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Microsoft Courier
Internal strife, tradition sunk Microsoft's would be iPad competitor

CNET's Jay Greene has a fascinating tale regarding the dual-screen "Courier" tablet concept, which according to his piece was almost launched by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) in early 2010 as an iPad competitor.  Instead Microsoft killed the tablet concept and the executives who designed it jumped ship.

According to Mr. Greene, like the late Steve Jobs did with the original iPhone design, Steve Ballmer had two internal teams who offered competing visions of the perfect tablet way back pre-iPad in 2009.  Windows President Steven Sinofsky wanted a full-fledged Windows tablet.  But former web guru and Xbox creator J. Allard wanted a more artistic tablet that ran a modified version of Windows and eschewed Windows staples for creative software.

Mr. Sinofsky reportedly hated the idea of modifying Windows and dumping core products like Exchange Server/Outlook and Microsoft Office from the experience.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was brought in to mediate the dispute.  In a meeting with two Courier team members, J. Allard, and his boss, Entertainment and Devices division President Robbie Bach, Mr. Gates essentially sided with Mr. Sinofsky.  When shown that the prototype lacked a built in email client, a Courier team member recalls, "This is where Bill had an allergic reaction."

To preserve its core products, Microsoft sacrificed the Courier concept, killing it just weeks later.  In doing so it put itself in a deep hole.  According to Courier team members, the 130+ team had several finished prototypes and could have brought the device to market in mid-2010 with a bit of extra manpower.  Instead Microsoft opted to wait until Windows 8 arrived -- nearly two and a half years later -- for its tablet push.  As a result, Microsoft got its wish for a "Windows" like tablet that market researchers indicate that many crave, but at the cost of falling far behind in the market.

In a sense the article argues J. Allard was fighting tradition.  He used Apple, Inc. (AAPL) products -- a taboo at Microsoft.  He obsessed about design.  In fact, his "Courier" aimed to be the "digital Moleskine" -- leather bound notebooks beloved by designers.  At the cost of $24M+ USD, according to the report, Mr. Allard's teams created outside the box prototypes which "expressed the free flow of ideas", according to a commemorative book.  

Microsoft brought in third party device manufacturers to help with building prototypes.  Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) (who would eventually turn to Android tablets) reportedly helped with this task.  A Microsoft executive reports, "J (was) incubating with his tribe, very much thinking consumer and very much thinking the next few years.  He was trying to disrupt Microsoft, which hasn't been good at consumer products."

In the end Microsoft opted to go with the route of tradition rather than novelty.  After the Courier was killed Mr. Allard and his boss Mr. Bach made the mutual decision to quit Microsoft, taking a retirement.  In his going away email, the now-famous "Decide. Change. Reinvent." memo, Mr. Allard challenged Microsofters to get more creative, as his team had.

While Mr. Greene's piece takes a very critical look at the death of the Courier, it does seem relatively accurate.  It compiles many bits and pieces that were known from various places.  Microsoft disputes certain aspects of it, like Courier being months away from being sellable.  But it doesn't dispute the report as a whole.

That said, the report also misses a bit that Microsoft has since opted to partially go the creative route.  While it is deploying a full-fledged Windows to its upcoming tablets, it's bundling the slick Metro UI with it.  Colorful, intuitive, and stylish Metro UI Windows 8 is the kind of product that J. Allard would have loved.  In fact, he and Mr. Bach had a hand in designing the original Metro UI for the Zune MP3 players.  In that sense, one thing Mr. Greene missed (of course this was only his first of two pieces), was the fact that while Courier was killed, its legacy lives on in Windows 8.

Source: CNET

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RE: Why Kill It?
By ChronoReverse on 11/3/2011 12:21:31 PM , Rating: 3
It seems to me there was a clash of egos here.

I'm reading between the lines a bit but it seems to me that J. Allard's design precluded including an email client out of design and he didn't want it to be.

RE: Why Kill It?
By someguy123 on 11/3/2011 4:31:13 PM , Rating: 2
Indeed. Honestly, with the way he describes it as an "art device", and the way he dumped a lot of what they considered core software, it sounded like the concept builds were all style zero function.

Also, being a dual screen tablet, that sounds like a tough sale if you're interested in keeping the screen quality and performance up to par. Single screen tablets nowadays are already hundreds of dollars. Something like this would demand a very high price and the market would likely be limited to business until the costs came down.

RE: Why Kill It?
By mcnabney on 11/3/2011 5:45:11 PM , Rating: 4
Two small screens cost less than one big screen. It also provides more options for power savings based upon functionality.

Plus, the thing folds in half for easier storage and actual protection from screen scratches. Could likely take a drop better too.

RE: Why Kill It?
By someguy123 on 11/3/2011 6:24:57 PM , Rating: 2
They look like fullsized screens to me in the concepts. Two smaller screens wouldn't necessarily be cheaper unless they were quite a bit smaller compared to the single, larger screen. The folding would be interesting, but it's not like these glass screens scratch easily. I find the backplates are always covered with scratches, while the glass stays clear...except for my fingerprints.

RE: Why Kill It?
By Mitch101 on 11/3/2011 5:52:18 PM , Rating: 2
Its more than Outlook its the Office suite. That's Corporate adoption suicide when trying to compete with products like the iPad! We have a number of iPads where I work and the number one thing they want is Microsoft Office its why two other surveys recently shows 42% and 46% of consumers want a Windows Tablet. Its one of the main reasons I own a Windows Phone.

Consumer side ask anyone what they do with their tablets and read their e-mail is one of the first three things people say.

It goes to show you how out of the loop of what people use their tablets for that he even imagined to leave it out.

RE: Why Kill It?
By mcnabney on 11/3/2011 10:05:14 PM , Rating: 2
When you get out of the 20th century you might discover this thing the rest of us are using called webmail...

/and Outlook has a webmail flavor too

RE: Why Kill It?
By fteoath64 on 11/5/2011 3:47:18 AM , Rating: 2
True that Webmail was a good alternative even in the enterprise space. A native client can certainly be built later, but was not the priority as the usability and artistic aspects were far more important on the Courier. This is one point in history where a big company like MS could not even take a chance to create a division that does something different and innovative in the market. It would have turned the tablet market in a different direction as Apple and Google nudges ahead.

This shows "older" less creative minds just cannot cut it in terms of getting innovation off the ground. They were constrained by the legacy of Windows, Win-Mo etc. Hardware wise, the Courier might have cost more compared to a standard tablet, but its capabilities would be very useful for a lot of industries and the public in general. I am surprised that there are no real clones of the courier to date.

RE: Why Kill It?
By robinthakur on 11/7/2011 5:22:36 AM , Rating: 2
Well, yes you can get it to work if you are the patient type and like clicking on tiny icons and logging in constantly. The native client for mail/calendar on iPad/iPhone is billions of times superior to the webmail option and everybody I've set it up for here at work is really grateful they no longer have to login and that it works so surprisingly well!

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