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iPad's biggest rival? Microsoft's dead Courier

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Open...and Shut Apple's iPad has been criticized as a super-sized version of the iPhone. While that criticism is mostly correct, it falls short in one key area: it's a heck of a lot easier to input information into an iPhone than into an iPad.

The reason? The iPad's virtual keyboard doesn't fit any familiar mode of content creation.

The Blackberry taught a generation to "two-thumb" text into a device, which the iPhone mimics on its virtual keyboard. If you've tried out the iPad, however, you know that its virtual keyboard is too big for "thumbing" text, and its full-sized keyboard doesn't effectively replicate the laptop typing experience either, because it requires a painful hovering over the keyboard. Painful.

All of which makes me wonder if Microsoft's Courier tablet died before its time.

Earlier this year, