Microsoft Killed Courier Tablet Because it Wasn’t Windows

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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.

Comments

mhikl

Gates, lacking in imagination, I believe, is how Steve described him. So true.

Maybe it wouldn?t have been a home run first time round but time, effort and learning would have helpful in the next iteration.

Seems Steve and Bill were cut from the same cloth but Bill lacked the frill called imagination. The skill to make money is a skill. Imagination takes you beyond the now, specifically, beyond the know how now.

Mark

That interface kicks ass! I love it! I’d be drooling to buy that. sigh… not to be… not to be…

Schwigger

Who would ever have belived Bill Gates to be a dinosaur. His actions in this matter forever seal hiw legacy as being an ostrich with his head buried in the sand.
Ballmer is an idiot for not taking the bull by the horns and just making it work without all the arse kissing approvals.

mhikl

I kinda agree, Mark. Note taking by pen, sketches and doodling would be neat. I enjoyed my Palm TX.

But Schwigger, what did Gates ever do that was imaginative. Like Steve, he was able to take the ideas and ingenuity of others and make possibilities reality and money in oodles. Business acumen, he had in spades. But brilliant artistic awareness was not a forte he could claim or find of interest.

WetcoastBob

This is the form factor I was hoping for from Apple.  A real notebook.  Great for reading books, magazines, two screens for production work and if placed like a laptop the bottom would be a keyboard.  It would stand on its own when playing movies and protect the screens when closed.  Size: 8.5 x 5.5” one inch thick.  Easily storable.  Could have called it the “Pocket-iBook”.

mhikl

I like your thinking, WestcoastBob, but it ain?t going to happen. Apple would be competing with itself, I suspect, cannibalizing iPad sales. But could a third party come out with a doable or twoable attachment, described, for the connector?

bmovie

Sony’s tablet is a 2-screen notebook. Some other company came out with the same form-factor last year. Neither one has taken off, so it’s anyone’s guess if the Courier would have stopped the iPad Express. I just can’t picture Courier on the deck of the Star Ship Enterprise, in a courtroom, a hospital or a classroom.

Lee Dronick

I kinda agree, Mark. Note taking by pen, sketches and doodling would be neat.

I have a stylus for my iPad2 and some sketching apps.

Chris

Sweet!  Like the whole setup!  Add dedicated email and the ability to change between the interface shown and one with a touch screen keyboard and I think you’ve got a winner!

0x1b

They probably just patented as much as they could to try to prevent anyone from innovating….. 
Patent trolls.

Louie

Microsoft had something here.  The notebook feature is intuitive and the use of both stylus and hand/finger directions (if permitted by choice of the user as well) was unique in the sense that the stylus does give a user the tactile feeling of writing.  The duel screens are very useful as well.  I could see this as becoming a very good competitor to the iPad and only getting better with each update.  This was, by far, not anything like the Zune.  Microsoft messed up letting this one go.

Mike

Looks like the only cool thing Microsoft ever developed was killed. Too bad…

vishal

Microsoft is run by folks who dont have the idea of a marketplace. Such a great product was killed. It seems like an awesome product, highly intuitive. It probably would have run better since Windows interface was dumped.

Chris Silvetti

A real notebook

Sounds like it would have been nice! I’ve used WinXP Tablet Ed.  for years now on a Fujitsu Lifebook and it’s *still* on of my favorite tablets.

John Doh

Run on sentences much?

d'monder

If there ever was a case for finally firing Steve Ballmer, this is it.

Steve Jobs had to have been secretly smiling a little; gifts like this (i.e. blunders of this magnitude) don’t come from your competitors very often.

zombywoof8

I love that natural way of working with information, schedules and notes.  It is like iPad on steroids.  Trying to stuff this organic way of working into Win/Off would simply ruin it.  Ballmer should have driven this and made them throw an email client.  This is a cool product and still could be.  Result of severe myopia.  Get some vision and clean the Windows…

Rodney J-E

That was an amazing demo I have and iPad 2 and that device would definitely have been a possible alternative to the IPad if it was priced reasonably. Ballmer is spineless. This is exactly the product that people wouldn’t have realized they wanted until it was being sold. It would have been their next Kinect type product. All Ballmer would have had to demand was a email program that was web and exchange friendly. And for the the next iteration or update an office app suite for the dam tablet. Geez way to drop the ball Microsoft.

Cor

I was told as long as you put the customer first, you cannot go wrong.  So what happens when you first focus on your business instead? - Look at the many failed businesses.

I am actually shocked that accomplished business men such as Ballmer and Gates (heh they did build a pretty good company), seem to have forgotten that basic message here.

Dave

That interface kicks ass! I love it! I?d be drooling to buy that. sigh? not to be? not to be?

Check out Tapose on Kickstarter.  Should be launching soon.

Kim

“Note taking by pen, sketches and doodling would be neat.”

Why is it nobody likes writing their own notes until they have to pay hundreds of dollars to do it?

Philip-Los Gatos

I am confused. Lots of people are going gaga over the demo and the interface but there is no demo. This is entirely simulated. The hand movements and resulting actions are not done by real hands. This is another virtual demo Microsoft is very famous for doing for people who can’t differentiate fiction from reality.

Russ

I think microsoft lied thru their back on this. they did not ditch anything as they actually didn’t have anything. if they developed anything even half close to it! Idea is not enough to pull out a tablet like that.

This is just their usual pathetic way of covering their failure.

John

I’m surprised at the overwhelming positive remarks re: Courier. I remember when this leaked into the blogosphere and it was universally panned. This was at the time when iPad info was also being leaked and most expected (hoped for) a touch-enabled version of Mac OS to be used on the tablet.

