Microsoft cancels Courier tablet project

By | 28/08/2022

Steve Ballmer had a dilemma. He had two groups at Microsoft pursuing competing visions for tablet computers.

One group, led by Xbox godfather J Allard, was pushing for a sleek, two-screen tablet chosen the Courier that users controlled with their finger or a pen. Only information technology had a problem: It was running a modified version of Windows.

That ran headlong into the vision of tablet computing laid out by Steven Sinofsky, the head of Microsoft’southward Windows division. Sinofsky was wary of whatever product–allow alone one from within Microsoft’s walls–that threatened the foundation of Microsoft’southward flagship operating system. But Sinofsky’due south tablet-friendly version of Windows was more than ii years away.

For Ballmer, it wasn’t an piece of cake call. Allard and Sinofsky were cardinal executives at Microsoft, both tabbed as the next-generation brain trust. And so Ballmer sought advice from the ane tech visionary he’s trusted more whatsoever other over the decades–Nib Gates. Ballmer arranged for Microsoft’s chairman and co-founder to meet for a few hours with Allard; his boss, Entertainment and Devices division President Robbie Bach; and ii other Courier team members.

Concept photo of Microsoft’south Courier tablet


At one point during that coming together in early 2010 at Gates’ waterfront offices in Kirkland, Launder., Gates asked Allard how users get east-mail service. Allard, Microsoft’s executive hipster charged with keeping tabs on computing trends, told Gates his squad wasn’t trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also accept a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get eastward-postal service from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the coming together.

But the device wasn’t intended to be a computer replacement; it was meant to complement PCs. Courier users wouldn’t want or need a feature-rich e-mail application such every bit Microsoft’south Outlook that lets them switch to chat views in their inbox or back up offline e-mail reading and writing. The key to Courier, Allard’south team argued, was its focus on content creation. Courier was for the creative fix, a gadget on which architects might begin to sketch building plans, or writers might begin to typhoon documents.

“This is where Pecker had an allergic reaction,” said one Courier worker who talked with an attendee of the coming together. As is his style in production reviews, Gates pressed Allard, challenging the logic of the approach.

Information technology’s not hard to understand Gates’ response. Microsoft makes billions of dollars every yr on its Exchange e-mail server software and its Outlook electronic mail application. While heated debates are common in Microsoft’s development process, Gates’ concerns didn’t bode well for Courier. He conveyed his opinions to Ballmer, who was gathering data from others at the company besides.

Within a few weeks, Courier was cancelled because the production didn’t clearly align with the company’due south Windows and Office franchises, according to sources. A few months after that, both Allard and Bach announced plans to leave Microsoft, though both executives have said their decisions to move on were unrelated to the Courier cancellation.

The story of Microsoft’s Courier has only been told in pieces. And nix has been disclosed publicly about the infighting that led to the innovative device’s expiry. This article was pieced together through interviews with 18 current and old Microsoft executives, also equally contractors and partners who worked on the projection. None of the Microsoft employees, both current and former, would talk for attribution because they worried about potential repercussions. Microsoft’s acme spokesman, Frank Shaw, offered just a cursory annotate for this story and otherwise declined to make Microsoft’southward senior executives available.

“At whatsoever given time, we’re looking at new ideas, investigating, testing, incubating them,” Shaw said in a statement when word leaked in April 2010 that
Courier had been cancelled. “It’southward in our DNA to develop new form factors and natural user interfaces to foster productivity and creativity. The Courier project is an example of this type of effort. It will exist evaluated for use in future offerings, but nosotros take no plans to build such a device at this time.”

While the internal fight over Courier occurred about xviii months ago, the implications of the decision to kill the incubation project reverberate today. Rather than creating a bear on computing device that might well have launched within a few months of Apple’s iPad, which debuted in April 2010, Microsoft direction chose a strategy that’s forcing it to come from backside. The company cancelled Courier inside a few weeks of
the iPad’s launch. Now it plans
to rely on Windows 8, the operating system that volition likely debut at the end of next year, to run tablets.

Courier’s death also offers a detailed await into Microsoft’s Darwinian arroyo to product development and the balancing deed betwixt protecting its old product franchises and creating new ones. The company, with ninety,000 employees, has plenty of bright minds that tin can come up with revolutionary approaches to computing. But sometimes, their creativity is stalled past procedure, subsumed in other products, or even sacrificed to protect the company’south Windows and Office empires.

‘Not a whim’

Courier was much more than a clever vision. The team, which had more than 130 Microsoft employees contributing to information technology, had created several prototypes that gave a articulate sense virtually the type of experience users would get. At that place were still tough hardware and software issues to resolve when Microsoft pulled the plug. But an employee who worked on Courier said the project was far enough along that the remaining work could take been completed in months if the company had added more people to the team. Microsoft’south Shaw disputes that.

“There was all-encompassing work done on the business concern, the engineering science and the experience,” said a member of the Courier team. “Information technology was very complete, not a whim.”

