According to a report in the WSJ, Microsoft is working on a new line-up of its Windows 8-powered Surface tablets that includes a seven inch version of the slate. This small form factor size would enable Microsoft to compete with the likes of the Android-powered Google Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, as well as Apple’s iOS-based iPad Mini.
The paper quotes a person familiar with the situation saying that while 7-inch tablets were not part of Microsoft’s product plans last year company executives have realised they need to respond to the growth and popularity of small slates. Which boils down to Redmond is having to play catch up yet again.
Microsoft has previously been tipped to release three new and distinct generations of Surface this year — albeit, none of those prior rumours had pointed to a seven inch device. And perhaps with good reason, as Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg noted via Twitter today the small tablet form factor poses some usability challenges for Microsoft’s full-fat Windows OS. Rival small slates are powered by lighter weight mobile OSes, and while Microsoft has now unified its smartphone (Windows Phone) and desktop OSes on a shared kernel it’s still using ‘desktop’ Windows for tablets.
But it’s not just that computing devices are getting smaller. Shrinkage appears inextricably linked with the market in another way. Gartner put out its figures for worldwide PC shipments for Q1 late yesterday — which show shipments declining to their lowest level since Q2 2009. The analyst says alternative smart connected devices — aka those small smartphones and tablets running lighter weight smartphone OSes — are eroding the traditional PC market.
Global PC shipments totalled 79.2 million units in Q1 2013, which Gartner said was an 11.2% year-on-year decline. All global regions showed a decrease in shipments, with the EMEA region experiencing the steepest decline.
“Consumers are migrating content consumption from PCs to other connected devices, such as tablets and smartphones. Even emerging markets, where PC penetration is low, are not expected to be a strong growth area for PC vendors,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner in a statement.
Microsoft’s Surface tablet straddles the gap between a tablet and a laptop, having a touchscreen and a keyboard cover add-on. But Gartner said touchscreen-based Windows 8 PCs took only a small percentage share of consumer PC shipments in Q1 — owing to their relatively high price.
“Touchscreen-based Ultramobiles [such as Surface Pro] offer PC manufacturers an opportunity to recover market share from media tablets, but Windows 8 PCs with touchscreens accounted for only a small percentage of consumer PC shipments in the first quarter of 2013,” noted Isabelle Durand, principal research analyst at Gartner in a statement. “The majority of consumers remain unwilling to pay the price premium for touchscreen capabilities on PCs at this stage.”
Android tablet sellers including Google and Amazon have been driving down the cost of seven inch slates — with the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire currently costing from as little $199 and $159 respectively — and that price erosion is likely helping to accelerate the consumer migration away from the traditional PC category. Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet was priced from $499 at launch, while Surface Pro was from $899.
How Microsoft chooses to price any ‘Surface Mini’ will be key to driving sales — and with the iPad mini starting at $329, there is not much scope for Redmond to be able to undercut the small slate competition. Yet it can’t afford for Surface to fail.
As Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi told TechCrunch last week, discussing its smart devices forecast: “You need to own consumers in terms of mobile and tablet in order to remain relevant in this market… Consumers have options and consumers are choosing and Microsoft can not take that for granted that they’ll be the one to be chosen.”
When Microsoft purchased the Perceptive Pixel company, maker of 55 and 82 inch touchscreen displays that go by the eponymous acronym PPI, what it intended to do with the firm wasn’t completely clear. At the time, Microsoft stated the following:
The acquisition of PPI allows us to draw on our complementary strengths, and we’re excited to accelerate this market evolution [...] PPI’s large touch displays, when combined with hardware from our OEMs, will become powerful Windows 8-based PCs and open new possibilities for productivity and collaboration.
For more context, here’s how TNW reported Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s announcement of the purchase:
According to Ballmer, Microsoft will [utilize] its research, development and production of multi-touch technologies to further upcoming software and hardware, with the company showing off its huge 82-inch touch-enabled screen at the WPC event.
The purchase of Perceptive Pixel provided Microsoft with both intellectual property that could be exceptionally valuable in the coming decade, and ownership of what I would call the preeminent maker of large touchscreens.
