Microsoft Surface Mini Will Be Released… Eventually

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Those disappointed when Microsoft didn’t unveil a smaller version of its Surface tablet on Tuesday shouldn’t give up hope, as this model will quite likely appear at some point.

Although there’s no way to know for certain, reports supposedly coming from inside Microsoft indicate the plan to take the wraps off the Surface Mini this week changed very recently, perhaps even after the press had been invited to the launch event. As it was, only the Surface Pro 3 was introduced.

Of course, there has been no official statement on why this last-minute reversal was made — neither CEO Satya Nadella nor anyone at Microsoft has ever promised a mid-size Surface tablet. But some unofficial information has leaked out.

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and Surface Mini - Artists ConceptThe most reliable of these say that company executives decided that the Surface Mini wasn’t sufficiently different from already-available models for it to be a success. There are a number of good reasons to believe this is true.

There is strong competition among tablets around 8 inches in size that cost between $200 and $400. Just in the Windows realm, the device would have faced the Lenovo ThinkPad 8, Asus VivoTab Note 8, and others. It would also have had to lure in buyers who are considering the Apple iPad mini with Retina display or Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0.

Despite the heavy competition, if Microsoft wants to be a serious force in the tablet market it needs to offer a range of products. Without the Surface Mini, it will only have full-size, high-price models to offer.

The Windows RT Challenge

If it was announced this week, the Surface Mini’s main differentiating feature would have been that it runs Windows 8.1 RT, rather than the standard version of Windows. So far, however, a real need for this alternate version has not emerged.

RT was developed during at a time when the x86 processors used in Windows devices required a great deal of power and were very expensive, so that the tablets that used them weren’t popular. Microsoft therefore built an alternate version to run on ARM chips, which are cheaper and draw less current. But this also came with a significant drawback: a loss of backward compatibility. Tablets with Windows RT cannot run software created for x86 chips, which is everything designed for Windows 7 and earlier.

The situation changed dramatically with the release of Intel’s Bay Trail processors, which are x86 chips that are much more efficient than their predecessors and a lot more affordable too. That latter change came about because Intel is subsidizing their use as part of its plan to get its products used in 40 million mobile devices this year.

As a result, models like the Dell Venue 8 Pro can run the standard version of Windows while still offering long battery lives and attractive prices, essentially removing the original need for Windows RT.

Microsoft Surface Mini with Pen - Artists ConceptInformation leaking from Microsoft seems to indicate that the company realizes that, in order for a mid-range Surface tablet running Windows RT to find a market, it needs to offer something besides “Just like Windows, except with support for less third-party software.”

Waiting for Better Notes…

There have been hints that the Surface Mini will be positioned as a note-taking device… essentially OneNote in a metal shell. This theory received a boost when Microsoft heavily emphasized the app during the launch of the Surface Pro 3. Although few would buy an $800, full-size tablet just to take notes on it, an inexpensive mid-size one designed around jotting down handwritten notes might find more of an audience.

If Microsoft really has pushed back the release of the Surface Mini and not cancelled it completely, it may well be because the company wants more time to refine its One Note experience, perhaps tying it even more deeply into the other pieces of Microsoft Office, or just looking for ways to make it easier and generally more useful.

…or Better Office?

Although Windows RT comes bundled with a version of Office, this is just a slightly modified version of the desktop edition ported to run on ARM processors. This means using it with a fingertip instead of a mouse can be a challenge. Microsoft is working on a touch-optimized version of Office — indeed, it’s already available for Apple’s iPad.  One of the theories on why the Surface Mini has been delayed is Microsoft is going to hold it until a Windows RT version is available.

AnalysisIt’s possible both of these will be required to save Windows RT, the fate of which is in real doubt: the only company besides Microsoft that has released a product with this operating system in the last few quarters is Nokia, which was recently purchased by Microsoft.

When, or if, the Surface Mini will reach consumer’s hands is an open question. At this point, the most likely answer is “When Satya Nadella and other Microsoft executives think it’s ready,” because it seems it’s not ready now. But it’s likely still coming.

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