Microsoft has struggled to make headway in the tablet market so far, but sources say it may be ready to take another crack at it by releasing a new Surface model with a smaller screen as soon as next month.
Inconsistently accurate Taiwanese IT industry newspaper DigiTimes reports that a variety of Asian component suppliers are already lined up to provide parts for Microsoft's new fondleslabs, which it says may debut at the company's Build developer conference, scheduled to take place in San Francisco from June 26 through 28.
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The new model – or possibly models – will reportedly feature "7- to 9-inch displays," allowing them to compete more closely with smaller, inexpensive slabs such as the iPad Mini and Google's Nexus 7.
Previous Windows tablet models have all shipped with 10-inch displays or larger, because Microsoft's OEM guidelines specified that they could have screen resolutions no lower than 1366-by-768 pixels – the same as the displays that ship with most full-sized consumer notebooks.
But Microsoft eased up on that requirement in March, under pressure from OEMs that wanted to build Windows devices in more compact form factors. (It hastened to say, however, that it wasn't "encouraging" its partners to skimp on screen rez.)
Here at Vulture Annex, we wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft was planning to jump on the mini-tablet bandwagon. And it certainly isn't unreasonable to expect the software giant to give Build conference-goers free Surface tablets, since it did so at last year's event in November. But we're a bit skeptical that it will have its new devices available by the end of June, as it's believed that most PC makers won't have their 9-inch-or-smaller models ready until later this year.
In April, French technology site Minimachines leaked what it claimed were promotional photos of a new 8-inch Windows 8 tablet from Acer – photos it quickly withdrew at the Taiwanese manufacturer's request. Assuming the Frenchies had their facts straight, that model isn't expected to ship until September.
If Microsoft is indeed planning to scoop Acer by rushing a new, own-branded tablet to market next month, Acer CEO and chairman JT Wang isn't going to be happy. In 2012, Wang was one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft's decision to enter the hardware market, saying, "It is not something you are good at, so please think twice."
On the other hand, it is possible that Microsoft will give away prerelease "developer preview" versions of its new hardware at Build, as it did with Samsung Slate tablets during the build-up to the Windows 8 launch.
Redmond is widely expected to use Build to seed developers with a preview version of "Blue," the major Windows update that we think will ship to customers this summer as Windows 8.1. It may do so by giving attendees a new Surface tablet with the code already in place, rather than forcing them to upgrade their own machines to a prerelease version of Windows.
Whatever Microsoft has up it sleeve for Build, however, DigiTimes says it plans to soldier on in the tablet wars with its current Surface devices, even though it's currently languishing in fifth place.
Part of that will involve expanding its markets around the world. The Taiwanese paper says Microsoft plans to launch its ARM-powered Surface RT in Mexico by the end of May, followed by Korea and Thailand in June. Meanwhile, the Intel-powered Surface Pro will reach both Austria and Australia in May, then Korea, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, and Thailand in June.
With any luck, expanding its reach in this way should help Microsoft reduce its inventory of last year's Surface models as it readies new ones. According to supply-chain sources, it's believed Microsoft has only shipped around 1.5 million Surface units since launch – about half its original estimates. ®