The first small (7-inch to 8-inch) tablets running Windows 8 are expected to appear soon. Enthusiasts are excited to get their hands on small tablets that run full Windows. Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates said these little tablets will help frustrated iPad owners who need full Windows and Office in their hands. I guess he is forgetting that even before the iPad hit the scene, there were small tablets running Windows: The nearly forgotten Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).
UMPCs were 7-inch tablets running full Windows XP with a touch-friendly interface. The most popular model was from Samsung, whose Q1 raised the bar for Windows devices at the time. Samsung even had a model with a solid-state disk (SSD) in place of a hard drive, which was pushing the envelope of the time (2006).
I started covering the UMPC even before it was commercially available on my jkOnTheRun blog (acquired by GigaOM in 2008). I made a trek to Microsoft's offices to see a number of UMPCs in production that would be coming to market. All of the early UMPCs were about the same size, fairly thick, and weighed under 2 pounds. They ran Windows XP or XP Tablet Edition for use with a pen.
Samsung realized at the time that a Windows device, even a handheld design, would need a keyboard to operate Windows successfully, so it included an innovative thumb keyboard split on both sides of the screen. A joystick-like controller was also included to allow full operation by hand. To make later models smaller, Samsung eventually dropped the keyboard from later Q1 versions.
The UMPC lasted only a few years, as consumers didn't get excited about them. They were expensive, heavy, and had no advertising to get folks excited. Mainstream consumers weren't excited about the ability to run Windows and Office on a little tablet.
This has been addressed in the upcoming Windows 8 tablets. Those will be thin and light, and we can expect to see ads showing the benefits of Windows in a small tablet. It may not be enough, but let's hope that Microsoft and OEMs learned from the failed UMPC and will get these Windows 8 models rolling. It is still to be determined whether folks on the street want to have Office in their pockets. In spite of Gates' statement about Office, I don't ever hear iPad owners complaining about the lack of Office on Apple's tablet.