I Hope I’m Wrong About Small Windows 8 Tablets

How will cramming full-blown Windows 8 onto even smaller screens help Microsoft's tablet initiative?

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I still can’t get used to using the words Windows and underdog in the same sentence. But when it comes to tablets, Windows 8 is still an also-ran: according to IDC, Windows and Windows RT tablets accounted for just 3.7% of tablets shipped in the first quarter of 2013. Is the problem that the first wave of Windows 8 tablets, at 10 in. (25.4 cm) and above, are just too large?

Looks like we’ll soon get the chance to find out. As PCWorld’s Brad Chacos reported on Friday, Amazon briefly featured a listing for an unannounced $379 8.1-in. (20.6 cm) Acer Windows 8 tablet before pulling it down. And today, the Wall Street Journal’s Eva Dou reports that Asus — a PC company that is never afraid to try something new — is getting ready to release smaller Windows 8 tablets, possibly at price points below $300.

I’m always wary about coming to firm conclusions about products before we know all the details. But even though I’d like to see Windows find its way in the post-PC era, I’m having a hard time figuring out how small-screen Windows 8 tablets will have enduring mainstream appeal.

It’s not that I don’t see a place for Windows on smallish tablets. Microsoft’s new Windows interface — the one everybody calls Metro even though that’s no longer its name — should work fine on a dinky display. But you don’t need Windows 8 to get that interface, and apps designed for it, onto a small tablet. All you need is Windows RT, the Windows 8 offshoot designed for power-efficient ARM chips of the sort that manufacturers put into compact mobile devices.

What will putting full-blown Windows 8 (and the x86 processor it requires) on a little tablet get us? Mostly the ability to run conventional Windows applications. But they don’t even work very well on large tablets, like Microsoft’s own Surface, without an external keyboard and pointing device. And I worry about battery life taking a major hit.

The history of netbooks is instructive here. The first ones, like Asus’ original Eee PC, had microscopic 7-in. (17.8 cm) screens, which made no sense at all for Windows apps. As screen sizes inched upward, Windows ran better and better — and the dominant netbook screen size ended up being 10.1 in. (25.7 cm), the size of a large tablet, not a small one. Even that was too cramped to keep netbooks popular forever.

Thinking back even further, small Windows 8 tablets remind me of the Ultra-Mobile PC, one of a number of attempts to make itty-bitty Windows computers that never went anywhere. Windows 8’s version of the conventional Windows 8 interface, though more touch-friendly than the Windows of the UMPC era, hasn’t made any sort of true Great Leap Forward.

I could be wrong. I hope I am. But I think that Windows 8 runs better on large-screen devices than small-screen devices — and best of all on decidedly PC-like devices with external keyboards and pointing devices, at least as options. No shocker there: there’s almost 30 years of conventional-PC history behind the classic Windows interface. So here’s hoping that the fact that small Windows 8 tablets are on the way doesn’t mean that Microsoft isn’t simultaneously working on something — maybe an update to Windows RT — that’s designed for smaller tablets, period.