As a long time Windows user, I was far more excited about a possible (and open) Mac OS Tablet than anything else in the pipelines. In fact, I was ready to jump ship to Apple until I realized that Apple’s business practices would become even more Orwellian then they have been.

I guess, each company has it’s own immutable personality. One stodgy, careful and boring - always worried and jealous about what the Jones are doing and lashes out in a passive-aggressive manner. The other, exciting yet controlling - like the life of the party who secretly beats his wife. Between a rock and a hard place…

Nesbcn

Isn’t this the same mistake that Digital Computers made? They were afraid that a new product would cannabalize an old product’s sales so they didn’t develop the new products and as a result the competition released new products and Digital computers is no more. It’s a classic business school case study.

Zbird

Holy cr@p this would have been an awesome device! Definitely would need e-mail… with contacts, tasks, e-mail, browser, e-reader, Exchange sync and assorted apps this could have been serious iPad competition (not to mention Kindle). Styluses have pros and cons - big mistake for Microsoft to pass on it just because it didn’t look & feel like Windows. iOS didn’t look or feel like the Mac OS when it debuted. And now MS is playing catch-up with Win8 and tablets. What a shame…

wab95

Let’s see:

1) Ditch email client for Exchange servers - check.
2) Ditch Windows interface - check.
3) Render Office suite incompatible - check.

Okay, let’s run this baby by the boss!

From the above checklist, it was pretty clear from the start that this little tech tart would be going places (the dust bin, landfill).

Did Allard and Bach forget what company they were working for? And as for Ballmer, was the absence of integration with MS’s core business products a new discovery to him when he floated this by BG and the other execs? (I see BG now asking Ballmer, ‘Did you even look at this?’). The whole affair was a veritable middle finger to all things Microsoft, or didn’t anybody notice? How, exactly, was this going to advance the company’s platforms, product lines or profile - in a word - the company’s interests? Who was paying their development unit, Google?

As for the recommendation to nix this project, those accusing BG of lacking vision take note, he did the right thing. This tablet was on the fast lane to nowhere - at least in the MS universe. And if it had taken off, and if the consumer base began to demand support and integration with MS’s other core products, what was MS to have done, retool all their major products for Courier and damn the enterprise?

Not long ago in human history, such trespasses and omissions were treated with either public execution (being drawn and quartered a crowd favourite) or ritual suicide. Fortunately for these blokes, we live in gentler times. Hopefully these three, and all their collaborators, had at least a few sleepless nights.

mrmwebmax

+

This completely sums up the difference between MS and Apple: MS is afraid to do anything to jeopardize its existing (Windows/Office) product lines, while Apple intentionally cannibalizes itself, over and over again. Remember when SJ introduced the iPod nano? At the time, the best-selling MP3 player was the iPod mini. So what does Apple do? They KILL IT, and introduce the nano. And the iPad? Cannibalizing Mac laptop sales? Yes, but Apple would rather cannibalize itself than have others do it to them.

Here’s hoping with SJ’s loss Apple doesn’t change. So long as they don’t, Apple will keep introducing the Next Great Thing, while MS will continue to keep beating the dying horse that is Windows/Office.

wab95

This completely sums up the difference between MS and Apple: MS is afraid to do anything to jeopardize its existing (Windows/Office) product lines, while Apple intentionally cannibalizes itself, over and over again. Remember when SJ introduced the iPod nano? At the time, the best-selling MP3 player was the iPod mini. So what does Apple do? They KILL IT, and introduce the nano.

I agree with you, to a point, mrmgraphics, but what Apple post-ROSJ have not done is kill off their core business platforms. The termination of classic Mac OS 9 for OS X was a ‘The king is dead. Long live the king’ kind of moment. It was a transition to a better version of the same. Likewise with the switch from PowerPC to Intel processors. The various product refreshes, while causing certain models to swap places in the number one bestselling spot, have not intentionally killed off a major product line. Apple have killed off product lines that failed to meet their objective (the Cube, XServe) or that were incompatible with their strategic course (the Newton). Apple have also introduced products that transition its customers away from lines with an end date to those with a future (arguably iPod classics to iPod Touches). 

Competitively killing off one’s own product line is not merely wasteful, it sends a confusing message to your support base. I agree with you, however, MS need to expand beyond their original and still current core offerings. Failure to do so is a recipe for extinction.

I further agree with your basic point that Apple are not afraid to reinvent their products, and take bold steps into new directions, and without apology to either clients and competitors alike.

Done poorly, it is a recipe for failure. Done well, it is the makings of a leader. Done as Apple have done it, is the launching of a juggernaut.

mhikl

Cannibalizing Mac laptop sales? Yes, but Apple would rather cannibalize itself than have others do it to them.

Brilliant observation +.

CityGuide

The decision to kill the Courier is especially interesting in light of the mild product bifurcation introduced with Office 365 and shows another lapse of vision for Microsoft. The decision to not add an email client was obviously a mistake, but what if Microsoft not only added email but also developed a thin Office client on Courier? Enable it with Azure such that it can link content between your home or Office programs with data intact, and formulae and macros tagged as placeholders. Add a little more fairy dust in the way of developer tools and it could have been a powerful and game -changing Microsoft offering that may have stood a chance against the iPad in both business and consumer environments.

Jamie

I could be wrong, I certainly don’t work at MS, but as I understood it at the time, there was no working Courier, just demos. I was under the impression it was vaporware, basically just a concept, not even a functioning, prototyped device. Maybe some of it’s functionality will return in another form. Would be nice if Microsoft did their own R & D for once. wink

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