Switched On: Microsoft's small tablet trap

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On Microsoft's small tablet trap

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Based on last quarter's global PC shipment numbers, Microsoft continues to feel pain in making the case for Windows is a viable tablet operating system. Theoretically, the dual-identity (Windows 8/RT) operating system has everything it needs to be a contender, but the promise is ahead of the reality on three interdependent fronts: chip-level hardware, legacy support, and app software.

For example, if x86 chips were more competitive with ARM processors from a performance-per-watt perspective, then Microsoft wouldn't be as reliant on Metro-style apps for functionality. And if more developers were creating Metro-style apps, then consumers wouldn't have to go to the legacy desktop mode as much to get things done. (Until the company releases a Metro-style Office, Microsoft really can't wag its finger too much at third parties.)

While Microsoft has done a good job evangelizing for Windows Phone apps (an effort that will pay dividends for desktop Windows down the line), there simply wasn't a critical enough mass to make Windows RT a compelling proposition at its launch. The company was willing to seed the market with Surface RT, spending on television ads to show how a tablet and a PC could be one.

Now, Microsoft appears to be chasing industry trends again by encouraging smaller, less expensive tablets, although price points will likely be more along the lines of the iPad mini or Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 than Amazon's Kindle Fire HD. In doing so, it stands to fill in a substantial screen-size gap between the largest Windows Phone devices and today's smallest Windows tablets -- a range that Samsung seems determined to fill in at every one-third-inch increment using Android. However, in pursuing smaller tablets, Microsoft is playing against its strengths.

DNP Switched On Microsoft's small tablet trap

Resolution restrictions haven't been the main reason why major PC companies have gone big in their touchscreen products. It's because as tablet sizes get smaller, the demands of more sophisticated software -- especially mouse-controlled traditional desktop software -- become more difficult to fulfill. What's the value of legacy Windows apps on a 7-inch or 8-inch device? Didn't the market reject that with the fall of netbooks? If you need to print so desperately from a small tablet, pick up an HP Slate 7.

As Microsoft's Metro-style app arsenal grows, it has as good a shot at the smaller tablet space as its main rivals.

Perhaps Microsoft will again try to pave the way with a smaller version of Surface. However, to the extent the existing Surfaces' dog has wagged, the tail causing it to do so has been Microsoft's impressive battery- and Bluetooth-free click-in keyboards. Logitech has shown that one can create a usable slim keyboard for the 8-inch iPad mini, but there are more ergonomic compromises (for example, the lack of a Tab key and half-width semicolon and apostrophe keys) than seen on its counterpart for the larger iPad.

The best argument for a Windows tablet is that it can work as a main productivity machine with familiar apps, while allowing one to engage in more casual touchscreen-based content consumption. As Microsoft's Metro-style app arsenal grows, it has as good a shot at the smaller tablet space as its main rivals. Up until now, however, the whole Windows tablet story has been around being "more" -- more display size, more legacy support, more versatility -- which will prove a particular challenge when transitioning into a subcategory where less is more.

Update: This post originally appeared without the introductory paragraph, which has now been added.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at@rossrubin.