And the prices are coming down. The 55 inch PPI display, according to Microsoft’s Eric Rudder, the Chief Technical Strategy Officer at the firm, will run you around $7,000 at present. In conversation on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, Eric indicated that he was working to quickly lower the price of the displays.
They will ride the lessening cost curve of the television set world, it would seem. This puts the 55 inch PPI but a few generations from being affordable enough for the average enthusiast. The 82 inch behemoth will likely take longer, but the question of its affordability is a when, not if question.
Here’s one in action with someone that you are familiar with:
If you walk Microsoft’s Executive Briefing Center, you will see PPI displays strapped to the walls, free for anyone to use. If you walk through the latest rendition of Microsoft’s Home of the Future, you can’t miss them studded into walls.
Office team demonstration? Let’s use a PPI. Latest gadget that is a must have in an executive office in Redmond? A PPI display. And not only the most senior staff will have access to the hardware; this is Microsoft’s own technology, and the company is rallying behind it.
Rallying is the wrong word, given that it almost intimates forced enthusiasm, which isn’t the case here; everyone wants a PPI because they represent a new hardware category that has the potential to disrupt current computing trends and transform how we interact with digital information.
We’ll get to why in a moment, but let’s rewind.
The first large touchscreens that Microsoft sold were the Surface 1 and Surface 2 – note: very different than the Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets. They were jokingly named the Big Ass Tables. Engadget coined the name so far as we can tell, with the excellent headline “Microsoft Surface: one day your computer will be a big-ass table.”
Prescient, if by accident. The second Surface device managed to become a Big Ass Coffee Table, which TNW noted could be mounted to a wall, creating a much more compelling experience. However, it was more prelude than product:
You can still find Surface 2s on Microsoft’s campus, and if I recall, Surface 1s in some Microsoft stores. They are now anachronisms. PPI displays will replace them as both thinner, more responsive, and easier to mount displays that provide a superior computing experience.
For comparison, here is a PPI at work:
However, Microsoft is a device and service company, not simply an OEM – I kid – so how does software fit into the PPI gambit? Let’s answer that.
In its review of the Surface Pro tablet hybrid, TNW dichotomized applications into two categories: Windows 8 apps, and Windows 7 apps. Windows 8 apps are found in the Windows Store. Windows 7 apps run on the desktop, and are what you are familiar with if you aren’t running the latest Windows build.
However, on the Surface Pro, we found their use frustrating:
Windows 7 apps, as defined above, are often a poor experience on the Surface Pro, as the screen is quite small; Windows 7 apps feel designed for more total screen space. Thus, you find yourself holding the tablet closer to your face than you otherwise might like. This isn’t comfortable. And in desktop mode, when the Surface is docked to its keyboard and kicked on its stand, you find yourself leaning in to make out just what is going on. Again, this isn’t comfortable.
Toss those applications onto a 55 or 82 inch display, and they in fact run perfectly.
That, however, is only a sliver of the experience. Windows 8 on a large touchscreen is simply a different operating system. The methods by which you interact with Windows 8 – swiping, sliding, and the like – are far more natural and fluid when you use your entire arm and hand, rather than a single finger.
Navigation becomes simpler, typing faster, and Live Tiles more useful. Windows 8 on the big screen is an improvement. Windows 8 on the big touch screen is something else all together.
A short note here, before we get into how Microsoft will use PPI displays to change computing in its favor: Appex. Appex is an application team under the Bing aegis that takes data from the search product, and translates it into application format.
If you have used the native finance application in Windows 8, for example, you have used Appex code. The team created several applications for Windows 8 that answered a number high-use search queries with dedicated applications. The team thinks of itself as a “North Star” for developers, according to the team’s Mira Lane.
I bring this up to make a point: the guiding lights of Microsoft’s app design crews are building applications that only look better the larger the display that they are splayed across. Fire up the Windows 8 weather app, and then imagine it filling an 82 inch wall display.
Windows 8 is designed for touch input. Microsoft will hem and haw about how great it is with standard mouse and board input, but they are either deluding themselves, or putting a brave face on it. Windows 8 is not itself in a non-touch environment, period.
