Why Microsoft killed the Courier tablet

The short version: it was killed because making a cut-down Windows for tablets would "threaten" the desktop version that runs on all the hugely successful UMPC/MID/Slate tablets (pictured) that gave Microsoft its unassailable lead over Apple and Android. Then Bill Gates asked where the Exchange client was and had an allergic reaction when iPads were explained to him. [Cnet]


    1. Mark, you just lost a fan. This inane comment shows that you are both blindly biased and lack professionalism.

  1. The Courier was Microsoft’s most innovative and exciting product in years. It’s the only tablet I was looking for — the only one built so users could create stuff instead of just consume stuff. The first leaks came before Apple announced the iPad which, I felt, was just a big iPod Touch. The cancellation of the Courier confirmed to me that Microsoft is now too big and cumbersome to innovate and change the world anymore. They had a great project in their hands, but they failed to recognize it, prefering to focus on good old Windows.

    1. If only the Courier had been quad-screen, or even octo-screen, THEN they’d have had a winner on their hands.

    2. I was disappointed that the Courier never came to be, but moved on. Not Microsoft bashing here, but Microsoft has never really innovated. Before Microsoft Office there were better spreadsheet and word processing programs available. Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were business standards.  Everything changed when Windows 3.1 was introduced and suddenly Microsoft had the upper hand, which Gates leveraged to his advantage. Windows was not an innovation either, but was slightly better than what was available in the DOS environment and businesses ate it up.

      Internet Explorer was not the first or best browser. It wasn’t until IE 3 that Microsoft began leveraging the product (offering it for free)! Netscape couldn’t compete with free (though it certainly tried).

      As for innovation, perhaps Microsoft Bob, and we all know where that went.

      Seriously, Microsoft has always been about making a slightly better product than whatever exists and leveraging it. As much as I hate to admit it, Apple does innovate, but then stifle the growth by overpricing and draconian control.

      1. What growth? 

        Their own? They seem to do fine, apart from being able to produce as fast as they can during i-Launches.

        Others growth? Makes no sense to claim that, as overpricing on Apple’s part would enable others to undercut their price and still make a a profit. 

        1. Clearly it’s a much better idea to grow super- fast with barely any quality controls or coordination. Heck, it works for cancer. 

      2. “Microsoft Bob, and we all know where that went”
        It went on to become Valve Software, so it didn’t do too badly, in the end :)

        As for the overpricing… That legendary overpricing must be why it took two years for rival tablets to come down to the iPad’s price, or why Intel had to set up a fund to help other companies make ultrabooks at a price competitive with the MacBook Air, no? Seriously, that meme is as old and relevant as bringing up the BSOD whenever someone mentions Microsoft.

    3. Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t the word “product” imply something that is produced? The Courier was never a product, and as far as pie-in-the-sky ideas go, I’ve seen better.

  2. Ack, I hate to be one to defend Microsoft, but this is too easy bashing. I’m just going to quote verbatim a user on HN, whose comment is too spot-on to paraphrase:
    “This is one of those stories in which the facts are construed to fit the conventional wisdom regarding Microsoft, e.g. no mention of WP7 which was announced and previewed in the quarter immediately prior to the Courier’s cancellation, no mention of the investment Microsoft made in development of the Metro interface, and of course no mention of the manufacturing costs inherent in a dual screen device or the energy such a device would consume with mainstream technology.
    Instead, there is the criticism that Microsoft is not enough like Apple (and a focus on personalities).
    When manufacturers don’t see a way to build and sell dual screen tablets at a profit, Microsoft won’t sell much of the software to run them. It is not as if Microsoft doesn’t have the enough experience as a hardware provider to evaluate the economics of going it alone versus partnering with the electronics industry. And partnering with the electronics industry rather than competing as a manufacturer has – with the exception of the XBOX in a market dominated by proprietary hardware – been a highly successful course.
    Finally, it is not as if the design decisions underlying the courier are dead – a viable dual screen tablet is still as plausible today as it was when the iPad started shipping and there is no reason such a device could not run with a Metro interface or that the technology developed as part of the Courier project could not be incorporated.What was killed was a project which required forking the Windows roadmap in ways analogous to past Microsoft decisions and which led to Windows Mobile becoming a dead end overnight – never mind that a mobile device without email probably would have been stillborn.” – brugders, source

