Tablets

How Microsoft blew it with the Courier tablet

Microsoft's Courier tablet was a hit that never came to market. Now that we know the inside story, the loss hurts even a little more.

No Microsoft product has generated as much buzz and excitement in the general tech community in recent years as the Courier tablet, which was first leaked to the public in September 2009. Microsoft quietly killed the product shortly after the Apple iPad hit the market the following spring and the tech world pretty much assumed that the Courier had just been a cool concept and never a serious possibility.

However, a new report from CNET News has information from multiple sources inside Microsoft that explain in greater detail than ever before how the Courier was a lot closer to coming to market than we realized, and that CEO Steve Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates were directly involved in pulling the plug on the project.

Credit: Josh Long/CNET

The Courier

The Courier seemingly came out of nowhere when Gizmodo first reported it in the Fall of 2009, just as reports of the long-rumored Apple tablet were really heating up. Gizmodo wrote:

"It feels like the whole world is holding its breath for the Apple tablet. But maybe we've all been dreaming about the wrong device. This is Courier, Microsoft's astonishing take on the tablet."

The Courier sported dual 7-inch screens, a mix of multitouch and pen-based computing, and a user experience totally aimed at content creators. Based on the Gizmodo photos and a demo video (see below), technologists went crazy for the idea. On YouTube, where the comments usually take a negative tone and Microsoft haters are easy to find, the video of the Courier has 1239 likes and only 56 dislikes (as of November 1, 2011, when I'm publishing this article).

Here is the original demo video and a second video that provided more usage scenarios with the Courier:

Still, despite the overwhelmingly positive response from the tech crowd, Microsoft killed the Courier project six months later -- just after the Apple iPad launch -- and decided to focus its tablet strategy around Windows 8 devices instead.

According to the new CNET report, there was a tablet battle inside Microsoft between J Allard from the Xbox group, which was championing the Courier, and Steven Sinofsky of the the Windows group, which wanted Microsoft's tablet development to happen inside the Windows group. Ballmer was unsure which way to go and called in Bill Gates to help officiate. Gates and Ballmer eventually decided to stick to the more traditional path and keep tablets part of the Windows group. Gates was reportedly turned off by the fact that the Courier didn't have a full Outlook email experience and was totally focused on being a companion device for creative professionals.

Read the two-part report: The inside story of how Microsoft killed its Courier tablet and How Windows 8 KO'd the innovative Courier tablet

Sanity check

It's always easy to look back and criticize decisions like this because we now have two years of additional information that Gates and Ballmer didn't have at the time, so I'm not going to excoriate them over the Courier decision. But, it's pretty clear that Microsoft likely missed a huge opportunity here. The biggest weakness of the iPad is that it's not a very good content creation device. The Courier, which could have likely come to market within months of the launch of the iPad, could have played the perfect foil.

While creative professionals represent a smaller segment of the audience than general consumers who want a media tablet like the iPad, they also represent a core part of Apple's audience and some of its most fervent evangelists. If Microsoft could have taken a chunk out of that market, it would have dealt an important blow to Apple, and it could have also created a perception of Microsoft as a tablet leader and eventually paved the way for other flavors of Windows tablets that could have certainly existed alongside the Courier.

Beyond all that, the Courier is one of the few things Microsoft has ever built that has created a level of product lust usually reserved for products from Apple and consumer electronics makers. That alone would have been a shot in the arm for the Microsoft brand.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

13 comments
kburrows
kburrows

I was extremely excited about the prospect of the Courier tablet. It is typical of Microsoft in recent years, which is why they have been left in the dust. The iPad is an okay experience for business users, but based on the video above and data I researched a few years ago, this would have been a perfect companion to a Windows desktop. I work in IT and travel to client offices throughout the week and the idea of using this for notes, sync'ing with my desktop/network and having access to my files like a network with the plus of having dual screens and a OneNote type of organizer was unbelievable. Sure, i can app myself to death to get something close on the iPad, but it wouldn't be the same seamless operation as with this tablet. Microsoft is stuck in a rut and until Ballmer gets it together, they are in for a hurting. Even Windows 8 with the tile interface is not going to help. Here is the real take. Apple is totalitarian and you take what they give you, which works at some level. Microsoft tries to be all things to all people and have dilluted their products and are not aggressive with upgrades so no one is offended with a 10 year old operating system. Somewhere in the middle is where they need to be.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I have been wanting a device that has both ePaper and a standard screen. That would work well in this form factor. It feels like a binder or a book and that makes it seem more human. Tablets are kinda awkward.

