


Not quite everything is here. There is no Windows Media Player; you have to use the new-style apps.

Regedit is here, and prompts for UAC elevation just like on x86.


Remote Desktop Connection is here. So is VPN connection, which works fine for me from the USA to my ISA Sever in the UK, but will depend on your setup (I am trying to clarify this point).

Broadly, everything seems to be here other than a few bits Microsoft chose to pull out. I had thought the reverse would be true.

Note: I attempted to write this post on Surface with Word as the blog authoring tool, but got stuck with the images. Live Writer is far better, which is a concern.