  3. Steve Jobs was profoundly and damningly correct when he said that “Microsoft has absolutely no taste.”

    1. It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilize and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.
      Salvador Dalí 

      Good taste is the first refuge of the non creative. It is the last ditch stand of the artist.
      Marshall Mcluhan

      Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.
      Pablo Picasso

      1. Actually, the two groups (and you) and Steve Jobs (and Brian C.) speak of different things.

        It’s quite obvious when you take the adjective into account.

  4. “When Courier died, there was not a single prototype that contained all of the attributes of the vision: the industrial design, the screen performance, the software experience, the correct weight, and the battery life. Those existed individually, created in parallel to keep the development process moving quickly. Those prototypes wouldn’t have come together into a single unit until very late in the development process, perhaps weeks before manufacturing, which is common for cutting-edge consumer electronics design.”

    How do you “kill” something that never came close to even existing ? Unless you’ve never worked on a project more complicated than a grade 3 diorama, its impossible that everything would just ‘glue together’ a few weeks before its made. 

    So Microsoft kills this awesome but pretend product, then just last week released a ‘Microsoft world vision of the future’ video that basically just has stuff from Courier in it. Yup.

  5. To be fair, Bill having an “allergic reaction” to news that it wouldn’t have an “Exchange client” is probably a good thing. Allard’s thinking that people don’t want an email program on a tablet is pretty foolish; email is the primary way that people communicate with each other and share things like pictures, appointment invitations, presentations, etc that would be used on a device like the Courier. It seems from watching the video mockups that Allard thought that the journals would be shared – perhaps as OneNote-like objects, as web-accessible spaces, or maybe just between Courier users. Either way, the lack of a robust (Exchange, whatever) email client would have been crippling for the Courier. Of course, the solution is not to kill it, but instead to build an Exchange client for it. Could it have competed with the iPad in time? Who knows – Microsoft’s never been great at execution even when they’ve been following great ideas. Either way it’s pretty clear that ditching most of that project, and some of the key people in the process, was a huge mistake.

    1. Allard’s thinking that people don’t want an email program on a tablet is pretty foolish; email is the primary way that people communicate with each other and share things like pictures, appointment invitations, presentations, etc that would be used on a device like the Courier.

      Thats weird. Didn’t they know about the blackberry?

  6. I have to admit that when I read about the Courier, I couldn’t believe that such a great concept originated at Microsoft.  When I heard the project had been canceled, I was able to stop suspending my disbelief.

    There are good arguments above that maybe Microsoft really didn’t “kill” the courier, so much as they just failed to make it work.  Either way, it’s a big failing.  The idea behind the courier was  exciting, and a good tech company is all about the practical realization of exciting ideas.

  7. My lord, that thing Ballmer is holding is ugly. He looks like a politician posing with a child that he doesn’t particularly want to be seen with and certainly doesn’t want to touch.

  8. From the article:

    “The iPad is all about content consumption–surfing the Web, watching videos, playing games. Courier was focused on content creation–drafting documents, brainstorming concepts, jotting down ideas.”

    This is why I never read Cnet. You can’t do these things on an iPad? Are two smaller 7 inch screens more conducive to the creation of content? Meanwhile, Apple released GarageBand for the iPhone that is a universal app that works on the iPad because it’s made for consumption.

    The assumption that the Courier would’ve been a hit is asinine. Just because people are comfortable with Windows does not mean they will always buy a MS device (See WP7 sales). Cnet has always played the role of the loyal dog to MS.

    1. The two screens of the Courier weren’t what made it good for content creation. They seemed useful — you could, say, have a web page open on one screen while taking notes on the other and copy-pasting bits from one to the other, or take notes while watching a video lecture — but the real innovation was the interface. Being able to use a pen and fingers at the same time through a simple interface is brilliant. Drawing, jotting down mathematical equations and hand writing is a lot easier with a stylus than on a touch screen.

