Microsoft will hold a Surface-related event on May 20, presumably to announce the long-rumored Surface Mini.

Michael Endler, Associate Editor,

May 6, 2014

4 Min Read

Microsoft Office For iPad: 7 Questions Answered

Microsoft Office For iPad: 7 Questions Answered

Microsoft Office For iPad: 7 Questions Answered (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Late Monday afternoon, Microsoft issued press invitations to a Surface-related event in New York City on May 20. Commentators widely assume the company will unveil the so-called Surface Mini. Microsoft has never acknowledged plans for such a product, though the alleged device has been a rumor-mill fixture for more than a year. The invitation encourages recipients to join the Surface team for a "small gathering" but provides no other insight into the event's agenda.

Last month, the Chinese company Vostrostone listed Surface Mini accessories on Amazon. Companies sometimes advertise such products based on rumors, but Vostrostone is accepting pre-orders and listing their availability as May 18. Around the same time, the Microsoft blog Neowin and the website ZDNet separately reported, citing unnamed sources, that Surface Mini will emphasize digital note-taking.

[Planning to install the latest version of Windows? Read Windows 8.1 Update: 8 Tips to Avoid Headaches.]

Like many long-running rumors, the Surface Mini's alleged details have evolved over time. Websites and publications including ZDNet, The Wall Street Journal, and The Verge have published reports over the months, all of them informed by anonymous sources. Microsoft's mini-slate has been variously described as a sophisticated e-reader built to leverage Microsoft's Nook investment, or a gamer's tablet that could complement the Xbox. Among Microsoft execs, VP Panos Panay has come closest to confirming the Surface Mini. He stated last fall that Microsoft was working on Surface form factors but did not elaborate.

Current rumors center on the device's alleged digital note-taking capabilities, which could include an advanced stylus and a 7- or 8-inch screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio. All current Surfaces feature 10.6-inch 16:9 HD displays, which are great for landscape-style activities such as watching movies, but unwieldy for portrait-style, one-handed tasks such as perusing Word documents, websites, and PDFs. Apple's iPads feature 4:3 screens that make them well-suited to document review.

If Microsoft attempts to position the Surface Mini as a superlative note-taking device, its Office products might be part of the question. Whether the device runs Windows 8.1 or, as rumors hold, Windows RT, it will run some version of Office. The versions available on current Surfaces support touch and pen input. But the apps are haptic-minded tweaks of the desktop versions, not the ground-up rebuild Microsoft displayed in the Office for iPad suite. Last month at Build, Microsoft showed off a Modern UI version of PowerPoint. Time will tell if new Office apps are part of the Surface Mini's appeal.

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Whether it's a new Office experience or some other new feature, the new Surface will likely need to offer more than a scaled-down, presumably cheaper version of its predecessors. Last month, Microsoft disclosed that its Surface products are still losing money. The company tried to give the news a positive spin by stressing improving margins, but the Surface line's modest improvement overshadows neither the tablets' niche status nor the market's larger indifference to Windows tablets in general.

Moreover, the tablet market might be leveling off. A year ago, smaller tablets were still enjoying explosive growth, but according to the latest figures from the research firm IDC, the market expanded only 3.9% year-over-year during the most recent quarter. IDC analysts said phablets have cannibalized demand for pure tablets.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will preside over the New York event, according to a ZDNet report, which cited inside sources. Microsoft's press invitation didn't mention Nadella, whose attendance was clearly indicated on invites to the company's recent Office for iPad and data strategy events. We've reached out to Microsoft for comment.

Over the last few weeks, Nadella has put his stamp on a range of Microsoft's core assets -- but he's so far lavished the least attention on his company's device efforts, particularly the Surface line. Accordingly, it would make sense for Nadella to announce whatever news Microsoft has planned for New York. The new CEO has shown he can sell the cloud -- but can he sell hardware too?

Could the growing movement toward open-source hardware rewrite the rules for computer and networking hardware the way Linux, Apache, and Android have for software? Also in the Open Source Hardware issue of InformationWeek: Mark Hurd explains his "once-in-a-career opportunity" at Oracle.

About the Author(s)

Michael Endler

Associate Editor,

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 and, pending the completion of a long-gestating thesis, will hold an MA in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State.

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