Microsoft's Surface Mini: Not until spring 2014?

Microsoft may not get its first Surface Mini tablet out the door until Spring 2014 -- which is looking like the same time when its Windows variants may get a refresh, sources say.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

There's been a lot of speculation -- and still no official confirmation from Microsoft -- that the company will field one or more "mini" versions of its Surface tablet.


That speculation has been heating up, especially with Amazon launching two new Kindle Fires this week.

As I've blogged before, I've heard that the coming Surface Mini will be an ARM-based tablet. I continue to hear that's the plan.

There have been a variety of rumors on the supposed screen size of the coming Surface Mini -- everything from 7 inches, to 7.5 inches to 8 inches. There also have been rumors and speculation that Microsoft might market the first Surface Mini as an "Xbox Surface," hoping to capitalize on the Xbox franchise and user base. I don't have anything to offer to advance or quash any of these rumors.

On the operating system front, however, I do have some new information.

One of my sources who has been solid on Microsoft's roadmap in the past says the Surface Mini is coming, but not in calendar 2013. Supposedly, this source claims, Microsoft is going to launch the Surface Mini in early 2014. The reason? The Surface Mini is going to come preloaded with a Windows 8.1 update, that is codenamed "Spring 2014 GDR."

(GDR, as those following Windows Phone know, stands for "General Distribution Release." Microsoft is in the midst of finalizing its third GDR for Windows Phone 8. GDR3 will add 1080p support and the ability to run the Windows Phone OS on five- and six-inch devices.)

The Spring 2014 GDR for Windows 8.1 will align with Windows Phone "Blue," which may or may not be called Windows Phone 8.1 when it ships, according to my sources. Whatever it's called, it will be the first "major" update for Windows Phone since Microsoft rolled out Windows Phone 8 in fall 2012.

If the new cross-divisional operating system division at Microsoft can pull this off, Microsoft will launch Windows 8.1 Spring 2014 GDR, Windows Phone Blue and the Surface Mini on or around the same time in spring 2014.

A few points worth noting:

1. Why is Microsoft so "late" with the Surface Mini? I've heard from several sources that the new OS engineering team, under Executive Vice President Terry Myerson, is working overtime to finish the Xbox One operating system. Like Windows 8.1, it's a constantly evolving thing. Two sources have told me that Microsoft is reassigning some of its Windows developers to Xbox One to help that team do the fit and finish on the Xbox One OS. Myerson's team's priorities for this calendar year are completing the Xbox One OS, releasing Windows 8.1 for general availability (which means providing final OS and app updates before October 18), and getting Windows Phone 8 GDR3 out the door.

2. Why is Microsoft continuing to back ARM and Windows RT, especially with Intel's new Haswell and Bay Trail chips finally coming to market? In spite of tepid market reception and a backing away by other Windows OEMs from the platform, Microsoft is not going to dump Windows RT. The company still believes ARM offers better price points and battery life possibilities, from what I've heard. Microsoft likes Windows RT because it allows the company to field an OS with less/no crapware, viruses and piracy because of how locked-down (by Microsoft) ARM-based Windows RT machines are.

3. Is there a longer-term/big-picture strategy and plan? Myerson hinted last week during Microsoft's Financial Analyst Meeting that he sees a world where "phones extend into tablets" on the ARM front. There will be a variety of ARM-based devices running Windows, in Microsoft's view, some of which will be phones, some tablets and some phablets. The Surface Mini fits in here, as does the expected Nokia "Bandit" phablet and ARM-based "Sirius" tablet. Over time, the OSes running on these different form factors will converge. I'm doubtful "Windows RT" will be the name of whatever runs on these platforms. Maybe Microsoft will (finally) just call all its OSes "Windows" -- even if they aren't really the same thing. 

That's all I've got right now. Remember: Don't shoot the messenger. And all Microsoft roadmaps are subject to possible derailments potentially caused by new CEOs with new business plans and/or reorg mayhem. 

Update: Here's a good question. Is the promised Surface 2 with LTE support actually the Surface Mini, given that both are expected in "early" 2014? I don't know, but maybe....

Update No. 2: Another Microsoft deliverable that possibly could align with this bunch of spring 2014 things? The Metro-Style/Windows Store touch-first apps, codenamed "Gemini," which Microsoft has said will be out in 2014. I've heard "summer 2014" is looking more likely, but who knows....

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