Microsoft is hosting a "small" event in New York City on Tuesday, May 20 where we expect to hear an update on the company's Surface portfolio of Windows tablets. It might not actually be that "small" though: there's a lot of possible news that can come out of Microsoft on May 20, and some of it may change our perception of the company's Surface tablets for the long haul.
For more than a year now, we've been expecting Microsoft to unveil a smaller version of its Surface tablets, which have so far offered 10.6-inch displays. Microsoft's partners, such as Lenovo, Acer and Asus, already offer smaller slates, but the company itself has so far not branched into the mini tablet market where Amazon, Android OEMs and Apple have been competing for years now. That may all change with the introduction of the Surface Mini.
Microsoft may also go bigger, with recent rumors pointing to a Surface Pro 3 tablet. That device could include the latest Haswell processors from Intel, and may even almost represent Microsoft's own foray into the laptop industry — assuming it's sold with a keyboard, it could very much resemble one and, since it runs the same software, would compete directly with laptops.
Let's take a look at what may be in store for May 20.
Most reports have suggested that Microsoft is developing a tablet with a 7 or 8-inch display, which would make the device a direct competitor to products like the Amazon Kindle Fire, Samsung's numerous smaller tablets, and both iPad mini models from Apple. Most recently, a report suggested that Microsoft is working with Qualcomm to provide the processor for its smaller slate.
That suggests we'll see the product running a version of Windows 8 RT instead of the more powerful Windows 8.1 operating system, which runs the Windows apps we're all familiar with. Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Surface tablets typically run on Intel processors, while its Surface products with Windows RT have operated on NVIDIA's chips. The current Surface, for example, uses NVIDIA's Tegra 4 processor.
Microsoft only offers the Surface 2 with AT&T LTE connectivity. It doesn't offer support for any of the other three U.S. carriers, nor does it include 4G LTE support in its Surface Pro 2 tablet. That's a problem, particularly as we as consumers look to be connected everywhere we go. The move to a Qualcomm chip could be very telling in regards to Microsoft's product strategy.
Hello Qualcomm, Bye NVIDIA?
Qualcomm dominates the U.S. market for LTE chips, particularly in smartphones and tablets, and we know that carriers are more comfortable choosing it as chip provider over its competitors.
If Microsoft does tap Qualcomm to provide chips, as rumors have suggested, I expect the new Surface tablets to be more widely available from wireless carriers in the U.S. This would open up the tablet family to a much broader array of consumers, and put Microsoft's Surface tablets in wireless retail stores where the devices otherwise never had a presence.
A Qualcomm slate may also be limiting for some consumers, however. Microsoft's Windows Store for Windows RT tablets has a small fraction of the apps available for all x86-based Windows computers that are capable of running more powerful apps, thanks to Intel processors. That's going to be a drawback for folks like me, though Microsoft could also offer its Qualcomm slates at a lower cost.
It may decide to offer a "Pro" version with Intel for a bit more, which is exactly what it has done in the past with the Surface and Surface Pro, and Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro, but with NVIDIA chips in place of Qualcomm processors.
I expect Microsoft to take a productivity angle with the introduction of the rumored Surface Mini. Several reports have suggested it's working to build a new style of note-taking application that takes advantage of a stylus, similar to what Samsung provides with its S Pen technology on its Galaxy Note products.
The company has reportedly rebuilt its OneNote application for better pen input, and it will probably drive home the benefit that OneNote is always in sync with Microsoft's OneDrive cloud.
Speaking of productivity, Mary Jo Foley from ZDNet, who has reported on Microsoft with near perfect accuracy, recently heard word that Microsoft is also developing a version of its Office Suite for tablets that's "touch first," or easier to use with touch input than, say, a keyboard and mouse.
Since Office is now available on the iPad, it's possible Microsoft will discuss this version of Office during the event, too. Office on mobile is already touch friendly on smartphones, but it still needs work on tablets. Foley said the project is currently code named "Gemini."
Surface Pro 3
Microsoft may also introduce a new Surface Pro 3 product. We weren't really expecting anything in this regard until Microsoft's website accidentally spilled the beans last week. A reference on the site pointed to camera enhancements to a "Surface Pro 3" tablet, which obviously doesn't exist yet. It's possible this was a typo, though some other reports have us thinking that it's more likely Microsoft has bigger plans.
If Microsoft doesn't introduce a Surface Mini Pro, and it still may, than this is where Intel comes into play again. Intel processors have always powered Microsoft's Surface Pro-branded tablets, and we don't expect that to change this time. The Surface Pro 3, if it exists, will probably run on Intel's new Haswell processors, which offer much longer battery life than earlier chips.
The Surface Pro 3 may also introduce a larger display to the family. So Microsoft will potentially have 10.6-inch Surface tablets, smaller 7-inch or 8-inch tablets, and a larger device. Speaking with CNET recently, research firm IHS Technology said that "there are strong indications that there is a 12-inch product coming down the pipeline."
Microsoft will probably position it as a laptop replacement, as it has with its smaller 10.6-inch Surface devices. I wouldn't be surprised to see keyboard cases announced right alongside the device, which the tablet will probably be able to snap in and out of. Microsoft's notebook partners already offer similar products but, again, the company itself hasn't entered this space yet.
TechnoBuffalo will be covering Microsoft's Surface event live on May 20 so we'll be there to cover whatever pops up. Right now, our best guess is that we'll see some discussion around a Surface Mini and a larger Surface Pro 3.
Also, maybe we'll hear a bit from Qualcomm in why it was selected as Microsoft's partner, which might also lead into discussion on new sales of the tablet direct from U.S. and maybe international wireless carriers. One final question: will Microsoft finally price its tablets in a more affordable arena?
If it wants its products in the hands of more consumers, that's a path we think it's going to have to take sooner rather than later.