Lumia tablets? Surface phablets? Microsoft's tricky new post-Nokia positioning challenges

Microsoft just got another ARM tablet and a new phablet to add to its hardware arsenal. How will these fit with the coming refreshed Microsoft Surface devices?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

With its Nokia handset purchase, announced on September 3, Microsoft is going to be taking over not just Nokia's Lumia and Asha phone lines, but also Nokia's still unannounced ARM-based tablet and phablet.


Although the acquisition transaction isn't slated to close until early 2014, the move still means Microsoft is going to have to find a way to position its own Microsoft Surface tablets alongside the soon-to-be-Microsoft-owned Lumia tablets and phablets.

Both Microsoft and Nokia are expected to launch new 10.1-inch ARM-based tablets this holiday season. Nokia's "Sirius" is Qualcomm-based, according to rumors; Microsoft's Surface 2 will be NVIDIA-based, according to tipsters. These two devices will have a few distinguishing characteristics, like different attachable keyboards and different kickstands. Nokia also is expected to launch a six-inch phablet, codenamed "Bandit," running the Windows Phone 8 operating system. The rumored launch event for the new Nokia tablet, and maybe also the phablet, has been September 26.

Microsoft has gone through a lot of gyrations over the past few years in trying to figure out how to position its various mobile device offerings -- its PCs, tablets, slates and phones.

Officials largely abandoned its consumption vs. creation device pitch when it decided to stop hawking tablets based on its Windows Embedded Compact operating system. The company seems to have mostly moved away from the "all tablets are PCs" positioning, too. I've been hearing a lot more from the Softies about marketing its Surface RT and Surface Pro devices as "enterprise tablets" that are ready for business, thanks to integrated Office, a USB port, and keyboard cover. (The Intel-based Surfaces also run existing Win32 apps and can be managed using Active Directory, too.)

So where does that leave Nokia's coming Lumia tablet? Is that another enterprise tablet? And if so, how is that different from the Surface 2? (Or any other Windows RT tablets that may still be on the market as of this holiday season?) And where does it also leave the ARM-based Lumia phablet that's expected to arrive this fall, too?

On a conference call with analysts and press to discuss the deal on September 3, Microsoft's Executive Vice President Terry Myerson said Microsoft is viewing tablets and phones as "a continuum."

"I think it's fair to say that customers are expecting us to offer great tablets that look and feel and act in every way like our phones. We'll be pursuing a strategy along those lines," Myerson added. 

This might have been nothing more than a comment about the increasing number of components that are shared across the Windows and Windows Phone OS -- everything from the common NT core, to the tiled "Metro-Style"/Modern interface, to the increasingly common development platform/framework. It also might have been a passing reference by Myerson, who is now the engineering chief of the new OS division at Microsoft that is in charge of the Windows Phone, Windows, and Xbox One operating systems, to the cross-platform unification steps that are expected.

With the GDR3 update to Windows Phone 8, due this fall, Microsoft will enable OEMs -- including itself -- to put the Windows Phone OS on five- and six-inch devices with 1080p resolutions. (It's GDR3 that's expected to power the Lumia Bandit phablet.) Microsoft also has been rumored to be working on a seven to eight-inch Surface device, but supposedly that device will run Windows 8.1, not the Windows Phone 8 OS. 

Microsoft's next few months on the operating system front should be very interesting. Just a year ago, Microsoft was embarking on an ambitious plan to deliver a new version of its Windows operating system on a near-annual basis. If it continues that strategy, the next Windows OS should be Windows 8.2 due in the fall of 2014. But meanwhile, Windows Phone Blue, the complement to Windows 8.1, isn't supposed to arrive until early 2014, last I or my sources heard. 

Will Microsoft stick with those plans? Will it start releasing more minor, interim updates to the Windows OS on a near-quarterly basis, as it has done this year with the Windows Phone OS GDR updates? Will Windows RT and the Windows Phone OS operating systems become one -- in more than just name? So many questions for the new Microsoft + Nokia team. And so few certainties....

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