If Microsoft does release the so-called Surface Mini, a new report says that you'll have to wait a while.
CNET/ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley reports that Microsoft is holding back a smaller version of its Mini tablet until sometime in 2014, after some of the company's other development projects have been completed. That would put the Surface Mini on schedule to be released alongside an LTE-equipped version of the Surface 2, which Microsoft has already publicly committed to.
The reason? Microsoft is designing the smaller tablet around the "Spring 2014 GDR" release of Windows 8.1, which will be released around the same time as the "Windows Blue" update to Windows Phone Blue, Foley reports.
Although Microsoft's Surface director steadfastly declined to comment on whether or not a smaller Surface is in the works, there's simply too much evidence, strategically, that says it needs to come from someone--the only question is whether or not Microsoft would choose to release such a "hero" device itself, or cede the higher-volume, lower-margin parts to its hardware partners.
Microsoft's Steve Ballmer has already gone on record noting that the bulk of the market is made up of smaller, entertainment-focused tablets.
So far, Microsoft has (belatedly) carved out the productivity niche for itself and its Surface brand, leaving a gaping hole where entertainment is concerned. Last year, The Verge claimed that it had gotten wind of an Xbox Surface tablet, a 7-inch tablet with a screen resolution of 1280 by 720 pixels.
How fun would it be?
So far, anything that's "serious fun" at Microsoft generally belongs under the Xbox brand. But "light fun" may be the domain of Windows Phone, a Surface Mini tablet, or eventually some juxtaposition of the two.
"There are many things people do for light fun, for example play solitaire, spend three minutes on a word game, or surf the TV," Ballmer wrote in a stategy memo this summer. "Although we will enable these activities effectively, our biggest opportunity is in creating the fun people feel most intensely, such as playing a game that lasts hours and takes real concentration, or immersing them in live events and entertainment (including sports, concerts, education, and fitness) while allowing interactive participation."
So far, Microsoft hasn't really provided a platform to show off its second-screen Xbox app, SmartGlass, on Windows--although iOS versions are already available.
One risk, however, is that, once again, the market will pass by a Surface Mini. It's not clear whether a Surface Mini would run Windows RT or the full-fledged Windows 8.1 OS.
Devices like the $349, 10.1-inch Asus Transformer T100, which uses the new Intel "Bay Trail" Atom chip, offer a glimpse into what the 2013 holiday season could offer: cheaper, Atom-based tablets that finally perform to expectations. (The Acer Iconia W3 tablet, shown at top and powered by an older Atom processor, arguably didn't.)
Delaying a Surface Mini could certainly allow Microsoft's hardware partners to seed their own offerings into the market; remember, Microsoft's mission is to seed "brand Windows," and not just its own devices. But with every month that passes without a credible alternative to the Google Nexus 7, the new Amazon Kindle HDX tablets, or the iPad mini, Microsoft risks falling out of the mind of its customers. Someone in the Windows world needs to jump on this, and quickly.