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Microsoft’s Surface Mini: Would it be powered by Windows 8, or Windows Phone 8?

In an interesting conversation at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference on Wednesday, Microsoft’s CFO Peter Klein indicated that a Surface Mini might be in the offing. There’s no indication of what size the Surface Mini might be, but it’s fairly safe to assume that it would be a 7in tablet that goes head-to-head against the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, and iPad mini.

Speaking at the Goldman Sachs conference, Klein hammered home the fact that Microsoft – at long last – is capable of extending the Windows (Metro) experience to almost every form factor. “The notion of flexibility and scalability of the operating system is intrinsic to our strategy,” he noted.

On smaller devices, Microsoft has Windows Phone 8, and for everything else there’s Windows 8, Windows Server 8 and Windows Embedded 8. With the same kernel in both WP8 and Windows 8, and app cross-compatibility, it is in theory quite easy for Microsoft to create an almost seamless ecosystem that spans the gamut from 4in to 40in displays.

The question on my mind, though, is which OS would power the Surface Mini? At 7in or 8in, the Surface Mini would find itself in an uncomfortable chasm between Microsoft’s two operating systems. You see, despite having the same kernel and roughly the same Metro interface, Windows 8 and WP8 are rather different beasts. WP8 is designed almost exclusively for portrait use, while Windows 8′s Metro Start screen is only really usable in landscape orientation. Neither OS deals very well with repeated reorientation, which is exactly what most users do with 7in tablets (from reading, to gaming, to checking email, to watching a movie).

This isn’t to say that Microsoft couldn’t tweak one of its operating systems to work on a 7in device, though – and in all likelihood, I think Microsoft would choose Windows 8 or Windows RT for its Surface Mini. With better support for higher resolutions, media playback, and wireless connectivity, Windows 8 is a better choice. Windows Phone 8′s chief advantage is a lighter processor and memory footprint, which would increase battery life – but Windows RT, backed by the same ARM SoCs as WP8, has also proven itself in terms of all-day battery life. WP8 also has more apps than Windows 8/RT, but many of them will need to be reworked for high-resolution displays and landscape orientation. (See: Windows 8 phones and Windows Phone 8 slates).

Ultimately, as Klein puts it: “We can have the same core code base driving form factors from 4in all the way up to 27in ones and everything in between, so I think we are well set up to respond to demand as we see it.”

This isn’t quite a confirmation that the Surface Mini (or Surface Maxi?) is in development, but Amazon, Google, and Apple have all proven that the demand is obviously there. For what it’s worth, Microsoft has already signalled that the Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets are just the beginning of a big foray into the world of consumer electronics.

Let us not forget what Ballmer famously said in an interview with CRN back in July 2012, too: “We are not going to let annyyyyyyyyyyyyy piece of this [go uncontested to Apple]. Not the consumer cloud. Not hardware/software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen! Not on our watch!”

Basically, a Surface Mini is guaranteed – it’s just a matter of when.