Back in 2014, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) was widely expected to release a smaller version of its Surface tablet, aptly referred to as the Surface Mini. The device was never officially unveiled, because CEO Satya Nadella and then-devices chief Stephen Elop axed the product at the last minute, even though Microsoft accidentally left a passing reference to it in a user manual. Microsoft also took a small hit that quarter (accounted for in Surface cost of revenue) from the decision. In a 2015 interview with Wired, current devices chief Panos Panay again confirmed the Surface Mini's existence, saying it was "awesome" and "like a Moleskine."
While the Surface Mini never saw the light of day, Windows Central has just obtained a few leaked pictures of the smaller tablet.
What could have been
Like the standard Surface, the Surface Mini similarly had an integrated kickstand to prop up the device at various angles. It would have had an 8-inch display with a resolution of 1440 x 1080, and included support for Microsoft's Surface Pen stylus. In terms of the operating system, the Surface Mini ran Windows RT, the doomed variant that was designed to support ARM-based processors, which was killed off later that year.
Unlike the larger Surface, there was no Type Cover keyboard accessory. The Surface Mini was intended to be used primarily through touch and stylus input. Another difference was an integrated stylus loop to store a Surface Pen.
The underlying reason why Microsoft reportedly killed off the Surface Mini at such a late stage was that management wasn't confident that the device would be differentiated enough.
Should Microsoft resurrect the Surface Mini?
That was 2014, but it's worth revisiting the idea of Microsoft releasing a smaller tablet. Things have changed quite a bit in the years since. For starters, Microsoft has expanded its Surface brand of devices, now including the Surface Book, Surface Studio, and most recently the Surface Laptop. Smaller tablets are still quite popular as a form factor, too.
A Surface Mini would have obviously competed with Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPad Mini. iPad average selling prices fell after the iPad Mini was introduced in 2012 and never recovered, typically hovering within the range of $400 to $450, suggesting that the smaller version remains popular. There's definitely room for more competition in the space for smaller, premium tablets. There's no shortage of smaller, cheap tablets, but Apple commands an 85% share of the U.S. market for tablets priced above $200, according to NPD.
There are rumors that Apple is planning on discontinuing the iPad Mini, which seems like it would be a mistake. If Apple does so, that would leave a huge opening for Microsoft if it wanted to resurrect the Surface Mini. Windows 10 also introduced a new feature called Continuum, which allows a Windows 10 Mobile smartphone to dock into a monitor to function like a desktop PC. A smaller tablet would be perfect for Continuum, something that Microsoft's partners are offering.
If hardware partners are making similar tablets, and Surface devices are in part intended to lead by example, Microsoft should resurrect the Surface Mini.
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Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.