Back when Microsoft first splitWindows 8 in twain, it initially called the two divisions Windows 8 and Windows on ARM (WoA). Windows 8 would be the full-bodied x86 version of the operating system with every bell and whistle, and Windows on ARM would be a cut-down version designed for low-power ARM SoCs. Most notably, WoA lacked the capability to run any Desktop apps that hadn’t been pre-approved by Microsoft (i.e. Office, Paintbrush, and that’s about it). Outwardly, Microsoft’s justification was that it wanted to ensure a smooth and reliable experience for people with WoA tablets; it didn’t want tablet users to be bogged down by toolbars and malware and other third-party Desktop software. Internally, though, I think that Microsoft was taking the first steps towards killing off the Desktop entirely, on ARM and x86.
The clues have been there right from the beginning. A few months after the Windows 8/Windows on ARM schism, WoA was renamed Windows RT. The RT designation has absolutely nothing to do with ARM; instead, it refers to the Windows Runtime (WinRT) that powers Windows 8′s Metro interface and Windows Store (Metro-style) apps. Why then did WoA get renamed? Because Windows RT is the trial run for a version Windows that has no Desktop at all — a version of Windows that does away with the old Win32 runtime, leaving just the new WinRT-powered interface and its new Metro-style apps.
Ultimately, if my suspicions are correct, ARM has nothing to do with this grand vision. Windows RT currently only supports ARM, but that’s more of a side effect than an end goal. Microsoft has a lot of experience with ARM devices (Windows Mobile, Windows CE), saw how well the Android OEMs and Apple were doing with their cheap, low-power ARM tablets, and decided to jump on the bandwagon. Microsoft has all but confirmed that Windows RT is derived from the Windows 8 codebase; the engineers have made some tweaks to optimize the low-level code for ARM, and cut out a few features to improve performance and reduce power consumption, but Windows RT is essentially Windows 8 compiled for the ARM architecture. In short, it would be very, very easy to build a version of Windows RT for x86 — a version of Windows that runs on Intel- and AMD-powered tablets, but which doesn’t support Desktop apps.
This might sound utterly crazy, but hear me out. One of the biggest complaints about Windows RT (and its devices, such as the Surface) is the lack of functionality. Compared to a Windows 8 tablet with an x86 processor, Windows RT devices are useless. With no access to the billions of Desktop (Win32) apps, a sparse Windows Store, and half-baked stock apps from Microsoft, Windows RT products pale in comparison to other tablets, such as the iPad. The other big grievance, ironically enough, is the confusing nature of the Desktop — as you stand in the aisle at Best Buy it looks like the real Desktop, but once you get it home you can only run Microsoft’s pre-installed Desktop programs.
In an ideal world, for both consumers and Microsoft alike, there wouldn’t be a Desktop at all on Windows tablets. This isn’t feasible until the Windows Store is fully populated and Microsoft finishes baking the stock Metro apps (News, Music, etc.) If you weren’t aware,Windows 8.1 has a much better selection of stock apps, and a significantly updated Windows Store. There’s still only around 100,000 apps (vs. 750,000+ for iOS), and lots of them are low-quality, but the situation is improving quickly. Furthermore, let’s not forget that the only real reason that Windows RT actually has a Desktop in the first place is for Office RT — and Microsoft has confirmed that the Metro version of Office, code named Gemini, will be released in 2014. In a year or two, then, it’s not totally unreasonable to think that someone will pick up a Windows RT tablet and be satisfied enough with the Metro interface that the Desktop is no longer required.