      For me, the Courier was the virtual notebook, while the ipad is a way to browse the web from the couch — two completely different devices for two completely different purposes. Frankly, I think a lot of people here would be calling this device “magical” if it had the same videos to describe how it worked, but had an Apple logo instead of a Microsoft logo in the corner.

      (By the way, you do all realize that the photo accompanying this article is a bad photoshop job of a device that’s definitely not a Courier, right?)

      1. Being able to view two things at once on two 7 inch screens doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to create content. One could easily argue that doing things like drawing and video editing are more difficult to do on a smaller screen. Also, you can use a stylus on an iPad. 

        I’m not saying that the Courier couldn’t do content creation but it’s absurd to say that the iPad can’t. The argument made against the iPad has always been that you can’t create because of the touchscreen.

        >Frankly, I think a lot of people here would be calling this device “magical” if it had the same videos to describe how it worked, but had an Apple logo instead of a Microsoft logo in the corner

        There was a lot of excitement about the Courier. There wouldn’t be stories written about it a year and a half later for a product that never really existed if that wasn’t the case.

  9. “Taste” is the mistaken idea that your likes and dislikes have some sort of physical existence outside of your own skull.
     By misapplying your concept of taste to something as opposed to investigating that things utility, you simply insult yourself.

    1. By misapplying your concept of taste to something as opposed to investigating that things utility, you simply insult yourself.

      The problem I have with Microsoft is that they seem to believe that “taste” and “utility” are diametrically opposed concepts, at least for the products that ultimately make it to market.

      A good design doesn’t trade form for function, it allows function to shape form in an aesthetically pleasing way. The tablet Ballmer is holding in that photo might be the most capable device of its kind for all I know, but it still looks like a prop from an ’80s sci-fi flick. He doesn’t even appear to be sure how to hold the damn thing.

        1. Solipsistic comment is solipsistic.

          When you say ‘solipsistic’, do you mean a phenomenological ‘solipsistic’ or an epistemological ‘solipsistic’?

  10. Still waiting for my Microsoft Surface coffee table to come along and Change Everything.

    I swear… was Kinect something that managed to fly in under some Redmond potentate’s radar because they thought it was just a game peripheral?

  11. I think that people who believe the iPad to be for “content consumption,” playing games, watching videos etc., either don’t have one or, if they do, have never taken the time to see just how much you can do with them. Editing movies on an iPad with iMovie is easier in many ways than using a mouse and keyboard. Garageband is a lot of fun. Sure, it’s limited, but it’s quick and easy to compose your own songs. Pages produces very good looking text documents. Mail works perfectly.

    My iPad isn’t heavy, but if I had the hard copy of all the dictionaries and reference books in it, I’d need a large wagon to carry them.

    If I have a lot of typing to do, I link up a Bluetooth keyboard. 

    My iPad started as an extension of my computer. Little by little, it’s gaining independence.

  12. Frankly, I think a lot of people here would be calling this device “magical” if it had the same videos to describe how it worked, but had an Apple logo instead of a Microsoft logo in the corner.

    Considering the device never actually materialized I think “mythical” is a more appropriate term.

    The difference between Apple and Microsoft is that Apple impresses people with devices you can actually buy rather than cool concept videos of things that never actually make it to market.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Microsoft has a very hard time turning their good ideas into actual products. But if you read the article, you’ll see that the Courier was pretty far along when they decided to kill it because it could threaten Windows’ position.

      Microsoft is just too big and inefficient now to really innovate and change the world anymore. It’s a textbook case of what was described in the book “The Innovator Dilemma”. They won’t sell cool new products because either they’d be too niche at first to be worth it for such a big corporation, or they’d be popular enough to threaten their established cash cow (Windows and Office). So instead they keep doing boring, safe products and they react to the market instead of leading it.

      On the other hand, Apple is so good at creating a community of fans that people still line up to buy incremental upgrades to their products.

  13. What’s interesting is how this underscores the lack of design (some would say “taste”) in the stuff MSFT shovels onto the market. Remember MSN, the dialup-only walled garden that was designed to emulate and then compete against AOL — just as everyone else was realizing the open Internet was the  real way forward? And then the whole reactionary turf war that ended up as DoJ monopoly case? 