Ballmer and Microsoft’s senior leadership decided to bet solely on Sinofsky’s Windows vision for the company’s tablet strategy. Though it crushed some innovative work from dedicated employees, that decision had plenty of logic to it. Corporate customers may exist more inclined to use a Windows tablet than, say, Apple’s iPad, because those devices volition likely include well-known management and security tools that should make them easy to plug into secure corporate networks.

A new survey by the Boston Consulting Grouping plant that more than 40 percent of current tablet users in the U.s.a. want a tablet that runs Windows. That number jumps to 53 pct when non-tablet owners are included. The reason: familiarity with Windows, which still runs nearly xc percentage of all PCs sold.

“They think a mutual operating system will make this experience seamless across devices,” said Boston Consulting senior partner and managing manager John Rose. “The products will be introduced, and they’ll be ameliorate (than the iPad) or they won’t be.”

Ballmer went out of his mode to
underscore Microsoft’south Windows strategy
at the company’s fiscal analysts meeting last month, which it held concurrently with a conference where Microsoft wooed more than than 5,000 developers to the Windows eight platform for tablets.

“The showtime matter, which I hope is obvious, near our point of view is Windows is at the eye,” Ballmer told analysts. “Certainly I tin can read plenty of places where people will question whether that’south a skillful idea or not. I think information technology’s an exceptionally skilful idea.”

But using Windows as the operating system for tablets also implies that Microsoft will update the devices’ operating systems on the Windows time frame, typically every three years. Compare that to Apple tree, which seems likely to go on to update the iPad annually, a tactic that drives a raft of new sales each time a new generation hits the market. By the time Windows 8 rolls out, Apple will likely have introduced its iPad 3. Moreover, Amazon’due south
much anticipated Kindle Fire
tablet, which goes on auction Nov 15, will take nigh a year head start on the Windows-powered tablet offerings.

On the other hand, Courier, with its modified version of Windows, could accept been updated more oft than the behemoth operating system itself.

How far behind is Microsoft? Tablet makers sold 17.6 million devices in 2010, and are on a pace to sell 63.3 million more this year, according to industry annotator Gartner. In 2012, the firm expects sales to bound to 103.5 million devices. Just four.three million of those tablets, the ones that continue sale at the end of the year when Windows 8 debuts, volition run Windows, according to the firm. Gartner expects Apple’s game-irresolute iPad to go along to boss with a two-thirds share.

Building consumer muscle

Microsoft counted on Allard, more than any other senior executive in the terminal decade, to help it figure out how to achieve the types of consumers who are now racing to buy iPads. Once an Internet wonk who helped a mid-1990s Microsoft wake up to the Web, Allard led the team that created Microsoft’southward biggest non-PC consumer success story–the Xbox video game business. Ever willing to stand up to leadership, Allard successfully argued that Windows wasn’t suitable to power the video game console, something Gates wasn’t initially bang-up on.

The success of the Xbox led Microsoft to create its Entertainment and Devices division under Bach. And Bach tapped the chrome-domed Allard to be his chief visionary.

Allard is a downhill mountain-biking bedlamite, who co-founded a cycling team, dubbed Projection 529, whose name is intended to reflect the squad’south after-hours passion, what they practice from five p.m. to 9 a.chiliad. He oftentimes used Apple tree products, such as the iPod or the Mac, much to the disdain of some Microsoft colleagues. While he has serious engineering chops, Allard besides appreciated the importance of design, creating studios, rather than traditional office space, where his teams toiled. A primal Allard trait: challenging convention.

Gizmodo broke the Courier story
in September 2009, posting leaked pictures of what the device might wait like and how it might work. Rather than the single screen that consumers have come to know as a tablet, Courier would accept had two screens, each most seven inches diagonally. The device would have folded in half like a book. Information technology would have supported both touch on and pen-based computing. The gadget-loving site drooled over what it had constitute.

“It feels similar the whole globe is holding its breath for the Apple tablet,” Gizmodo wrote. “But mayhap we’ve all been dreaming about the wrong device. This is Courier, Microsoft’s amazing take on the tablet.”

The gadget was the creation of Allard’s skunkworks design performance Pioneer Studios and Alchemie Ventures, a research lab that likewise reported to Allard. (The lab took the German language spelling of “abracadabra” to highlight the stereotypical Teutonic traits of structure and regiment it hoped to bring to its innovation procedure.) The 2 groups were created to identify consumer experiences that Microsoft could develop and hatch.

“Our job is to incubate those and work with the production teams to bring them to market place,” said Pioneer’s co-founder Georg Petschnigg in a video posted to Microsoft’south developer Web site last year.

Allard created Alchemie to focus on innovation process to make sure that the efforts of Pioneer were not scattershot. It studied best practices, both inside and outside Microsoft, to “design a repeatable, predictable and measurable approach for building new business organization” for Bach’s division, according to the Alchemie Ventures Toolkit, an internal Microsoft book reviewed by CNET.

“If Microsoft wants to truly implement constructive and sustainable incubation, nosotros have to embrace rigorous, repeatable, and measurable processes–and make those processes bachelor to everyone,” Alchemie’southward full general manager Giorgio Vanzini wrote in the book.

