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.

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.