Reports suggest that a revision to Microsoft’s Windows 8 certification program points to a new generation of smaller Windows 8/Windows RT tablets, perhaps in the 7"-to-8" size used by popular consumption devices like the iPad mini, Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD. But the revised specs don’t actually address the size of the screens on devices that device makers can create. Instead, the new specs expand the screen format types that Windows 8 supports.
The notion that Microsoft is now supporting smaller Windows 8 tablets was first offered up by ZDNet’s Ed Bott, who wrote that a “quiet change” to the Windows 8 logo certification requirements could result in “smaller Windows tablets,” and perhaps even a “a Microsoft [eBook] Reader.” But that contention, while credible, is not necessarily supported by the actual document in question.
As it turns out, Microsoft has always supported small-screen Windows 8/Windows RT tablets and other devices. In fact, one of the big questions during the launch wave was why none of the firm’s hardware partners was creating such a device. But they’re not alone: Apple, also caught flat-footed by the success of smaller tablets, reversed course in 2012 and offered its own small-screen iPad mini in the wake of obvious consumer interest.
The Windows ecosystem is simply lagging behind, as it has historically.
Before the change to the certification requirements, which you can find in the March 12, 2013, update to the Windows Certification Newsletter, Windows 8/Windows RT hardware makers could indeed ship tablets and other devices with screens as small as 7". But they had to be widescreen devices with a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio. None shipped such devices, which tend to look curiously tall when used in portrait mode. (Indeed, in the non-Windows world, few tablets use a true widescreen aspect ratio, though there are exceptions, like the Google Nexus 7.)
What changed in this revision is that hardware makers can now ship devices with a 1024 x 768 or a higher resolution with the same 4:3 aspect ratio. And that is new: Previously, hardware makers had to ship devices with a 1366 x 768 (or bigger) widescreen display.
It is certainly possible that opening up Windows 8 devices to the low-resolution 1024 x 768 resolution will trigger a new wave of smaller devices. But I don’t believe there’s a future for devices with such a low resolution, and if you look at the new (2012-era and newer) devices currently serving this market, almost all of them have higher resolutions. (The iPad mini is an obvious exception, though Apple is expected to fix that problem in 2013.) The important bit here is the aspect ratio, I think, not the resolution.
Microsoft explicitly states as much in the documentation.
“This [change] doesn't imply that we're encouraging partners to regularly use a lower screen resolution,” the new logo requirements note. “In fact, we see customers embracing the higher-resolution screens that make a great Windows experience. We understand that partners exploring designs for certain markets could find greater design flexibility helpful.”
That flexibility is for screen aspect ratios, not screen sizes. Again, small-screen Windows 8/Windows RT tablets were always possible.
Ironically, the document does make one change to supported screen sizes: Hardware makers can now make tablets with screens of up to 17". “We're tightening the definition of tablet by restricting it to systems with a screen size of 17 inches or less,” the document notes. “Above that size, touch systems without batteries and attached accessible keyboards don't need to meet all of the tablet requirements.”
Of course, smaller tablets are coming. We knew this already because Tami Reller suggested as much to another ZD blogger, Mary Jo Foley, back in February, with Microsoft noting that “Windows 8 was designed to run on smaller and bigger screens and at different resolutions.” And of course on Friday, I exclusively revealed that Microsoft intends to ship an 8" Surface tablet sometime in 2013.
What I’m worried about is that Microsoft and its hardware partners will embrace low-resolution 1024 x 768 screens in smaller devices just as all of its competition moves to “retina”-class displays with very high resolutions. It’s bad enough that there are no small Windows 8/Windows RT consumption devices on the market today. New devices with low resolution will simply compare poorly with the expected Amazon, Android, and Apple competition we expect to see in 2013.