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With a 7-inch Surface tablet, Microsoft can finally deliver on its UMPC concept

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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(s msft) 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?

Image 1 for post Samsung intros new Q1 UMPCs, but there's still one missing( 2008-07-28 18:20:44) 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

surface-kickstandWhile 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.

windows8-metroAnd 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.

16 Responses to “With a 7-inch Surface tablet, Microsoft can finally deliver on its UMPC concept”

  1. I’ve owned the OQO 02 that Gates showed off at CES and the HP Slate that Ballmer showed off at CES. The Slate ran Windows 7 on a 9″ screen (capacitive touch and nTrig digitizer) with no problem and browsing/email could be accomplished through touch alone although Office did make me pull out the stylus. The OQO ran Vista on a 5″ screen and it didn’t have any touch, just a Wacom digitizer. Still, it was usable for anything that would be usable when printed on letter sized paper (spreadsheets ran out of real estate too quickly).

  2. Norman D. Robinson

    If Microsoft is reading this please take note. I’m a believer of your platform. Waiting for you to answer the 7″ form factor has been very painful. Thanks for waking up to the markets direction. However, I’d like to make the suggestion that you minimize the top and bottom “Bezel” of your device when it is placed in “Landscape Mode”. This would go a long way to ensure one handed holding. Additionally this would make the device small enough to fit in the inside pocket of a suit jacket comfortably.

    Can you imagine the presentation. To walk out on stage with a fully capable PC in one’s suit jacket…???

  3. Ben Smith

    I definitely remember my Q1! It was great! I had a car mount, GPS, and mobile internet via BT before anyone else. I’m glad much cheaper tech has come about to replace my clunky old mobile office / entertainment center / onboard computer.

  4. Not sure how MS can compete. In a price war of cheap mini tablets going on between Android & the iPad Mini. They can’t go with Atom because it’s still 2x/3x the price of highend ARM CPU at $30. Also the Windows licensing cost in comparison to Androids free. When your talking about devices this cheap every single dollar counts. Any combination of Intel/Windows license will immediately price them out of the market.

    I wont even get into the the ecosystem advantage of Android/iOS over Windows Metro.

    It’s a shame too because I would really like to see a valid 3rd competitor.

  5. I’ve looked at both the Surface RT and Pro:

    While I was pretty impressed with what the RT could do for the price, the PRO was somewhat of a letdown, especially when you consider some $300 devices can actually do more.

    If this IS the direction the PC is going with 7″ and smaller screens, then I think now would be a very good time to go back to winning designs like the Sony UX and OQO 02. A handheld Windows device with a sliding keyboard would make perfect sense, a 7″ 1600×900 or 5″ 1366×768 display would be very workable, all running off a 8W ULV Haswell part. And FORGET thin, make it at least a full inch thick for a decent heatsink+fan (read cool and quiet) and removable battery.

    I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise of my upcoming article…

  6. While I agree with your article and look forward to upgrading my 10″ Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 to a 7″ model, I disagree with your comment on Desktop Mode.

    I’ve owned the OQO 02 that Gates showed off at CES and the HP Slate that Ballmer showed off at CES. The Slate ran Windows 7 on a 9″ screen (capacitive touch and nTrig digitizer) with no problem and browsing/email could be accomplished through touch alone although Office did make me pull out the stylus. The OQO ran Vista on a 5″ screen and it didn’t have any touch, just a Wacom digitizer. Still, it was usable for anything that would be usable when printed on letter sized paper (spreadsheets ran out of real estate too quickly).

    With my TPT2, I spend most of my time in the desktop and if it isn’t available for a 7″ tablet I would have to think long and hard about upgrading. The only thing I would hope for with desktop mode is a revival of the Display Properties Advance Appearance settings so I could increase the scrollbar size. That and a return to the Win7 TIP which is a problem regardless of the screen size.

  7. Make it a 7″ version of the surface pro with core I3 and it has a chance. Anything with Clovertrail is a bust. I have the Surface Pro and love it, because it is a real computer with superior performance.

      • If it’s going to run RT as you’re suspecting, (which would make sense to keep price and size competitive) then I agree about not having desktop mode…as it is the Surface RT only has desktop mode for Office, and I don’t think many people would miss it terribly if it was absent in the 7 inch model.

        • Info Dave

          Yep, I’m in the RT only camp. ARM only. The first thing Microsoft can do is completely eliminate the need for the legacy desktop. They must finish the Metro part of Windows 8 (Control Panel items, drivers, a Metro file browser, Office.) A Metro only solution is where Microsoft wants to get. This could be the first product to get there.

  8. The only thing that worries me with a 7 inch Surface tablet is desktop mode. I have the Acer W510 (10.1 inch), and the buttons for minimizing, maximizing and closing windows are just big enough on that device when enlarged to 125%…my worry is that they would be too small on a 7 inch screen with a resolution of 1366×768. This wasn’t as much of an issue with the original UMPCs because (1) they used resistive, lower resolution touchscreens and a stylus (2) many of them also had some type of mouse (optical, nub) on the bezel.

    A 7 inch tablet with a mouse on the bezel might work, but they would have to market it correctly, and mainly steer users to using the tile interface vs the desktop.

  9. dennisvjames

    Microsoft if you are reading this, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 uses an active stylus and digitizer. This was the reason I ended up selecting it over the Surface RT tablet. My preference would have been a Microsoft tablet. I take handwritten notes.

    As much as Steve Jobs said we don’t want to use handwriting (paraphrase), quite a few of us do. The strong growth of the entire Note line shows that people like to use a stylus. You use a great digitizer in your Surface Pro but decided not to put it in the RT. Most of us want to do handwriting and we don’t even care it if gets translated.

    Microsoft you started the tablet craze a long time ago. You have the best piece of software for tablets (OneNote). Please reclaim your throne!

  10. Alejandro Huaman

    Well well, hopefully this time around hopefully Microsoft will fulfill the Origami Concept ->

    Remember seeing that commercial and being so existed about the future of Portable Computing. Had a lot of fun with the Q1P and was the reason I picked up a Surface RT Tablet. Won’t bother with Surface Pro as its too heavy. Hands down, the Surface RT is the best tablet in the Market for Work and Play (and yes it depends on what you consider to be “work and play”) and making me a believer again ;p

  11. To me it seems that MSFT has adopted a flawed strategy by throwing too many things (operating systems) up against a wall hoping to find in variety and quantity an answer to Apple’s one size fits all approach. Instead of unification, we have Surface RT, Surface Pro, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. Good luck with Windows Blue. While the 7″ form factor is an incredibly sweet spot for the likes of Amazon, Samsung and Apple, if MSFT hasn’t gotten traction with WP8, Windows 8, and the flavors of Surface by now I don’t see how things change just because they ship a smaller slate. A lot has been written about Android’s fragmentation but that is a book MSFT looks determined to write again. And again.