    Consider this article against the video that was recorded in 1997, a keynote Q/A with Steve Jobs before he was back at Apple, where he lays out ideas that are recognizable as iCloud, the MacBook Air, the iOS-powered devices[*]. There is/was a throughline, a set of principles and ideas that Apple has been working on since that time. I don’t see any of that in the stuff that comes from MSFT. It’s imitative, derivative and rarely shows the attention to detail that we should expect from an outfit with so many resources. Apple is also in the business of selling stuff, hardware and software, but they do it by designing and selling products that meet their (or Steve Jobs’s) design and usability rules, not to fill a niche or grab shelf space. I would love to see their trash heap of discarded products. 

    Good design often means saying “no” to new features or directions, of reducing an implementation to the most essential ideas. Did you get a sense anyone understood that in the browser wars, with it’s frenzy of new html tags and rendering issues? Did anyone not see it as a parallel to the cold war arms race, where the richer player tries to make the other spend themselves into oblivion? And how much does this Courier device remind me of what the Newton message pad, circa 1995, might have evolved into as a free-form creative tool? 

    * http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2011/10/06/you_are_underestimating_the_future.html

  14. Courier was an internal marketing exercise and the outcome was Windows 8. It looks very good and will run on ARM powered devices aka Tablets.  I think Courier would have bombed whereas Win8 will do very well.  

  15. The problem is that vision is very different from execution.

    I doubt that the device would have worked as well as it did in the rendered video. If so, it would have been great. However the article states that there were still some major hurdles to overcome before the vision would be realized.

    1. Exactly this.  They had a bunch of prototypes and a video.  There’s no way I’d believe that they were a month a way from a polished product, if only MS had committed more developers, as one of the MS employees interviewed seems to believe.  Probably someone took a realistic look at what they had and how much a finished product would cost to manufacture, and the amount of work the software and hardware still needed, and pulled the cord.  I hope that some small group is still developing the idea inside MS, since it really does have some potential.

  16. I became convinced in the mid 90’s that historians in the year 2100 will conclude that human civilization would be more technologically advanced at that time if not for Microsoft.  Not that the company doesn’t produce some technologically creative software/hardware.  They just too often seem to lay up when they could’ve shot for the green.  Every time I see a Microsoft commercial I’m reminded of this.  Great production values, but there’s always something painfully awkward and off about them, as if all of the actors are wearing last year’s styles while desperately trying to fit in with the hipster crowd.  Whatever.

    Hey, it’s almost 2012, where’s my imPlant??

  17. Its pretty weird that people still believe that somebody can be succesfull by failing constantly… I like Apple, but cmon, its a lill lame to say that Microsoft sucks, or that they dont have taste. The guy killed the project like probably thousands of them before and for sure this guy called Gates is well qualified for taking this kind of decisions. This “Apple vs Microsoft” ended in the 90´s and they´ve becomed two really different kind of companies. Sound more like a bunch of snobbism to me.

  18. I read that article too and you and I both know you’ve seriously misrepresented it.

    Courier lost out in competition with a longer term project that is now becoming Windows 8.

  19. “The iPad is all about content consumption–surfing the Web, watching videos, playing games. Courier was focused on content creation–drafting documents, brainstorming concepts, jotting down ideas.”

    Because *nobody* makes any iPad apps that allow you to type, draw, paint, edit movies, make soundtracks, update blogs etc. And nobody makes a stylus that works on the iPad,

    Oh, wait…

  20. Would it have run SolidWorks? I create stuff using CAD programs, which are usable on laptops and prefer desktop computers. 

  21. Damn. I was hoping it would sync with my Zune… and it would be cool to be able to fire up Publisher and impress all the babes at FedEx Office.

  22. This innovation meme is interesting to me. What is innovation?
    Is it being the first with the idea? If so, which ideas were Apple first with?
    Is it successfully bringing an idea to a mass market? There Apple have a good case, but then so do Microsoft, and in objective monetary terms (at least up until now), they’ve been more successful at it.

    1. This innovation meme is interesting to me. What is innovation? Is it being the first with the idea? If so, which ideas were Apple first with?

