Windows RT can be tweaked to run desktop apps, hacker says

Running traditional desktop apps on Windows RT may be one step closer to reality, thanks to a vulnerability that a hacker claims lets you run any desktop app on the ARM version of Windows.

A hacker called 'clrokr' recently detailed the Windows RT exploit, which requires manipulating a part of Windows RT's system memory that governs whether unsigned apps can run. Clrokr says the exploit was possible thanks to a vulnerability in the Windows kernel that was ported to Windows RT.

The bad news is this is not a simple exploit and requires significant knowledge of how Windows works, so for now the RT exploit is strictly in the domain of programmers and tinkerers. Even if you got the exploit working, you'd also have to know how to compile legacy Windows desktop programs for ARM processors. It also appears this hack is temporary and would be wiped out following a system reboot.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to see that hackers are hard at work figuring out how to run unapproved apps on Windows RT tablets. Microsoft decided to follow in Apple's footsteps with Windows RT by completely locking down devices running the OS. The traditional desktop on Windows RT will run only apps that are digitally signed by Microsoft; third-party apps are not allowed. And apps for the modern UI Start Screen on Windows RT are available only through the Windows Store.

Regular Windows 8 tablets also have a locked-down modern UI, but there are ways around this restriction. The traditional desktop side of Windows 8 lets you run any app you like, as with previous versions of Windows.

A personal appeal

Clrokr included a personal appeal to Microsoft in his blog post detailing the Windows RT exploit. “The decision to ban traditional desktop applications was not a technical one,” Clrokr writes. “Microsoft, please consider making code signing optional and thereby increasing the value of your Windows RT devices!”

But is that such a good idea, to let anyone run anything they want on a Windows RT tablet? From a consumer choice perspective, the answer is a resounding “yes,” but in terms of consumer experience, the answer is a little less clear. Understanding the technical difference between Windows and Windows RT when you're looking to buy a new tablet is hard enough. Once you buy a Windows RT tablet, however, obtaining apps is a simple matter since you can download only new stuff for your tablet from the Windows Store.

If Microsoft allowed you to install any app you wanted from any random Website, the confusion around what could and could not run on a Windows RT tablet would only escalate. And the threat of downloading malicious apps on Windows RT could destroy Microsoft's best chance at competing with Android and iOS tablets.

Microsoft could get around some of these problems by using the approach Google took with Android and adding a checkbox to the Settings that lets you sideload apps. But even that could be problematic, since many people may still check the “install unofficial apps” box without understanding the difference between apps compiled for legacy versions of Windows and those that work with Windows RT.

Perhaps, then, this kind of functionality is better off existing as an unofficial jailbreak that requires several the user to take deliberate steps before running unsigned apps on their devices. Presumably, any users able to complete a jailbreak, now matter how simplified, would be more aware than most people about the limitations of their devices.

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