Courier was born from the minds of both groups. And while Apple was working on its iPad at the same time, Courier was designed to exist something entirely dissimilar. The iPad is all about content consumption–surfing the Spider web, watching videos, playing games. Courier was focused on content creation–drafting documents, brainstorming concepts, jotting down ideas.

“Nosotros weren’t fearful of it,” a Courier worker said of the iPad. “Nosotros were doing something dissimilar.”

Early on, the group opted to use Windows for Courier’s operating system. Just it wasn’t a version of Windows that whatsoever consumer would recognize. The Courier team tweaked the operating organization to make sure it could perform at high levels with touch- and pen-based computing. What’s more, the graphical shell of Windows–the interface that computer users acquaintance with the operating system–was entirely removed. So while information technology was Windows under the hood, the abode screens bore zilch resemblance to the familiar PC desktop.

Creating a new approach

The Courier group wasn’t interested in replicating Windows on a tablet. The team wanted to create a new approach to calculating. The metaphor they used was “digital Moleskine,” a nod to the leather-bound notebooks favored in the design world. In fact, co-ordinate to a few squad members, a small-scale group led by Petschnigg flew to Milan, Italy, to choice the brains of the designers at Moleskine to sympathize how they’ve been able to create such loyal customers.

“Moleskine was interested only a little perplexed,” said one executive who worked on the Courier project.

Designers working on Courier came upwardly with clever notions for how digital paper should work. One of the ideas was to create “smart ink,” giving text, for case, mathematical backdrop. Then when a user wrote “5+viii=” on, say, digital graph paper, the number “thirteen” would fill up in the equation automatically. Additionally, if users selected lined digital paper, words would snap to each line as they were jotted down.

The phrase at the core of the Courier mission was “Free Create.” It was meant to depict the notion of eliminating the processes and protocols that productivity software often imposes on workers.

“Complimentary Create is a simple argument that acts as a rallying weep, uniting the consumer’s core need and Courier’s cadre benefit,” reads a passage in an internal Microsoft book memorializing the Courier effort, reviewed past CNET, that was given to the team after the projection was shuttered. “Gratuitous Create is a natural way to digitally write, sketch and gather inspiration by blending the familiarity of the pen, the intuition of touch, the simplicity of the book and the advantages of software and services.”

It’southward articulate there were substantial resources behind the effort. The commemorative book, designed to resemble the journal-like look of the Courier, lists the 134 employees who contributed to the gadget’s cosmos. Moreover, Petschnigg writes on his LinkedIn profile page that he “managed $3.five (one thousand thousand) seed funding, (and) secured $20 (million) to develop this new product category.”

Those funds helped build a multi-disciplinary team. It included interaction designers, who worked on new interfaces using pen- and touch on-computing. There were as well employees who worked on software to synchronize data from the Courier to Web-based services. The projection had moved far enough along that there was staff that worked on brand strategy, advertisement, retail planning, and partner marketing. Courier even had a securely considered logo, something of a squiggle that looks a scrap similar an ampersand, meant to evoke the doodling that frequently is the start of a artistic process.

“The Courier logo expresses the free-flow and formation of ideas,” reads the description of the logo in the commemorative book. “It references unproblematic scribbles that are oft the beginning of new ideas.”

While the software prototypes ran on existing tablet PCs built by Microsoft’s partners, they didn’t run across the performance goals for Courier. Then Allard’south squad as well worked with several hardware makers, including Samsung, to create hardware prototypes.

“It was not off-the-shelf tech,” said a Courier team member. “There is no commercial product today that meets the specs we had for information technology. Information technology was highly demanding and innovative and no one partner had all of the pieces.”

When Courier died, at that place was not a unmarried paradigm that independent all of the attributes of the vision: the industrial design, the screen performance, the software feel, the correct weight, and the bombardment life. Those existed individually, created in parallel to go on the evolution process moving quickly. Those prototypes wouldn’t take come up together into a single unit of measurement until very late in the development process, perhaps weeks before manufacturing, which is common for cutting-edge consumer electronics design. Simply on the team, there was little doubt that they were moving quickly toward that concluding epitome.

“Nosotros were on the cusp of something really big,” said one Courier squad member.

In late 2009, before the iPad had launched, the Courier team recognized the market for tablets was ready to explode. It laid out a detailed engineering science schedule and fabricated the instance to Microsoft’south top contumely that Courier could be a revolutionary device that would define a new product category. The squad put forward a vision that Microsoft could create a new market rather than chasing down a leader or defending an established product.

“J (was) incubating with his tribe, very much thinking consumer and very much thinking the next few years,” a former Microsoft executive said. “He was trying to disrupt Microsoft, which hasn’t been good at consumer products.”

In fact, one of the mandates of Alchemie was to look only at product ideas and business concern concepts that were no farther than iii years into the future. The Alchemie book includes something of an innovation process route map that lays out four “gates” that ideas needed to pass through to move from incubation to product development. And a source said that Courier had made it through all four gates.

And so why did Courier dice? The answer lies in an understanding of Microsoft’southward history and civilisation.

Editor’due south note: This is role 1 in a ii-part series. Coming tomorrow: how two ascent Microsoft executives differed on the company’due south vision for tablet calculating, in “How Windows 8 KO’d the innovative Courier tablet.”