There are a lot of rumors going around that Microsoft might eventually merge Windows RT with the Windows Phone operating system. In many ways this makes sense. Both are designed for the ARM processors while full Windows 8.x is still designed for the x86/x64 processors of the PC world. We have no idea when or if Microsoft really intends to merge Windows Phone with the Windows RT operating system, but there seem to be quite a few hurdles that would be necessary to overcome.
Right now, Windows RT is exactly the same as the full Windows 8.x operating system except for the fact that it is built for a different processor architecture and only runs apps built for that architecture (ones that you can find in the Windows Store). That’s a pretty simple distinction… Windows 8 = install whatever you want… Windows RT = same UI as Windows 8, but you can only install apps from the store. Windows Phone 8 is built for the same type of processor architecture as Windows RT, but its interface is almost completely different.
For example, Windows Phone and all of the apps on the platform require a hardware-based back button for navigation. Windows RT does not use a hardware based back button, nor any kind of centralized “back” function at all. Even the interface for working with live tiles on the start screen is completely different. At least with Windows RT 8.1, they’ve become a bit more similar in that you now tap & hold to activate the customization mode, but Windows Phone still has nice little unpin and resize buttons in the corners of each tile in customize mode, while on Windows RT 8.1, you have to use buttons in the bottom edge menu bar to find those functions.
Furthermore, Windows Phone has some excellent integration points for 3rd party developers that simply aren’t available on Windows RT. With Windows Phone, anyone can install apps that can have options to create custom lock screen wallpaper graphics, auto-upload photos to cloud storage services, plug-into the Photos hub as an image editor, replace the camera interface, integrate voice over IP services, plug-into the centralized speech interface, etc. Windows RT/8.1 doesn’t even have a speech interface!
The most likely scenario would be to add all of Windows Phone’s special features to Windows RT (and full Windows) so that they can be used on all Windows-based mobile devices as long as they include the required hardware like phone radios. If a back button is included, current Windows 8 “metro” apps would probably need to be modified to work with it. Or if no back button is included, current Windows Phone apps would need to be modified to include their own in-app navigation.
There would probably need to be a modified UI for the small screen too. Windows 8/RT took some huge strides towards creating a well-designed interface that accommodates two handed touch-screen tablet interaction (the left and right edge swipe gestures are indicative of this)… while also providing an improved interface for 10′ UI’s and desktop mouse/keyboard interaction methods (the 4 corners UI is very efficient). Phones are much different though. Phones need to be usable with one hand and generally people hold a phone from the bottom with either their left or right hand. That means a top-edge-down gesture is out of the question for usability, and most interactive buttons and gestures should be accessible from the lower part of the phone. Windows RT/8.1 only uses the top-edge gesture for closing apps (which is rarely necessary), so things might actually translate pretty easily.
Honestly, if you’ve seen the Dell Venue 8 Pro and the Nokia Lumia 1520, the size difference is not that far. It’s pretty easy to imagine that the full Windows 8.1 operating system (found in the Dell Venue 8 Pro) could scale down a little more and work perfectly fine on a smaller-screened device with some cellular phone hardware inside.
Folding Windows Phone into Windows RT could certainly have lots of advantages. You can imagine having a USB port on your phone that you can plug practically anything into; existing printers, projectors, hard disks, DVD drives, etc. A full version of Windows on your phone could open things up to huge scaling options as computing hardware continues to become faster and smaller.
Does merging all of the Windows Phone features into Windows RT/8.x and building more scaling options into the operating system sound like a good idea? Or should a phone really have its own separate interface and apps?