Are smaller Windows tablets in iPad dimensions just around the corner? Will Microsoft's long-rumored Reader make its debut along with the Windows Blue update this summer?
Those are distinct possibilities, based on a significant change Microsoft quietly made this month in its hardware certification guidelines for Windows 8 devices.
The new guidelines relax the minimum resolution for Windows 8 devices to 1024 x 768 at a depth of 32 bits. That’s a significant change from the current guidelines, which require a minimum resolution of 1366 x 768 for a device to be certified with the Windows 8 logo. (Windows 8 currently supports the lower resolution for DIY installations by hobbyists, but OEMs have been prohibited from selling new devices with native resolutions lower than 1366 x 768.)
From the announcement, it appears that the new guidelines are effective immediately, but it’s likely that any new devices that use this form factor will ship along with the forthcoming Windows Blue update.
The announcement was disclosed in the March 12, 2013 Windows Certification Newsletter, which is prepared by the Windows Certification (formerly Logo) Program and goes out to hardware vendors who want to sell systems that are certified by Microsoft as Windows 8-compatible.
System.Client.Tablet.Graphics.MinimumResolution relaxed for Windows 8
We're changing the System.Client.Tablet.Graphics.MinimumResolution requirement to create a consistent minimum resolution of 1024 x 768 at a depth of 32 bits across all Windows 8 system form factors. The physical dimensions of the display panel must still match the aspect ratio of the native resolution. This doesn't imply that we're encouraging partners to regularly use a lower screen resolution. In fact, we see customers embracing the higher resolution screens that make a great Windows experience. We understand that partners exploring designs for certain markets could find greater design flexibility helpful. [emphasis added]
That last, somewhat cryptic line telegraphs a possible reason for the change. It’s no secret that some of the most successful new tablets are inexpensive (sub-$299) devices with 7- and 8-inch displays. The new resolutions would allow manufacturers to introduce devices that are in line with the resolutions of the iPad Mini (1024 x 768) and the Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7 (both 1280 x 800).
This is a major concession on one of the key original design requirements of Windows 8, whose 16:9 aspect ratio resolution makes it awkward to use in portrait resolution. The 16:10 or 4:3 resolutions of competing tablets are better suited for use in portrait mode - as an ebook reader, for example.
Relaxing the minimum specification comes with a significant drawback for users, however, as the Microsoft announcement makes clear:
The lower resolution would disable snap, a feature that allows two Windows Store apps to be viewed simultaneously side by side. To avoid potential consumer disappointment, OEMs need to disclose the loss of snap.
Before a device can qualify to use the Windows 8 logo with a resolution of less than 1366 x 768, the new guidelines require that the OEM must “provide appropriate, clear, and conspicuous disclaimers” to customers. “This disclaimer must disclose that the system doesn't support snap,” the announcement continues. It also helpfully includes some suggested text:
The integrated display resolution of this system is below the threshold for snap, a feature that lets people view two Windows Store apps at the same time. App snapping will work if you attach an external display that supports a screen resolution of 1366 x 768 or higher.
As Matt Rosoff pointed out on Twitter, Microsoft's transformation to a devices and services company has "been pretty light on the devices so far..."
The company hasn't been shy about its plans to expand beyond the PC-as-tablet form factor. In a talk at a Goldman Sachs technology conference in February, Microsoft CFO Peter Klein talked about "a set of experiences that are complete, that are compelling, and they are consistent across a whole range of form factors and devices ... whether that's 4-inch, 5-inch, 7-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch, 13-inch. And along with our partners in the ecosystem we'll work through that based on underlying demand."
It might be just a coincidence, but this week I also received a promotional mailing from Microsoft’s Windows team, with the subject line “Travel the world with Windows and NOOK.” The latter is a pitch for Barnes & Noble’s NOOK for Windows app, not the critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful hardware device from the struggling bookseller.
We haven’t heard much about it lately, but we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of a patent settlement between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble. As my colleague Mary Jo Foley wrote last April, Microsoft has discussed creating its own e-reader:
One of my sources said that Microsoft and B&N had been working on a partnership for a while via which Microsoft would build an e-reader and B&N would build the back-end bookstore. According to that source, the partnership fizzled, perhaps due in part to the Microsoft Courier tablet effort (which also fizzled).
But the idea that there could be some kind of dedicated, Windows-powered e-reader didn't die. In fact, Microsoft execs have continued to tout the idea that an e-reader is part of the gamut of devices that will be powered by Windows. Just a month ago, in fact, Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner, mentioned again during a keynote that e-readers will be one of a handful of form factors where Microsoft's Metro interface/design style will play in the future.
In a separate post, Mary Jo notes the formation of a joint Microsoft/B&N company (Nook Media LLC, called “NewCo” in the SEC disclosure), with this tantalizing language in the agreement:
"Microsoft Reader. If Microsoft creates a reader, Microsoft may include an interface to the NewCo Store in that reader and may surface in that reader all Content purchased by customers from the NewCo Store."
The idea of an inexpensive 7-inch Surface-branded Reader, running at a resolution of 1024 x 768 with full access to Barnes & Noble’s extensive library, is indeed intriguing. And of course it wouldn't be just for e-books. With the ability to run the Amazon Kindle app and access the massive Xbox music, video, and games platform it would be instantly useful as an entertainment device.
It would certainly silence the critics who’ve said that the current Surface line is too expensive.
A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment on this report.
Thanks to reader @explanoit for the tip.