This much we know about Microsoft's "small" Surface event happening Tuesday in New York City: It will mark the launch of the long-awaited Surface Mini. The Mini will be Microsoft's official entry into the small-screen tablet market, currently dominated by the likes of the Apple iPad mini and Amazon's Kindle Fire.
What we don't know is exactly how Microsoft is going to present its pint-size Surface to the world. The path Microsoft lays out for the Surface Mini will show just how much confidence the company has in Windows RT, the version of Windows tailor-made for tablets but one that so far hasn't found much love from PC manufacturers.
If there was ever a product where running Windows RT made the most sense, it's a small-screen tablet. Windows RT, after all, is the flavor of Windows that tastes best on tablets powered by ARM chips, putting touch-first apps from the Windows Store front and center. Although it has a desktop, it's really only there to run Office, since apps made for Windows 7 (and earlier versions) won't run on Windows RT devices.
Here's the problem, though: Windows RT has been more or less rejected by the buying public. Virtually every manufacturer who launched an RT-based tablet has pulled back, favoring instead the Windows tablets powered by Intel chips, which can run older full-blown Windows 8 and Windows apps. The only exception is Nokia, which is now a division of Microsoft.
Sure, there were reports during the 2013 holiday season that the Surface was selling well (finally), but Microsoft doesn't break out sales of the Surface (ARM-powered) vs. the Surface Pro (Intel-powered). So even if those reports are true, it's unclear if it's good news for Windows RT.
In all likelihood, Microsoft will stick with Windows RT for its small tabletIn all likelihood, Microsoft will stick with Windows RT for its small tablet, which will probably have an 8-inch screen so it can directly compete with the 7.9-inch iPad mini. Windows RT may not be doing well, but to opt for an Intel-powered Surface Mini would essentially tell people not to bother buying a Surface 2, Windows RT's current poster child.
The same goes for a double product launch — that is, if Microsoft were to launch both an ARM- and an Intel-powered Surface Mini. While that's exactly the strategy for the big-screen Surface, it doesn't translate to the small-screen model.
For 10-inch tablets, the ARM/Intel choice is one of power vs. portability: If you care mainly about running apps like Netflix and Facebook and want something easy to carry around, the Surface 2 is for you. If you want serious desktop power in something that's portable in a pinch, you want the Surface Pro.
At 8 inches, the lines aren't as clear. If Microsoft goes with Intel, it could certainly opt for an Atom chip for an 8-inch Surface (a Core processor would make it too thick and necessitate a cooling fan), but that's not desktop power. Plus the ARM and Intel Surface Minis would be equally portable — PC manufacturers have achieved some impressively small and thin Atom-powered tablets — so there goes that differentiator. An ARM-based Mini might get slightly better battery life than an Intel one, but today's Atom chips perform well in that department, too.
In sum, once you put an Intel Surface Mini right next to an ARM-powered one, the case for the ARM tablet becomes very difficult to make. They're essentially the same device, except one can run old Windows apps and one can't. Two flavors of Surface Mini would be almost as harmful to Windows RT as abandoning the OS altogether.
That's why, as my colleague Lance Ulanoff suggests, Microsoft will most likely put aside its current marketing thrust for the Surface — tablets that can get stuff done — for the small fry in the line. This tablet will be all about kicking back with touch-friendly apps and having fun.
Reports about Intel having a presence at Tuesday's event likely have more to do with a reveal of the Surface Pro 3 than an Atom-powered Surface Mini. Although it's a bit early for a Surface Pro refresh, Intel's next-generation "Broadwell" processors have been hit with delays, so it makes sense to release a more incremental upgrade now (as Apple did with its MacBook Airs) than wait until Christmas or even later to keep the device current.
Closing Windows RT
There's a final possibility that still leaves room for an Intel-powered Surface Mini, and that's the nuclear option. Microsoft could refresh the entire Surface line — including the Surface 2 — with Intel chips.
That would sound the death knell for Windows RT, but it would simplify WindowsThat would sound the death knell for Windows RT, but it would simplify Windows by drawing a clear line between versions: You either have the full OS, which works on both tablets and PCs, or you have a Windows Phone, which, judging from the latest version, is actually getting pretty close to Windows RT.
An Intel-only Surface line would align well with comments from Julie Larson-Green, head of Windows user experience at Microsoft, who alluded last fall that having three different versions of the OS (phone, RT and full Windows) was one version too many.
That's unlikely to happen, though, at least for the near future. Microsoft will soon release a touch-first version of Office, and that could yet give the OS — as well as a Surface Mini — a new lease on life. Killing Windows RT would also be tantamount to an admission that the first Surface tablet was an unfortunate mistake.
And in fairness, maybe it wasn't. Although the Surface has lost Microsoft over $1 billion, most of that was a write-down on the first Surface. Sales have picked up (although not lately), the products have improved and there are many more apps available. Maybe all Windows RT needs is the perfect vehicle for its ARM-powered version of Windows, and the Surface Mini just might be it.