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6/20/2014
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Microsoft Accidentally Confirms Surface Mini

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 User Guide includes several references to the Surface Mini -- but does Microsoft need to release a smaller tablet?

Surface Pro 3 Vs. World: Mobile Smackdown
Surface Pro 3 Vs. World: Mobile Smackdown
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Oops. Microsoft -- ostensibly by accident -- just confirmed that its long-rumored Surface Mini was, and possibly still is, a real project. The Surface Pro 3 User Guide, which Microsoft made available this week, includes several references to the smaller device.

The company was widely expected to debut the Mini last month, but instead it introduced only the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft has never confirmed plans for the smaller device, though execs have dropped vague hints.

[Looking for a Surface you can actually buy today? Read Microsoft Surface Pro 3: My First 2 Weeks.]

The User Guide, whose Mini references were first spotted by Windows blogger Paul Thurrott, states that users can pair a digital pen with the Mini. Digital note-taking, which ended up being a significant Surface Pro 3 feature, was rumored to be one of the smaller tablet's differentiating appeals. The User Guide's other Surface Mini references relate to using Windows 8.1's OneNote app and rotation lock feature.

One of several references to the Surface Mini that appear in the Surface Pro 3 User Guide
One of several references to the Surface Mini that appear in the Surface Pro 3 User Guide

A Microsoft representative told InformationWeek the company has no comment about the User Guide's Surface Mini references.

Microsoft originally intended to introduce the Mini alongside the Pro 3 but decided at the last minute to remove the smaller tablet from last month's event, according to a Bloomberg report, which cited unnamed sources familiar with the company's plans. CEO Satya Nadella and executive VP Stephen Elop, who oversees the company's device efforts, reportedly felt the Mini wouldn't stand out from the competition.

When the Pro 3 was announced, Microsoft corporate VP Panos Panay, who leads the Surface team, told reporters that the company was exploring other Surface form factors but refused to provide any details. He did not confirm specific plans for a mini tablet-- a point that Microsoft reps have since reiterated. Nevertheless, Windows blog Neowin claimed Microsoft produced more than 15,000 devices before shutting down production. According to analysts, it might have been the right choice.

"I think the smaller form factor is not yet ready for a Microsoft product," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel, said in an email. She pointed out that aside from the iPad Mini, most small tablets are cheap, low-margin devices.

In an email interview, Forrester analyst David Johnson said low-margin devices are a vital link in the Windows ecosystem, countering, "Does Microsoft need to be the one to produce them? In my opinion, no."

Johnson pointed out that the market already boasts plenty of small tablets, adding that Microsoft, as a newcomer to the device game, can't necessarily compete with all of them. "[Because] Microsoft lacks the global channel ecosystem of some of [its] OEMs, there are actually disadvantages to Microsoft's tablets for global enterprises because they may not be able to get local service and support," he wrote.

Milanesi said if Microsoft releases a Mini slate, it will only succeed if the Windows Store can become more competitive with the iOS and Android's respective app marketplaces. "The moment you move to a small form factor, the more you need apps," she said. She added that professional users are clearly moving toward larger tablets.

So is the Surface Mini coming or not? As mentioned, Microsoft's not saying. The device has reportedly been delayed at least twice -- last month and also last fall, when it was expected to launch alongside the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. Thurrott, who has accurately reported pre-release Microsoft details in the past, predicted via Twitter that the device is still coming, and that it will run Windows RT. In the meantime, Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 hit stores Friday.

InformationWeek's new Must Reads is a compendium of our best recent coverage of the Internet of Things. Find out the way in which an aging workforce will drive progress on the Internet of Things, why the IoT isn't as scary as some folks seem to think, how connected machines will change the supply chain, and more (free registration required).

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 2:49:05 PM
Re: Damned if you do, damned if you don't
I agree, Shane. It's a tough spot.

Here's one argument: Microsoft should only release a Mini if the rumored merger of Windows Phone and Windows RT isn't close to happening. Otherwise, I'd like to see Windows RT fold into Windows Phone to form an OS for smartphones and small tablets. Then, I could see Microsoft attempting some sort of kickass phablet that includes pen support. The mini tablet market has become so difficult partly because of cannibalization from phablets, so if Microsoft wants to do smaller devices, phablets aren't an unreasonable way to go. Not sure if they'd market such a device under the Surface or Lumia brands, but I like this idea. Carolina Milanesi, one of the analysts cited in the article, also thinks Microsoft might use its Nokia purchase, rather than the Surface line, to push small form factors.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 2:47:08 PM
Guerrilla marketing?
Sounds like an attempt at Steve Jobs-like guerrilla marketing. Not sure it works quite the same way for Microsoft.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
6/20/2014 | 2:40:26 PM
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
This is a tough call for Microsoft. I agree with the analysts cited in the story that as a mobile slow-poke, Microsoft has to pick its spots. It can't take on every category -- maybe the Surface brand just needs more time to marinate. Yet as a mobile slow-poke Microsoft also can't wait too long to release a Surface Mini. It just gives Google, Amazon, and Apple more time to win over small tablet buyers. Bit of a Catch-22.
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