After hearing much chatter about how bad the PC industry is doing, including some comments that Windows 8 is actually killing the PC market’s growth, it’s not surprising to see reports today that Microsoft is planning to build a 7-inch tablet. People familiar with Microsoft plans told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Microsoft will have new Surface hardware for sale by year end, with one model being a 7-inch tablet.
Anyone remember the UMPC?
If the report is true — and I suspect it is — this won’t actually be the first time we’ll see 7-inch slates running Microsoft Windows. I know because I still have a few old UMPCs, or ultra mobile portable computers, from a half-dozen years ago. Microsoft didn’t make the devices, but worked with hardware vendors to improve touch support for the operating system. Tablets hit the market from vendors such as TabletKiosk, OQO, Acer, Samsung and Asus to name a few. In fact, the Asus model ended up spawning the Eee PC netbook and starting a whole new market.
These small slates were chunky, only ran for three or four hours on a charge, and used inefficient resistive touchscreens. But there was niche appeal to geeks like me that valued mobility. I actually used a Samsung model paired with a 3G phone and folding Bluetooth keyboard as my primary computing device for months. Long before the tablets of today, I was able to get work done anywhere and I didn’t have to tote a large laptop with me. Remember, this was long before the light and thin laptops we have today.
What was wrong with those small slates
While the solution worked for me, it had definite downsides, many of which Microsoft is now in a position to overcome. Look at Microsoft’s Surface hardware and you’ll see great design in a thin package. Capacitive touchscreens have replaced junky resistive options. And instead of dealing with Windows XP crammed into a screen size it isn’t meant for, Microsoft’s Windows 8 touch interface could be a joy to use on a 7-inch tablet.
That last point may be the most important because the idea behind UMPCs are much the same as the tablets of today: a touch-friendly portable computer with access to hundreds of thousands of software titles. Microsoft and its hardware partners couldn’t deliver on that promise back in 2006, however. Hardware limitations were part of the problem, but the bigger issue was one of user experience: the Windows of yesteryear simply wasn’t designed for a low-resolution small screen.
The new Windows could address much of what was wrong with UMPCs
The “modern” — or what used to be called Metro — interface can work on a 7-inch tablet, however. That’s evidenced by Windows Phone 8, which uses the same interface on smartphones that are even smaller.
And that makes me think that a small Surface tablet has much to do with the Windows Blue effort, which is meant to bring more unification to Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. It’s even possible that Microsoft will opt to use Windows Phone 8 for a small slate, given that it will support 1080p resolution screens in the future. That’s an outside chance, though: I’d expect the Surface RT software on a 7-inch tablet.
What took you so long, Microsoft?
If Microsoft does create a 7-inch Surface, I’ll surely be interested; after all, I’m a fan of the UMPC concept as well as an early evangelist for the 7-inch slate size. But it’s disappointing that Microsoft is only just now realizing what some of us did in 2010: there’s a potentially big market for small slates. Again, from the WSJ report:
” … 7-inch tablets weren’t part of the company’s strategy last year, but Microsoft executives realized they needed a response to the rapidly growing popularity of smaller tablets like Google Inc.’s 7-inch Nexus, which was announced last summer, and the 7.9-inch iPad Mini introduced by Apple Inc. last October.”
Microsoft had the right idea with UMPCs, but it didn’t tweak the user interface enough. Sure, the devices were expensive and built with typical PC hardware, not components optimized for tablets. That barrier is long gone now, though. Had Microsoft put some serious effort into its new touch interface in a small form factor Surface sooner, the tablet market — and maybe even the PC market — might look different today.