Microsoft has a pretty variable track record when it comes releasing its operating systems. Microsoft's MS-DOS dominated the market, followed by early Windows versions - most notably, Windows 3.0, which ran on most 386 machines in the 1990s. Then came Windows 95, Windows XP and Windows 7. But along the way, there were some mishaps. The Windows Millennium edition comes to mind, which took a step back from Windows 98 and ran the apps much slower with few additional features. More recently, Microsoft bombed again with Windows Vista, which was plagued with compatibility and performance problems.

Now it's time for Windows 8, which is to be released on October 26, 2012. Will it thrive or fail? A lot of that question has to do with Windows RT, the Windows 8 version that will run on tablets and other mobile devices and is expected to be a leader in this space. Here we'll take a look at Windows RT and what it has to offer.

Enter Windows 8

Windows 8 will come in three different flavors:

  • The basic Windows 8 is aimed at consumers and will run on both 32-bit and 64-bit machines. It will feature the standard applications that consumers have grown to love, along with many new ones.
  • Windows 8 Pro is aimed at businesses and includes features such as the ability to encrypt file systems, run from a virtual hard drive and provide domain connectivity.
  • Windows RT is for mobile devices such as a laptop, smartphone or tablet. Windows RT will come pre-installed in these devices when you buy them and will not be sold separately.

What Is Windows RT?

Window RT was previously known as Windows 8 on ARM and it will work only on ARM-powered devices.

With Windows RT, the Windows OS is no longer confined to x86 chips, the standard for desktops. Now it enters the realm of mobile and other end-to-end devices as well.

What this means is that with Windows RT, you can have the same look and experience on your tablet or smartphone as a desktop computer running on Windows 8. What's more, Windows 8 on ARM will be fully integrated with the mobile device in which it's installed. Microsoft has said that Windows 8 on ARM even switches to a very low power mode when not in use, allowing users to stay connected to their phones for longer without having to recharge them.

What Is ARM?

ARM essentially refers to mobile chips, the same ones used in Android and iOS devices. Windows RT gives Windows 8 the ability to run on these mobile processors. Qualcomm, Nvidia and other similar manufacturers have been able to create powerful ARM chips that perform better with lesser battery drain.

ARM was first created by Acorn Computers in the 1980s. By 2005, nearly every mobile phone included at least one ARM processor.

In a way, ARM works the same way your computer's Intel processor does except that it uses a lot less power. Over time, ARM chips have improved, making them as fast and powerful as an Intel chip. This is what powers tablet computers.

Why Is Windows RT Important?

With tablets and smartphones being used by more and more people today, Windows RT gives its users the chance to use these devices as they would a desktop computer, with the same performance level and better battery power. Take, for example, early tests showing that Windows RT apps are running as much as 20 percent faster than comparable apps running on Intel and other x86 chips. That allows users to take any kinds of documents on the road, which is becoming increasingly important as people use mobile devices for work. (Learn more mobile devices in the workplace in BYOT: What It Means for IT.)

The Disadvantages of Windows RT

As with other mobile devices using a Windows operating system, there is only a limited number of apps that are available for the OS. This could become a problem for people who are used to using Apple and Android mobile devices, where there's an app (or 10) for just about everything. It will be worth seeing if the Metro Apps, Microsoft Office apps and other similar - albeit limited - Windows apps will suffice.

Also, while Windows RT may look and feel the same as Windows 8, not all the features on Windows 8 will be available on RT.

Pricing might also be a problem. Licensing for using RT on mobile devices is speculated to be in the $80 range, which would definitely make it more expensive than an Android tablet. This might slow down adoption by consumers and therefore deter app developers from getting onto the Windows RT platform.

Hit or Miss?

Every time Microsoft comes out with a new OS, it's safe to say that it's a gamble, and no one is really sure whether it will be a hit with its consumers or not. Nevertheless, the introduction of an operating system specifically designed for the ARM chips that power mobile devices is a good step toward the future for Microsoft. (Check out more Techopedia content on Windows 8 here.)