jdm12
jdm12

If Steve Jobs had been running Microsoft, you can bet Courier would have been in people's hands. This certainly points out the differences that a CEO can make in a large company.

zimmerwoman
zimmerwoman

It's been 10 years since someone appeared to care that I want a portable device that had both ePaper for handwriting storage and if it had handwriting recognition. I internalized and utilized Palm grafitti quickly and accurately because it was a way to get data into storage when an external keyboard wasn't practical (even the new iPad case that sort of converts it to a netbook-ish thing). And nowadays, if it could have eInk too, that would be great. I don't know what that involves, because I am not a techie. I am an end user and content creator. But, is this too much to ask? Am I reaching for the sky here? I don't think so. Can someone hear me? Anyone?

benliaw
benliaw

Kind of remind me what Steve Jobs said about Microsoft Bill Gate having no creativity, just stealing ideas from others. That's why Apple churn out so many innovative products.

KatherineCopas
KatherineCopas

I've always wanted a tablet that doubled as a notebook, I've heard good things about the WACOM iPad stylus, but I've never been able to test it myself. They aren't that expensive (About 30-40 bucks depending on where you order them from) but they appear to be a bit thick on the drawing end, and they look a little awkward to hold. http://wacom.com/en/Products/Bamboo/BambooStylus.aspx

jojoberry82
jojoberry82

I hear you but I'm not someone that can do something about it nor would I if I could because to me, handwriting and penmenship seems so archaic. I understand that there is a small market that would like to see a product like that but I would have to imagine that its a VERY small market and not worth putting money into a major product like a tablet. especially concidering how few people would be drawn to it ... sorry, but thats my take.

jor55
jor55

The comment in proper English should have read: "It reminds me of what Steve Jobs said about Microsoft's Bill Gates having no creativity; (he) just steals ideas from others. That's why Apple churns out so many innovative products." Bad grammar, syntax and spelling can detract from the impact of a statement and make the speaker appear considerably less intelligent than he or she really is. I don't think there is as much lack of creativity on the part of Bill Gates as the writer alludes. Saying that Bill Gates "steals ideas" is borderline slander. We all have at one time or another seen an idea or concept that inspires us to at least think about a better version or an alternative version. If anything, Mr. Gates has been too conservative, less inclined to take risks. Steve Jobs, when he came back to Apple, realized that he had to take a 'make or break' risk to bring Apple back into the marketplace. Steve Jobs had a superb ability to analyze and take calculated risks. Some were bad, but many more were really good which more than made up for the losses incurred from the risks that didn't pan out. In the case of the Courier Tablet, Mr. Gates and staff assumed that their new product would be eclipsed by the I-Pad (just on popularity and the name alone) and my guess is that he and his staff were still suffering from "Zune Shell-shock" which made them change their mind about marketing a good product. My guess is that the fear of being trumped again by Apple caused them to make a stupid decision to limit marketing of the Courier.

Jonathon Dogue
Jonathon Dogue

I can't tell you how many notebooks I have around the house so I can capture thoughts, ideas, notes, etc. I'd love to have something that would fill the position. And no, it will never be an IPad or any other Apple device. Between their offensive, misleading, denigrating marketing strategies, their fallacious claims about inventing everything from the mouse, MP3 player, and Pad computer, and finally their overwhelmingly smarmy, elitist following, they won't ever get a red cent from me.

rmazzeo
rmazzeo

- between "penmenship" & "penmanship"...

bsauer
bsauer

A device that you could take to a meeting and handwrite/jot down notes with a stylus would find a HUGE following in the business world. I have been in consulting for twenty years and I know a large segment of people who would buy such a device just for that feature alone.

stephanisat_z
stephanisat_z

and handwriting are not archaic. As a trainer, end user, translator between techs and users, and a mom, I write things down all the time, and so do the majority of people in the working world. While there are some paperless offices, sticky notes, spiral notebooks, and planners are around for a reason. Sometimes people have to write, not type or say, something in order to remember it.

warwickwakefield
warwickwakefield

The people who would utilize it are the people who know the difference between "consider" and "concider".

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