What Happened to the Surface Mini?

Well, that was disappointing.

Microsoft’s heavily-rumored mini-tablet (link) was a no-show at the Surface event this week. If this had been an Apple announcement, I’d just say the Internet got carried away with itself. But the source of the rumors was the very reliable Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet (link), who’s almost a house organ for Microsoft official leaks. So what happened?

It’s possible that Microsoft leaked the rumors deliberately in order to smoke out Foley’s sources, but I don’t think Microsoft would have put Qualcomm in the story if that were the case. Most likely the product was real, and the announcement was canceled just recently.

Bloomberg says Microsoft execs Stephen Elop and Satya Nadella lost confidence in the product and decided to pull it at the last minute (link). That would be a typical move for a new management team – you always look to kill a few of your predecessor’s projects to put your own stamp on the organization. The reasoning that Bloomberg gave didn’t make sense, though. The report says the mini-tablet was canceled because it didn’t have enough differentiation. A tablet optimized for note-taking and equipped with a stylus would have been heavily differentiated, so that doesn’t wash.

More believable would be if the company is leery of launching any new product that depends on Windows RT, the ARM-based version of Windows that can’t run normal Windows apps. RT has failed to achieve significant momentum in the market, and I could see Elop and Nadella being very cautious about risking another RT-based product flop. More prudent to pull it now, ship the Intel-based jumbo Surface tablet, and do a minitablet later, if at all, based on Windows Phone. The jumbo product won’t change the world, but at least it won’t embarrass Microsoft.

If that was the call, it’s a prudent decision that totally misreads the market for mobile devices. RT was a bad choice for full-sized Surface tablets because they are too close in price and size to notebooks. No Windows user wants a notebook that won’t run Windows apps. But a minitablet could have been sold as an information appliance, for which full Windows app compatibility is much less important.

This situation illustrates why the tech industry has so much trouble creating truly new device categories. Small startups have trouble scraping together the money necessary to do a really different product. Doing it right often takes on the order of $20 million, more than you can easily raise from VCs or Kickstarter. Big companies have that sort of money, but they’re usually risk averse and would rather stick to established categories of product. Which is what Microsoft just did.

Ah well, the net impact is that Microsoft has now whiffed twice on the minitablet market, once with the twin-screen Courier product and now Surface mini. I wonder if they’ll get a third chance.

I’ll also be interested to see what the last-minute cancellation costs Microsoft. If they were close to launching, there will be parts and manufacturing contracts with big cancellation fees. Presumably Nadella will be doing some sort of restructuring of the company in the near future – new CEOs always do – and the writedown, if any, can be buried in that.

Meanwhile, someone at Microsoft is probably sitting on a roomful of Surface Mini prototypes that are headed to a shredder. I have one humble request: Could you please slip one of them to me?

6 comments:

TDC123 said...

I think Microsoft is probably waiting for the completion of office touch. Perhaps when they launch office touch they could launch the surface mini as well and market it as the truly mobile office with a stylus. Perhaps make office free as well with the mini. I have to admit I loved the demo of the pressing of stylus which automatically opens one note just looking at that made me want to consider buying it... That would be perfect for the mini

Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Hopefully they can send me one too. I have a Dell Venue Pro 8 and I love it, but the pen really leaves something to be desired. Full disclosure, there's also a hot spot in the corner when running some games that gives me pause.

I've had it about six months and other then some experimentation (whee, I can run Visual Studio on a tiny tablet), I never use the desktop. I would welcome a version of Windows for small tablets that completely ditched it (either straight Windows RT or a Windows Phone derivative).

The active digitizer on the Surface Pro 3 along with the innovative "click and it's on ready to take notes" had me opening my wallet waiting for a smaller version. When they didn't announce a Surface Mini I closed the wallet.

I understand their message about everybody with a tablet also owning a laptop and trying to provide one device that handles both, but for me personally two devices is what I prefer. I find the smaller 8" tablet a better fit for what I use a tablet for than the larger iPad I have that sits in a drawer.

-Michael O. Schoneman

Anonymous said...

I lost faith in Microsoft when Ballmer canceled the Courier. Figured replacing him showed hope. It's become obvious the company has a cultural disease that will require an outsider at the helm to cure.

mikecane said...

You've missed the point that full Win 8.1 has been jiggered to run on what are called "1/16" tablets - 1GB RAM, 16GBs storage. And there are a whole lot of those being made in China with Android on Intel that will be getting Windows options in the months ahead. Most are 8-inch with one rumor also saying there will be a 7-inch. How can MS compete against full Win 8.1 on 8-inch for around US$200?

Chan said...

@mikecane

When China breeds Win 8 tablets, they will be deformed dinosaurs people will trying to run classic Windows apps without touch

Android fragmentation creates enough friction, this will be worse

It will be going back to the day of Pocket PC with a stylus