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How Apple's iPad Mini will steal the limelight from Windows 8 tablets

When Microsoft decided to get into the tablet business again, it pretty much committed to 9in to 11in tablets, mostly eyeing the business market. After talks with my contacts in Asia, it is clear that Microsoft will stay this course and will not manufacture 7in Windows 8 tablets directly or through a partner any time soon.

I believe this is a major judgement error by Microsoft because the plethora of 7in tablets coming out soon will become a huge hit with consumers. They could even perhaps be the next major item added to the "bring your own device" list of companies, parlaying into the business market.

Although larger tablets will be a big draw in enterprise markets, the smaller devices can also access information-on-demand and will likely be attractive to business users as well.

I have been testing nine 7in Android tablets for a while and am rather intrigued by this smaller form factor. They are ideal for media consumption and web browsing, but they are just as capable of running IT-based apps as well. Yes, you have to do more zooming to expand the text to make them more readable, but they work nonetheless.

Rumours are running rampant that Apple will soon unveil a 7in iPad mini and, knowing its tablet track record, you can expect it to be a monster hit if it's in fact true.

Consumers appear to be extremely interested in an iPad mini, but I predict many business users will also fancy it because it will be easier to carry than 9in to 11in tablets, and it will feature iOS apps and services. It offers business users the same experience as on a larger tablet but in a smaller, more compact form factor.

The real reason I think it could strike a chord with business users, however, is that its screen size makes reading and responding to email easier than a smartphone's does. While I don't expect users to swap their smartphones for a 7in tablet entirely, if it is cheap enough, it can offer users a better option for managing email and browsing the web on the go. Now, I may be speaking as an old codger with worsening eyesight, but many 30-plus business people agree with me that reading email on a smartphone is uncomfortable.

So, if 7in tablets could interest business users, why has Microsoft neglected to push its partners to make a smaller Windows 8 tablet? One reason is focus. Microsoft is so far behind Apple and Google in the tablet space that to try and tackle smaller tablets may have been too much. It would mean that, in some cases, touch-based Windows 8 apps would need to be designed specifically for smaller tablets.

I suspect another reason is that Microsoft is struggling to determine whether Windows Phone 8 or Windows 8 itself would work best as the operating system of a smaller tablet. These two operating systems are designed by competing teams and I would wager that each wants its OS on any new smaller tablets. The smartphone OS folks see Windows Phone 8 as being able to scale up, while the Windows 8 folks believe they can scale their OS down to fit on 7in screens.

Now, I do believe Microsoft will make a big splash when it launches Windows 8 next week, but I won't be surprised if Apple steals its thunder either. More importantly, business people may consider the iPad mini a viable alternative to larger tablets for their work or, at the very least, for primarily personal use that can also supplement their work.

The bottom line is that 7in tablets will get a huge boost in the consumer market this Christmas if Apple does indeed release an iPad mini. I expect they will also be a hit with business users who want a mobile device that is larger than their smartphone.