A Wi-Fi tablet running Windows Phone is possible (and might not be a bad idea)

Early last week Microsoft made its first major software update for Windows Phone 8.1 available to developers. The company didn’t provide a comprehensive list of changes at the time, however, instead focusing mainly on the consumer-facing features such Live Folders (which are quite nice, by the way) and Xbox Music improvements.

Live Folders

Writing on his Supersite for Windows, Paul Thurrott found a detailed change log that offers more information about what’s under the hood for this software update. Microsoft(s msft) shared information that pertains to existing Windows Phone, but it omitted some very interesting tidbits for future device support. Among them:

  • New screen resolutions of 1280 x 800 for Windows Phone 8.1, although the display will still appear as 1280 x 768 with “pillarboxes for the unused pixels.”
  • Screen sizes of 6.01 to 7 inches can be used for Windows Phone 8.1. Currently, the largest phone running Microsoft’s software is the Lumia 1520, which has a 6-inch display.
  • Native qHD or 960 x 540 resolution is supported.
  • Device makers can install a Wi-Fi Feature Pack.

Microsoft’s list of changes goes on but the last item above is pretty significant, which Microsoft further defines as:

“This feature removes all cellular-related functionality from the operating system and is intended only for devices that will not be connected to a cellular network. It removes all cellular related tiles, icons, and settings from the user interface. Including this feature reduces memory usage and improves the user experience by not displaying nonfunctional cellular settings and icons.”

Essentially, this takes the traditional “phone” part out of Windows Phone, opening up the possibility for small — meaning 7 inches in screen size or less — Wi-Fi tablets. Of course, there’s no lack of apps that allow you to place a voice or video call over a Wi-Fi connection, Microsoft’s own Skype being perhaps the best example.

The addition of the optional Wi-Fi Feature Pack is even more interesting if you consider the purported fate of Microsoft’s Surface Mini tablet. A small slate running full Windows 8.1 was reportedly planned for a May debut, but the company decided to scratch the Surface launch at the last minute. I noted before May that Microsoft really doesn’t need a Surface Mini with full Windows. But a Surface Mini or a differently named small tablet with Windows Phone from hardware partners could be beneficial for the company.

surface mini case

Such a device should cost less than one with the hardware needed for full Windows 8.1. The device wouldn’t need the cellular radio, antennas and amplifiers needed for voice calls or mobile broadband, for example. And today you can get a Windows 8.1 tablet for as little as $199. I think Microsoft or its partners could get a Windows Phone tablet priced at $149, and lower over time. That would be significantly cheaper than most of the tablet competition from Android partners and Apple’s(s aapl) iPad mini.

Even if this situation spurred a minimal number of sales through inexpensive hardware, it could help Microsoft gain tablet market share and some mind share.

Why is that important? Developers have limited resources to support mobile platforms so iOS and Android continue to be the “go-to” platforms for mobile apps. Adding new, cost-conscious Wi-Fi tablets running Windows Phone could help rebalance the mobile app landscape a little, which in turn would help Windows 8.1 because Microsoft would have support for Universal Apps across phones, tablets and computers.

Of course, just because Windows Phone 8.1 update 1 supports non-cellular devices, that doesn’t mean we’ll actually see any. But I wouldn’t mind if some did come to market, particularly in the $150 to $199 price range. Does the idea sound appealing to you?