Lenovo spins 180, says it's still in the 8-in. Windows tablet game

Withdrawal from small-sized Windows tablet U.S. market only temporary, company clarifies

Lenovo on Friday said it would continue selling sub-10-in. Windows tablets in the U.S., backing away from statements it made the day before, when it said it was pulling the ThinkPad 8 from the North American market and had stopped selling a model of the Miix 2.

"We will continue to bring new Windows devices to market across different screen sizes, including a new 8-inch tablet and 10-inch tablet coming this holiday," Lenovo said in a press release published on its website Friday.

"Our model mix changes as per customer demand, and although we are no longer selling ThinkPad 8 in the U.S., and we have sold out of Miix 8-inch, we are not getting out of the small-screen Windows tablet business as was reported by the media (emphasis in original)," the statement continued.

On Thursday, the IDG News Service -- like Computerworld, owned and operated by IDG -- reported the withdrawal of the ThinkPad 8 and the 8-in. Miix from the U.S. market. The ThinkPad 8 had debuted in January at prices starting at $449, and the similarly-sized Miix had launched in October 2013.

Lenovo told IDG News that it was diverting remaining stocks of the ThinkPad 8 to other countries, including Brazil, China, and Japan, where demand was stronger for smaller Windows 8.1-powered tablets.

The China-based company, which has made impressive gains in the global market -- it was the world's largest personal computer seller during the second quarter, ahead of Hewlett-Packard and Dell, according to IDC -- did not say exactly when it would return with an 8-in. device. If it begins selling the unnamed device in October, typical of OEMs that seed the channel then for the holiday sales season, it will have been absent from the market for two or more months.

Lenovo hasn't been the only company to balk at selling small-sized Windows tablets in the U.S. Microsoft was ready to roll out a smaller Surface tablet, the Surface Mini, in May but changed its mind at the last minute.

The day before a May 20 event, Computerworld reported that Microsoft would not unveil the Surface Mini. Later accounts elsewhere claimed that the device was pulled from the presentation -- and thus release -- as executives feared that the Mini wasn't sufficiently different from lower-priced rivals to do well in the market.

It's not surprising that vendors are hesitant to shill 8-in. Windows tablets in the U.S.

As the most mature tablet market, U.S. sales increases have slowed as consumers hold onto what they have longer than did early adopters. Smaller-screen tablets are also waning as a percentage of total tablets shipped, with most analysts seeing a rebound in larger screens because people are arming themselves with smartphones boasting screens of 5-in. and above.

Microsoft has also had a difficult time -- as evidenced by its decision not to launch a Surface Mini -- making the case that Windows 8.1 is a suitable OS for smaller screens. Much of Microsoft's tablet strategy, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, has been based on the argument that the devices are worthy productivity platforms, particularly for running Office.

But without a true touch-based edition of Office on Windows, that argument has fallen on fallow ground: The ability to run the current Office, which was designed for mouse and keyboard, on smaller screens has been questionable at best.

Microsoft's case will be bolstered when it does debut a touch-first Office on Windows -- as it has on Apple's iPad -- but observers now believe that won't happen until the first half of 2015.

That Lenovo felt it necessary to restate its commitment to the smaller Windows tablet space was a reflection of the fragility of the market for Microsoft's OS on non-PCs. Headlines of news stories and blogs spawned from IDG News' report were frequently negative, and included examples such as "Nobody wants a small Windows tablet, world's biggest PC maker claims" and "Lenovo gives up on small Windows tablets in the US."

Those headlines, directed not only at Lenovo and its decision, but the inability of Microsoft -- Lenovo's OS partner -- to make headway in tablets would have caused consternation in Redmond, Wash., home to Microsoft.

Levovo's Friday statement, which it titled "Clarification on Lenovo Statement on Sales of Small Screen Windows-Based Tablets," was clearly damage control.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

Tags computerworldhardware systemsWindowsLenovosoftwaretabletsoperating systemsIDG

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