As noted above, it becomes all the better on a larger display. [I could talk here about how well Kinect fits into this argument, but that is a post for another day.] However, you have to ask yourself who else is working on something like PPI displays.
Apple is a leader in touch, but its focus is on mobile devices; certainly iOS devices are stellar, but they are a focus on small displays, and content consumption. It’s a different space. Windows OEMs are building 24 inch and slightly larger all-in-ones, but they haven’t grown in size for years.
No one but Microsoft is working on 50 inch and larger displays, the software to take advantage of them, and peripherals – Kinect etc – to further extend them. Frankly, it’s a fresh form of computing unlike anything that you have used before. And, it is commercially available; Microsoft is currently “seeding” the displays to corporations, according to the company.
Currently the hottest companies are focusing on the smallest displays; Facebook’s work to bring its Web interface in line with its mobile applications is an example of this. In Redmond, however, Microsoft is making the opposite bet: that the bigger the screen the better.
If the company can get the price down on the PPI units, they will be coming to a wall near you.
Bill Gates Image Credit: Reddit/Imgur/Gates
Surface One Image Credit: Wikipedia
Surface Two Image Credit: Microsoft
Top Image Credit: Microsoft
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 13.3-Inch Convertible Touchscreen Ultrabook (Gray)
Date first available at Amazon.com: February 3, 2013
22 used & new from $900.00
(Visit the Hot New Releases in Computers & Add-Ons list for authoritative information on this product’s current rank.)
If have are running a touch-based Windows 8 machine, you might have noticed that it can be difficult to select certain elements of the operating system, most notably the ones that are not designed for your fingers: Explorer in desktop mode, for example.
Happily, a new hack has cropped up on the XDA Forums that is worth your testing. TNW implemented the registry change, and found it to be a positive adaptation, but that could be due to the fatness of our fingers. Your mileage will vary. Specifically, XDA denizens reported improved keyboard response, and better “small item manipulation.”
However, it is worth trying out. You can find the changes specified below in the following packet. Here are the directions in case you want to implement the new values yourself:
- Edit key for latency from 8 to 2.
- Edit sample time from 8 to 2
Users in the thread have reported that the hack will result in decreased battery life, as Windows 8 has to ping the touchscreen more often. If you are a Surface owner, you have enough battery power to make it through, I would guess.
The battery power point is likely the precise reason why Microsoft didn’t itself place the settings in this manner, as it wanted to ensure that devices running its operating system were competitive from a battery life perspective.
It’s Saturday, so you owe it to yourself to try something new. Get to it.
Top Image Credit: mjtmail (tiggy)
Research In Motion is set to launch BlackBerry 10 and two handsets at the end of January. But at this point, there shouldn’t be many surprises. Nearly every detail of the platform and touchscreen phone has leaked already. And now details are surfacing of the BB10 QWERTY model, too. Meet the X10.
BlackBerry 10 is said to be designed as a touch-first operating system. The mobile OS makes sense on the touchscreen-only Z10 where there is plenty of room for the large app icons and application menu. But here, on the X10′s small screen, it just looks too tight. The action bar, one of BB10′s key features, takes up significant real estate at the bottom of the screen. But what’s RIM to do? The keyboard is one of the BlackBerry’s remaining selling points.
RIM has said from the early days of BB10 development that it would continue to support and produce phones with physical keypads. The company adamantly claims their customers love the QWERTY keypad. And as a former BlackBerry addict myself (I had three), I understand the obsession. The QWERTY keypad begins to feel as comfortable as a trusted pillow. You couldn’t imagine living a different way. But once you make the jump to an intelligent virtual keypad, there’s no looking back. There is just so much room for activities on the larger screen that you quickly forget about the missing keypad.
Thankfully RIM seemingly spent significant time on BB10′s virtual keyboard. It’s good. And the company knows it. For awhile, BB10′s predictive keyboard was one of the few things RIM was showing off to journalists even under embargo. It’s unclear if RIM’s future is in old smartphone designs, but at least the company had the foresight to develop a competitive virtual keyboard. Now all they have to do is convince their die-hard fans to give it a try.