Can Microsoft's Surface Mini save Windows RT?

Reports say that Microsoft is readying a smaller, less-expensive version of its Window RT-based Surface tablet, and may announce it as early as June. Will that be enough to save the struggling Windows RT OS?

DigiTimes reports that Microsoft will announce a new RT-based Surface with an 8-inch display, and a price somewhere between $249 and $299. Keep in mind, though, that DigiTimes isn't always the most reliable of sources. At times it breaks stories well before anyone else. At others, it get things wrong.

But others have reported that a smaller, less-expensive Surface tablet is on the way as well. The Wall Street Journal and CNet, for example, have both reported that Microsoft is at work on a smaller, less expensive version of the RT Surface. Given that sales of small tablets have been booming, it would be a surprise if Microsoft weren't working on one.

But building a smaller tablet is one thing, and selling it another entirely. So far, the RT-based Surface has been a bust. An IDC report says that in the past quarter, the RT-based Surface had only 0.4% of all tablet sales, with only 200,000 shipped.

Microsoft, naturally, says that it's committed to RT and its ARM architecture for the long term. Not everyone agrees. Many analysts have said that they expect Microsoft to eventually dump RT. Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, told Computerworld:

"I've been concerned about Windows RT from the beginning. I don't see a long-term viability for Windows RT as a value-driven strategy."

So can a smaller Surface RT tablet -- call it the Surface mini -- save RT? A lot depends on price. Some reports say that a smaller RT tablet will sell for $399, while the DigiTimes report puts it at $249 to $299. At $399 it's hard to imagine the Surface mini selling well. You can grab an iPad mini for $329, and small Android tablets are commonly available at less than $200. So a mini Surface gets beat on both the high end and low end.

At $249 to $299 a Surface mini might have a fighting chance...for a while, at least. Even then, I think it will only be a temporary reprieve for RT. RT is a confusing hybrid of an operating system, a sort-of version of Windows 8 that doesn't include the Desktop. People are confused by it, and rightly so.

Full-blown Windows 8 tablets based on Intel's low-power Haswell chip will be ready this fall. They'll use less battery power than current Windows 8 tablets, but with all their power. Why settle for a not-quite Windows 8 tabelt when you can get the real thing?

Windows 8 tablets have been selling surprisingly well, with no help from RT. Windows tablets made up 7.5% of the market in the first quarter of 2013, according to Strategic Analytics. That's a solid showing for a new mobile OS. So I expect that in the long term, Windows RT tablets like the Surface will go away, mini or not.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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