Skip to main content

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.