For the past couple of weeks, the web has been buzzing with rumors and speculation that Microsoft is working on a 7-inch version of its Surface Tablet. There has been no official word from Microsoft, of course, but if you look at current market trends, introducing a smaller tablet would seem to make a lot of sense. The popularity of the iPad Mini, Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 are clear indicators that consumers are interested in smaller tablets, and Microsoft surely wants a piece of the action.
Microsoft is in somewhat of a unique situation, however. Not only does the company already have a slew of hardware partners it probably shouldn’t anger any further, but it technically has two mobile operating systems to choose from, Windows RT and Windows 8. Although Windows RT and Windows 8 look similar, the former lacks compatibility with legacy x86 Windows applications, while the latter has somewhat steeper hardware requirements to run smoothly. And therein lies the rub.
If history is any indicator, and Microsoft is actually working on its own branded 7-inch tablet, it will most likely run Windows RT. Unfortunately, Windows RT hasn’t exactly been the darling of consumers or the tech community. In fact, many experts are calling for Microsoft to just kill off RT altogether and focus solely on Windows 8 for tablets. With Intel’s current x86-compatible SoCs already offering better performance and similar battery life than the ARM-based alternatives for Windows RT, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to continue expending resources on Windows RT. And if rumors hold true, Intel’s upcoming Bay Trail-based SoCs should only push RT further into oblivion.
The alternative is to produce a Windows 8-based, x86-compatible, 7-inch tablet. But I can already hear the tech press complaining now. They’ll say things like “Desktop mode is useless on a 7-inch tablet,” “You’ll be paying for features you won’t use,” and “There aren’t enough Windows 8 apps,” and so on. Whether everyone feels the same way or not, information and reviews full of caveats about a product don’t exactly instill consumer confidence and foster success.
Microsoft has taken such a beating lately that I’m of the opinion they shouldn’t bother with their own 7-inch tablet. Unless they hit an absolute home run on the hardware and market the device creatively alongside an enticing software promotion, there’s little chance the product will be well received. Microsoft should focus on bettering Windows 8 and its successors, and let its hardware partners introduce new tablet form factors.
Marco Chiappetta is a freelance journalist specializing in PC and consumer device hardware reviews. Or in his words, Marco is a "self-confessed keyboard geek." In addition to covering Microsoft for Network World, Marco's work also appears in PC World and he is an editor at Hothardware.com.