Was Microsoft Right To Kill Off Courier Tablet?


Microsoft’s decision to kill off Courier was the right one, but could it have found a place with creative users, asks Nicholas Kolakowski

In April 2010, Microsoft announced its decision to kill the in-development project, which involved two touchscreens bound together along a central hinge. The book-style device would have offered users the ability to write notes or draw longhand, potentially drawing the interest of architects, designers, and other creative types.

Heading the Courier project was J Allard, who had shepherded the Xbox into production. According to CNET’s Jay Greene, who interviewed a number of unnamed company executives with knowledge of the company’s tablet deliberations, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer decided to eliminate Courier after a review that included input from Bill Gates.

Not a computer replacement

At the heart of the decision to terminate Courier was extreme prejudice: the device wasn’t intended to run Exchange or Outlook, instead pulling down email via the browser. “The device wasn’t intended to be a computer replacement,” Greene wrote. “The key to Courier, Allard’s team argued, was its focus on content creation.”

Gates, according to an unnamed Courier worker quoted in the article, had an “allergic reaction” to the concept. After all, Microsoft has grown on the concept of supplying an integrated ecosystem of software products, portable across a wide variety of form-factors. Something that operates outside that matrix is, well, an outlier.

Within weeks, according to Greene’s sources, “Courier was cancelled because the product didn’t clearly align with the company’s Windows and Office franchises.” By that point, the project had evolved into several prototypes, but still faced significant technological hurdles.

Instead, Microsoft decided to bet on Windows 8 and its dual focus on both tablets and traditional PCs. The upcoming operating system, due sometime in 2012, includes a start screen loaded with colourful tiles linked to applications, the better to manipulate with fingers. It also allows users to quickly switch to a “regular” desktop interface. In tablet mode, it will presumably play well with Office and other Microsoft legacy applications.

Not seeking niche markets

With Windows 8, Microsoft desires a hit in the mode of Windows 7, something that will sell hundreds of millions of licences, hydrating the company’s bottom line for years into the future. Courier seemed unlikely to achieve those sorts of numbers, with functionality that cast it as more of a niche offering. Nonetheless, should Microsoft have let Courier survive in a more limited capacity, perhaps as a piece of hardware aimed at the “creative” market?

Microsoft is not a company seeking niche markets. Ballmer has referred to Microsoft as a perpetual seeker of “high volume.”  Niche products cannot support the company’s gargantuan efforts (and equally gargantuan cash-burn) in search, the cloud, gaming, productivity, and other areas. For that reason alone, a project like Courier would appear D.O.A.

Had it reached completion and launched, Courier would have complicated Microsoft’s attempts to link tablets with Windows, thanks to its apparent lack of compatibility with the company’s legacy software. With its modified operating system, it could have confused Microsoft’s attempts to sell the story of Windows 8. And it might not have sold in sufficient volume to battle Apple’s iPad on its own terms. For those reasons, Microsoft felt justified in smothering the innovative tablet in its crib.