Windows RT Gripes (Part 1)

1/31/2013 3:23:43 PM

The first reviews of Windows RT devices appeared on the internet just as I was putting the finishing touches to this column, I haven't yet laid fingers on a Surface, either in its Intel or ARM form, but I've placed an order for two of the 64GB RT models. However, they're not here, and editorial deadlines loom.

First a gentle reminder that Windows RT running on ARM is a different operating system to Windows 8 for Intel. It's different mainly because Microsoft wants it to be different. You can't take existing Windows application source code and recompile it for ARM, then release it onto the Windows desktop part of Windows RT. There's no technical reason why not; it's purely a marketing decision by Microsoft, to block third-party applications from the Windows desktop-on-ARM version of Windows 8. And as with so many of Microsoft's decisions over the years, it doesn't actually apply to Microsoft itself, which is why the version of Office bundled with Windows RT for ARM is nothing other than existing Windows application code recompiled for ARM. In other words, Microsoft has done exactly what it forbids you, me and Uncle Joe from doing.

First a gentle reminder that Windows RT running on ARM is a different operating system to Windows 8 for Intel.

First a gentle reminder that Windows RT running on ARM is a different operating system to Windows 8 for Intel.

Why is this? Well, because Microsoft wants to corral developers into writing "Modern"-style applications that run on the WinRT subsystem on ARM, rather than just recompiling all their old code and running it on the Win32 subsystem on ARM. In truth, a great deal of this old legacy code wasn't written with a view to it ever being run on low-power processors. It would sit there consuming excess processor cycles in an extremely inefficient manner, which would kill performance and battery life on an ARM processor and make Microsoft and its new Windows RT platform look bad. That's why it's banned.

So why has Microsoft allowed its own Office team to create desktop versions of Office for Windows RT? The answer is that the Office team didn't manage to come up with native "Modern" WinRT applications in time, and given how important Office is to Microsoft, it's been allowed a "get out of jail free" pass from the Windows team. Sound fair? No. Would you expect Microsoft to act fairly over this? No. So let's not spill too many tears over it. However, this whole Office-on- Windows RT affair does finally bring an important issue into the foreground, simply because so many of the reviews I've been reading are getting it wrong.

Office for Windows RT

Office for Windows RT

As an example, let's take the piece by venerable writer Walt Mossberg. He says: "It comes with full versions of standard Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The three programs worked fine, in creating documents and in editing ones from older versions of the software” That would be fine, except that it isn't actually true. The only reason these writers and bloggers say "full version of Office" is because they're lightweight users of these tools, and the version does all they need. Don't for even a moment believe that journalists are in any way representative of mainstream users of the Office tools. I remember many years ago how a feature for counting the number of words in a selection was added to a major word processor, simply because all the journalists in the room needed it, although almost everyone else in the world never used it.

So what's the problem with this Office version? Well, take a look at and check out the question "Does Office Home & Student 2013 RT (Preview and the final edition) include the same features as Office Home & Student 2013 on my Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC?" The answer is: almost. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote in Office Home Sr Student 2013 RT include the majority of Office Home @ Student 2013 features available on PCs, and almost all the features most customers use. But since tablets have special needs for security and mobility, a few features are unavailable in Office Home & Student 2013 RT, including macros, add-ins, and other custom programs written by users or developed by third parties.

The lack of macro support, in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), is a huge deal for any power user of Office. Indeed, it's potentially a big deal for many "ordinary" business users who may have absolutely no idea that their documents and templates actually contain macros. That's because they didn't put the macros there themselves, or write them out line by line they were put there by their IT department for sound business reasons. VBA is incredibly powerful for such jobs, since almost anything in the application can be programmatically controlled, and the code can be digitally signed and held in a common set of templates for everyone in the firm to use. So, for example, the File I Open option might actually be triggering the action of some macro to perform an extra line of business task, of which you as the user are entirely unaware.

The lack of macro support, in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), is a huge deal for any power user of Office.

The lack of macro support, in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), is a huge deal for any power user of Office.

This raises the question: what is Excel? What does Office-compatible mean? Is it enough for the software to load a file and allow you to edit it? For many people that will be fine, but what happens if you're using add-ins or custom functions in Excel? They won't work under RT, and it won't be possible to use a lighter-weight version of Excel instead to do your work.

There are of course the Office Web Applications, which are cut-down versions of the tools that can be run in a web browser. They're extremely useful and their integration into SkyDrive means you can work on quite complex documents from a browser. But the clear understanding has always been that if you need the full capabilities of the underlying tool, then you should download the file and work on it locally. So what if your local version of the tool doesn't have the full functionality either? Then you've just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire...

For Microsoft Surface RT, the company is keeping quiet about these limitations, which have come about because the Office team not only failed to get a full WinRT version of its Office code ready in time, but because it also failed to port VBA onto ARM. You'd think it could have managed this, given that Office 2007 for Mac came without VBA support and it proved to be a big deal indeed for business users, significantly limiting its usefulness in work contexts. So for Office 2011 for Mac, the team completed the porting of the codebase away from core Windows code to Mac OS X. Maybe the work to go from Intel to ARM took the team off in an entirely different direction, and the Mac experience isn't relevant.

Ah, you might say, the version of Office that's on Windows RT is called the Home & Student Edition so it clearly isn't aimed at power users. You might have been right, except for the fact that macro support is in the Intel version. And I'll make no bones about the fact that I'm deeply annoyed by the Microsoft double-speak that maintains these power features have been removed "because tablets have special needs for security and mobility". This is intelligence-insulting hogwash. It won't be removed from the tablets that are running Windows 8 on Intel, so are these tablets somehow different and do they have fewer "special needs for security and mobility"? Of course they don't.

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