      I’d say it has a lot to do with recognizing good ideas and bringing them together in a new and useful way. Apple didn’t invent the mouse, but unlike Xerox PARC they recognized its potential and used it to create the first personal computer with a graphic user interface. They didn’t invent the portable digital music player, but they created the design and software platform which made them so appealing. They weren’t the first to create a smartphone, but they were the first to create one that wasn’t a clunky limited-use business device.

      Microsoft has been a hugely successful company by most measures but with few exceptions their products haven’t been especially innovative. Apart from the Kinect I can’t think of a single thing they’ve sent to market that wasn’t basically a Microsoft-branded clone of a successful product that was already out there:

      Windows = Mac OS
      Word = WordPerfect / Wordstar / Etc.
      Zune = iPod
      Xbox = PlayStation / Dreamcast / Nintendo
      Windows Phone = (Wait, Microsoft sells smart phones?)

      1. Your argument lacks consistency. If innovation means creating something that isn’t clunky and/or realising its potential, then Word definitely qualifies compared to WordPerfect, excel qualifies compared to 1-2-3, windows server qualifies compared to unix etc.

        1. Word today is better than WordPerfect, but having used both in the 80s I didn’t really notice any major difference between contemporary versions. It’s certainly not as if the advent of Word fundamentally changed how people used word processing software.

          I can’t speak to Excel or Windows Server, but do you think either could be described as “innovative” or “revolutionary” to the markets they served? By that I mean “did they fundamentally how people use this technology,” not “did they eventually get a major market share.”

  23. I just finished reading Steve Job’s biography, so this post hits some key points brought up in it, namely that Microsoft just lacks product vision.

    I’m less worried about the crap Microsoft will make and more about the future of Apple, which was already making innovative products.

  24. I no longer fear Microsoft. Apple is big, powerful and continues to prove that they favor heavy handed tactics when dealing with consumers and competitors.

  25. A few thoughts. First, I wish ALL tech companies were more like Apple, in that when apple announces a product, it’s already on it’s way to the stores, not a glint in an enginnering team’s eye. Second, I would love to see a product from Microsoft that killed it’s main OS, because Windows seems a perpetual model of inefficiency and odd, counterintuitive design choices. Finally, all descriptions I’ve seen of this tablet remind me of that dual touchscreen notebook Toshiba had out the other year. An idea that never took off and was crushed by the Ultrabooks, notably Macbook Air. It was brilliant in many ways but over- priced for the market, and to be honest, had a laundry list of flaws, including a fan that worked so hard you could dry your hair with it.

  26. This is maybe the fourth article I’ve seen in the last few days defending Microsoft’s decision to kill the Courier tablet.  But if this things was so destined to fail then why are we still talking about this product that never existed and was killed off a long time ago?

  27. Just because we are talking about it doesn’t mean it would be successful. It’s just interesting to look at, that’s all. I used to cover technology as a reporter and believe me, there were plenty of technologies that got TONS of press but never found sales and never found a market (anyone remember the “Internet Appliances” of the early 2000s?).

    After reading the CNET article, it seems to me there are two things at play here:

    1. Microsoft was being short-sighted in resisting a modified version of Windows that was more streamlined for a slicker, less “work-horse” device. This is often their problem, offering software that relies on its wealth of features rather than what it is supposed to do for the end user.

    2. Alldard and his team were at fault for not finding a way for Courier to have mass market appeal. Making a device targeted to “creators” is niche and they should have found a way to pitch it as a device the niche market would like, but that the mass market would be attracted to, as well. For every 10 iPad owners, I’ll bet two are using it to “create” and the others are using it to consume content. That’s at the heart of the iPad. 

    I also think they got it wrong with the design. Two screens?? I can’t even imagine the list price. Cost does matter and this would have been too much for the mass market. Say what you will about Apple or the iPad, but a lot of credit has to be given to their industrial design teams, perhaps more than their software teams. They have more often than not “got” what consumers will like and find easy to use.

  28. Does everything have to be “A HIT”? 

    My goodness, take a walk down a cereal aisle. 

    When did the term “Niche Market” become an industry swear word?

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