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Microsoft's Decision To Kill The Courier Tablet Explained

Those of us who spent the early months of 2010 absolutely drooling over Courier, the late, lamented Microsoft tablet that never made it past the proof of concept stage, have long wondered what the hell happened. First announced in 2009, the tablet boasted unique dual-screens that folded like a book, plus support for both hand and stylus interface that seemed perfect for creative types looking for a useful mobile device with less heft than a laptop. That it presented an aesthetic and utility expressly at odds with iPad, the first version of which was still many months away from its January 2010 debut, was an additional bonus. Interest was still strong even after iPad's debut, making Microsoft's April 2010 decision to unceremoniously cancel Courier all the more baffling.

So what did happen? The answer, according to Cnet's Jay Greene, appears to inter-company rivalries coupled with an obstinate refusal to anticipate the way people want to interact with their technology, and a final decision by Bill Gates that sealed Courier's fate. Greene spoke with numerous company insiders and has published a massive article exploring Courier's demise. He found that during Courier's development, Courier lead J Allard's vision for a tablet using a modified version of Windows came into direct conflict with Windows division head Steven Sinofsky, who was very reluctant to get behind anything he perceived as diluting the operating system. Ultimately, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer asked Bill Gates to get involved, and subsequently Allard and Sinofsky met with him to present their cases.

You might be thinking this is where stodgy old Bill Gates scoffs at the guy who developed Xbox and ruined tablets for everyone, but it turns out his ultimate decision may have been sound:

"At one point during that meeting in early 2010 at Gates' waterfront offices in Kirkland, Wash., Gates asked Allard how users get e-mail. Allard... told Gates his team wasn't trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also have a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get e-mail from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

"But the device wasn't intended to be a computer replacement; it was meant to complement PCs. Courier users wouldn't want or need a feature-rich e-mail application such as Microsoft's Outlook that lets them switch to conversation views in their inbox or support offline e-mail reading and writing. The key to Courier, Allard's team argued, was its focus on content creation. Courier was for the creative set, a gadget on which architects might begin to sketch building plans, or writers might begin to draft documents."

Apparently, it was the lack of any kind of built-in email app that made Bill's mind up. If true, this reveals an amazing lack of vision on Allard's part. Failure to understand that a cool aesthetic and utility doesn't change the fact that people want to experience their technology conveniently indicates that had Courier made it to the consumer, it might have been kind of a pain in the ass to use. A pity, as Courier has retained a strong what-if allure that has only been strengthened by the failure of any single developer, including Microsoft, to challenge iPad's market dominance.

The entire article is a fascinating look into Microsoft's corporate culture, and is worth reading in full.

  • amk-aka-Phantom
    So... instead of MAKING an app, they kill the whole device? :heink: On the other hand, I appreciate Gates blocking another crappy device from entering the market. I wish all tablets would disappear.
    Reply
  • alyoshka
    Now that was something that needed to be launched.....
    Reply
  • waethorn
    Anybody that says this would be an "iPad-killer" just doesn't get it. It isn't. It's a digital scrapbook. Think of it as a hardware version of OneNote - on steroids (and possibly acid too). It was NOT meant to be a consumer device.
    Reply
  • Flamango
    MR. ROSS. You're an idiot. As an artist and a designer I'd KILL for this level of functionality and fluidity. DAMN YOU and your stupid concepts of what needs to be "right" for an electronic device. The world doesn't need idiots like you talking down content creation devices just because they can't check email! This is meant to replace a real life notebook, you know the one with pages? Can a piece of paper check email? No. Do I really want the medium for my creative outlet to be reminding of my ties and obligations to the real world? No. Bill Gates is an idiot. Nobody in the electronics world has the heart to gives us artists the one thing that we'd really love and appreciate without burdening it with "connectivity" and "special offers". It's so stupid. I'm sorry you aren't in agreement with me, maybe if you were our electronic devices would actually be cool and functional and specialized. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
    Reply
  • killerclick
    I'm glad this didn't come out. It would've been another Zune to Apple's iPod. Why use advanced technology to replicate the functionality of ancient technology?
    Reply
  • Thunderfox
    ...don't they already have tablet computers for drawing on? And what was this guy expecting people to do if they needed computer functionality on the road - carry around this thing AND a laptop?

    Plus I'm sure with two screens and decent hardware for handling the interface and displays, it would not have come cheap. So you'd pay through the nose for something that can't even do what a netbook can do, even though it should surely have the necessary power under the hood.
    Reply
  • i don't get it, how hard it would be to develop an email client for a company like Microsoft ? This is just the stupid reason to cancel the tablet. There would definitely be something else but not this.
    Reply
  • STravis
    Luckily, RIM decided to make a tablet that required it be tethered to a blackberry for things such as email, just to show mr. Gates how right he was.
    Reply
  • ojas
    FlamangoMR. ROSS. You're an idiot. As an artist and a designer I'd KILL for this level of functionality and fluidity. ....without burdening it with "connectivity" and "special offers". It's so stupid. I'm sorry you aren't in agreement with me, maybe if you were our electronic devices would actually be cool and functional and specialized. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
    Er...i see your point, though i wish you wouldn't have been so strong in your approach.

    killerclickI'm glad this didn't come out. It would've been another Zune to Apple's iPod. Why use advanced technology to replicate the functionality of ancient technology?To save trees, save space, lessen your load, etc. Also, think about it, we use touchscreen buttons instead of regular 40 year old (in concept) buttons. Isn't that a replication of ancient tech?
    ======

    This was a really good concept. They should have simply added the mail client. This could have been a great product. Maybe not for the general consumer, but, suitably priced, it would have been great for many professionals and especially students. I know a lot of people buying tablets and e-readers to avoid carrying books to college. This could have been great. And there's so much potential. It doesn't have to do a million things, could simply take notes and offer some communication ability (BBM-style cross-platform messenger along with mail to wi-fi/2G/3G data networks, video conferencing could have been dropped) and music (again, video playback could be 720p at the most). This would make a good e-reader too. Games could have been skipped entirely. This would also integrate nicely with Windows.

    Sometimes i wish microsoft took risks that apple takes. Releasing this with the iPad would have split the market into two groups, content creation+mild consumption vs mostly consumption. Why do truly useful things rarely make it to production?
    Reply
  • ojas
    Strangely enough they'll end up selling a modified version of Windows 8 for tablets. Why was it an issue when this was being discussed?
    Reply