Microsoft was right to pull the plug on the Surface Mini

big man small netbook
Credit: candyschwartz via Flickr

Nobody wants to relive the netbook era, least of all Microsoft.

I've made a lot of awful tech purchases in my life, but the worst was the netbook I bought in 2010. 

I thought I'd use it for reporting from events. It was light, easy to carry, with Wi-Fi and a USB port for my Verizon LTE modem. What could go wrong?

Well, there was the humiliation -- a big man typing on a tiny keyboard inevitably drew mocking stares, and when I brought it into the office one day, one of the big bosses literally laughed at me as I hunched over the machine trying to finish a post. But worse, it was effectively useless for my job. That tiny keyboard, along with the illegibly small screen and lack of power -- three browser tabs and an instant messaging window would bring it to a grinding halt -- made it impossible to use for anything resembling real work. I eventually threw it into a box in the basement and started using my old Macbook Pro instead. 

Which brings me to the big mystery in today's Microsoft Surface press conference. What happened to the rumored Surface Mini?

Earlier this month, several folks reported that Microsoft would announce a Surface tablet with an 8-inch screen, presumably to compete against the iPad mini. The invitations to the "small" event certainly seemed to be an attempt at foreshadowing.

But Computerworld's Gregg Keizer reported yesterday that Microsoft in fact was not going to announce a small Surface, and he was right. Instead, Microsoft rolled out a Surface Pro 3 with a 12-inch screen and internals that resemble a laptop. Really, it's a laptop with a touch screen that occasionally can double as a tablet. Which, I've argued many times, is exactly the right business case for Windows 8 devices today. Tablet, convertible, whatever -- there's plausible demand from businesspeople who need a new laptop primarily for work, but want the occasional convenience of a tablet for reading and playing games and don't want to buy two devices. But the 10-inch screen of the first two Surfaces made it less than ideal as a laptop. Today's screen could fix that.

After the event, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft had in fact planned to reveal a small Surface today, but CEO Satya Nadella and new devices boss Stephen Elop -- who rejoined the company when the Nokia acquisition closed last month -- thought the device didn't stand out enough from similar devices from competitors and pulled the plug. Presumably, this decision was made after the "small" invitations went out.

Left unsaid: An 8-inch Windows tablet is an awful idea today.

Windows RT doesn't have nearly as many touch-optimized apps as the iPad or Android. Microsoft's response to that problem so far has been, "well, yes, but you can do real work on it with Office."

But right now, there's no touch-optimized version of Office for Windows, which is why Windows RT has the vestigial desktop that shows up only when you use Office apps or some parts of the Control Panel.

That means to get "real work done," you'd be hunting and pecking at icons on a tiny touch screen, or tapping away on a tiny keyboard. It would be like reliving the netbook years all over again, only with prettier Windows 8 chrome and a touch screen.

Until Microsoft creates a touch version of Office for Windows RT that's as good as the version it's created for the iPad, a small Windows tablet is a product with no point. The fact that Nadella was willing to pull the plug this late in the game rather than forging ahead blindly with a bad idea is another great example of how Microsoft has changed for the better under his leadership.

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