Earlier this month, we learned that Microsoft had lowered the minimum resolution requirement for Windows 8 tablets from 1366x768 to 1024x768. The move caused speculation that Microsoft was looking to facilitate smaller tablets in the 7-8" range, and that appears to be the case. The Wall Street Journal is now reporting that the next generation of Microsoft's own Surface devices will include a 7" variant. A smaller Surface wasn't part of Microsoft's plans last year, say the WSJ's sources, but execs felt like they needed a response to the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini.
Smaller tablets certainly appear to be a hit with consumers. The latest figures from IDC suggest that over half of all tablets shipped in the first quarter of this year had screen sizes under 8". The research firm even increased its overall tablet sales forecast for the year based on the strong sales of smaller slates. Microsoft apparently wants a piece of the action.
According to "people familiar with the company's plans," the 7" Surface will go into mass production this year. I expect Microsoft will try to have the tablet out in time for the holiday season, and it seems likely the device will face off against fresh competition from Apple and Google. A Retina-equipped iPad Mini is expected to be released this year, and so is higher-resolution version of Google's Nexus 7.
With Apple and Google both pursuing higher display resolutions for their next-generation mini tablets, I can't help but think the 7" Surface could be at a disadvantage. Most 10" Windows 8 and RT slates are stuck at 1366x768, while their iPad and Nexus counterparts enjoy substantially higher pixel densities. Microsoft's lowering of the Win8 resolution requirement makes me think we'll see a Surface tablet with a much lower PPI than what Apple and Google have up their sleeves. Pixel density isn't everything, especially on 7" devices that look pretty decent at 1280x800, but I'm not sure Microsoft can afford to lag behind the competition on this front.
There's no word on whether the smaller Surface will feature x86 compatibility or be restricted to ARM-friendly Modern UI apps. I'd expect the latter, especially if Microsoft intends to play in the lower price range occupied by existing mini tablets. Windows 8 desktop apps would probably be pretty awkward on a 7" screen, regardless of the resolution.