The Microsoft Courier is one of those things that is difficult to write about objectively. It was one of those gadgets that once you learn about it, ruins everything else in its category. I mean here was this thing that was like an iPad but taken to another level; it was science fiction. Two seven inch tablets which allowed you to use two applications at the same time (without a bezel). It ran an app that let you draw and create in ways that have only been seen on Inspector Gadget; this thing was literally Penny Computer book.
When the first images and video leaked three years ago, people were gearing up for a battle between the then newly announced iPad and this thing that was just too cool for words. Information would leak out about and people could not get Microsoft to confirm its existence. Before long more images showing the UI, a mockup of the device, and another video were posted. I mean people were talking about this device like it was second coming.
When the project was confirmed by Microsoft it was also canceled; to this day you’ll read about someone complaining that Microsoft screwed up in its decision not to release this device. I was disappointed because the device really seemed to take touch computing to the next level. And so the press wrote articles about Microsoft’s lack of innovation; the people behind the project left Microsoft which meant more articles saying that Microsoft just didn’t get it. And Microsoft moved on to Windows 8.
The story around the Courier and its demise became clearer when CNET’s Jay Greene wrote a two part piece on the Courier and Windows 8. I’m going to link to the story but to sum it up the Courier team’s dream ended when it met the reality of Bill Gates and the plans of Windows president Steven Sinofsky.
Looking back I have to admit that the Courier, based on all available information, was a niche product. It was aimed at the “creative classes”, artist, writers, and the like; and revolved around a limited set of scenarios. And as much as I would’ve and still would like to see it in stores, it wasn’t aimed at the mass market.
As much as I hate when others do it, looking at the Courier in hindsight you could tell where it would have issues. The fact it didn’t have a native mail client would’ve been a strike even after reviewers gushed over its use as a digital notebook. The fact it had a camera placed awkwardly on the left; awkward because of the Courier’s booklet design. We didn’t have an idea about apps other than the camera and the live journal. What would games or other media look like on this device? The last issue that would have faced the Courier would’ve been where it sat within Microsoft’s ecosystem. Windows Phone, which was completed around the same time as the Courier, would introduce a new mobile platform. Windows Phone unlike Windows Mobile would bring together the entertainment and business halves of the Microsoft ecosystem into one device. It also introduced the Metro interface. The Courier would’ve gone to market with a UI different from both Windows Phone and Windows; it would also be built on top a forked version of the NT kernel (the basis for Windows). I wonder if questions would’ve been asked about where the Courier fit and how would Microsoft deal with having another operating system to manage (Windows, Windows Phone, Server, CE, and Xbox).
The Courier was a companion device built around the idea of the notebook; a creation device with pen and touch inputs. It was innovative as hell, and would’ve been well received; and it still would’ve face questions. Would we be as enamored with the Courier in the real world with its main function built around a narrow use case? I mean look at ChromeOS. Would the Courier have become a device liked the iPad, something people think of as a Post-PC device or something like an e-Reader?
The biggest thing about the Courier, the aspect of it I still want Microsoft to do, is the idea around creating applications built for touch and mobile. The idea that you have to rethink your approach when it comes to applications built for touch input in mind. The notion of putting touch to work is something that still appeals to many (and honestly comes to fruition on the iPad). Part of me thinks the Courier truly could’ve worked, but I also know it would’ve had limitations.
And that is why I think the big tragedy isn’t in the cancelation of the product, but that it was integrated fully into Windows 8. In many ways both groups saw the oncoming wave of tablets, but had half the solution. The Courier team brought with them the applications that would’ve made the case for a Windows tablet and the Windows group would have brought a better foundation on which to build. I think another tragedy is the fact that Microsoft lost a dedicated division looking at consumer products.
(Seems as if all great romances and gadgets end bittersweetly)