Microsoft has confirmed that smaller Windows 8 tablets will come to market in the near future. These will fill a gap in the Windows ecosystem and boost demand for Windows 8 by addressing key downsides to the early Surface tablets.
Windows tablet sales seemed to start off impressively, but the overall results so far are mediocre at best. Microsoft isn't sharing the numbers, but recent reports suggest that 1.5 million Surface tablets have sold, with 400,000 of them Surface Pro. The Surface Pro sold out almost instantly, but without actual sales data, it's hard to know whether that's impressive.
Windows 8 tablet failings
If one thing has hampered the success of Windows 8 tablets, it's price. The Surface RT is an impressive piece of hardware and a worthy tablet competitor, but it costs the same $500 as the entry-level model of the extremely popular iPad--and nearly double the price of the Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9 HD. Starting at $900, the 10.6-inch Surface Pro is astronomical for a tablet. Even though it's really a tablet-ultrabook hybrid of sorts, it is perceived as a tablet.
Another related handicap of Windows 8 tablets is size. Led by the original Amazon Kindle Fire and followed by the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Google Nexus and iPad Mini, the 7-inch tablet market has exploded. The fact that smaller tablets tend to cost about half as much as their larger counterparts has a lot to do with that.
Windows 8 backlash
Windows 8 has been blamed for a steep drop in PC sales, with the primary culprit being the missing Start button. However, recent PC sales data doesn't include tablets--not even those like the Surface Pro, which is literally a PC running the full Windows 8 OS. IDC's latest research did not count anything with a fully detachable keyboard as a PC.
Contrast that with Microsoft's quarterly financial report this week, which shows Windows holding its own in spite of lagging Windows 8 demand.
The upcoming Windows 8.1, codenamed "Windows Blue," will spark demand for Windows. A number of rumored, key updates and changes are based on leaked builds. For example, Windows Blue might boot straight to the more familiar Windows 7-esque desktop mode, and even return the Start button.
Smaller Windows 8 tablets
What will ignite sales of both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 tablets? Smaller, more affordable Windows 8 tablets.
A Windows 8 Pro tablet can replace a traditional desktop or laptop PC because it is, in fact, a full PC. Tablets running Windows RT, on the other hand, can arguably replace a traditional PC for many users, but they can't run legacy Windows software. For those who aren't looking to replace their PC, though, a smaller tablet makes much more sense.
The Surface Pro is only marginally smaller, thinner and lighter than most Windows notebooks or even ultrabooks. Businesses and consumers who have already invested in a Windows laptop gain little value from purchasing a Windows 8 tablet.
A 7-inch Windows 8 tablet in the $200 price range would change everything, driving adoption of Windows 8. It would fill a gap between smartphone and laptop, and provide the consistent Windows experience alongside tools like Microsoft Office. There's the rumored benefit that Windows Blue will automatically sync apps and settings between the desktop or laptop and the tablet. A stylus or digitizer would sweeten the deal.
"It's a (good) sign that the new Microsoft is aggressively and proactively going to play in every new hardware segment," says Onuora Amobi, chief editor of the WindowsBlue blog. "They'll stop to figure out if it's a good decision later. That's a good strategy."