Dell executives asked Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to reconsider using the Windows RT branding for its ARM-based version of Windows 8, noting that the name would confuse consumers into believing that the OS could run Windows applications. This is of course exactly what happened.
Jeffrey Clark, the president of Dell’s PC business, admitted to this exchange at the Dell World Conference in Austin, Texas, last week. He said the PC maker was adamant that the Windows RT name was confusing because the OS looks and works exactly like Windows 8 but can't run the millions of existing Windows desktop applications. (Windows RT and Windows 8 can, however, run many of the same “Metro”-style mobile apps.)
According to Clark, Ballmer’s response was pointed: The Windows brand was too important for Microsoft not to use it with Windows RT.
Of course, Dell wasn’t alone in noticing the problem with Windows RT. As long ago as BUILD 2011, I asked Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky, then running the Windows and Windows LIVE division, how Microsoft would avoid confusing customers about the differences between Windows 8 and the ARM-based version of the product, which was then going by the code name Windows On ARM (WOA). He claimed that Microsoft already had a plan to educate users about the differences and that this wouldn’t be a problem.
With the Windows 8 and Windows RT launch behind us, I have yet to see any evidence of such a plan. And the branding confusion is still very much a problem.
In October, I penned the editorial "What is Windows RT? Redmond, We Have a Problem" in the wake of Microsoft’s bizarre decision to launch Windows 8 in tandem with its first Surface tablet, which would run not Windows 8 but the incompatible Windows RT. Based on the hundreds—now thousands—of questions I’ve received from readers, it's clear that very few people preordering the tablet had any idea that it ran an OS that looked and worked just like Windows 8 but wouldn't run beloved desktop applications like Outlook, Photoshop, and iTunes.
Despite the confusion, Microsoft’s decision to stick with the Windows branding was, of course, pragmatic. Had the firm used a different brand, Windows RT would most likely have been completely ignored by consumers—the same fate suffered by its superior Zune products. By calling this thing Windows, Microsoft was at least guaranteed an audience. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty confused audience.