Microsoft Killed Courier Tablet Because it Wasn’t Windows

Microsoft killed its Courier tablet project mainly because it strayed outside of the company’s two main businesses, Windows and Office, in a way that was perceived as a threat to those businesses. According to an in-depth report from CNet, it was Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates who steered Steve Ballmer towards nuking the project.

For those not familiar, Courier was the code name for a journal-like tablet that was being developed by Microsoft. According to the CNet report, the project was headed by J. Allard, the man who had led the development of Microsoft’s popular Xbox console gaming platform, and the 130-person team was months away from having the device ready for market.

Courier was designed as a two-panel tablet that would open up like a notebook, a Moleskine notebook, to be precise, as the team looked to that iconic product for inspiration on the form factor. Each panel was 7” across, and they would allow the user to work with two sets of information at one time, as you can see in the demo video below.

Courier Demo Videos Leaked to Gizmodo in 2009

While the late Steve Jobs would likely have dismissed the product as being $#!^—something he did frequently, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs—for the sin of using a stylus, the reality is that Microsoft’s Courier was seen as an product with an approachable interface.

When the story of the project’s existence first broke in 2009, it was competing against a rumored Apple tablet that became known as the iPad, but unlike the host of Android-based tablets that have followed since, Courier had its own paradigms, interface concepts, gestures, and other elements.

In other words, it was a far cry from being an iPad-knockoff, and it would have allowed Microsoft to be competing with Apple’s iPad a few short months after it was released. As it is, while Microsoft still has pen-based “Tablet PCs,” the company has ceded the media tablet market to Apple (and now, possibly, Amazon), for more than a year and a half, and isn’t planning on doing so until sometime in late 2012 with the release of Windows 8.

Why would the company do this? Why would it kill a project it had dedicated millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to months before it was ready to rock and roll exactly when Apple was setting the world on Fire with its iPad?

According to CNet’s report, there were two competing visions of how to do a touch tablet within Microsoft. One was the above-described Courier, while the other was a traditional Windows OS-based approach headed by Steven Sinofsky, the head of Microsoft’s Windows division, that was still at least two years away from being ready (it will be closer to three before it ships).

When faced with these two visions, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did what Steve Jobs would never have done, he went looking for the opinions of others, specifically the opinion of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.

Mr. Gates was treated to a demonstration of Courier by Mr. Allard and his boss, Entertainment and Devices division President Robbie Bach. In that demonstration, he was told Courier didn’t have an email client, a curious decision predicated on the premise that Courier owners would have smartphones where they checked their email. This is similar to the error Research In Motion made with its own PlayBook tablet.

Worse, though Courier used the Windows kernel, the Courier team had ditched the Windows interface in favor of a highly customized interface (see the demo video above) that was designed for touch and stylus input.

The lack of email was perceived by Mr. Gates as a threat to Microsoft’s extremely lucrative Exchange server business, while the custom interface was seen as a threat to Windows itself. Mr. Gates recommended it be canceled.

Further demonstrating that he wasn’t Steve Jobs, Mr. Ballmer went around looking for input from other execs, too, and the consensus was that Courier wasn’t in alignment with the company’s Windows and Office business models.

Accordingly, it was axed shortly after Apple released the iPad.

There are more details in the full report.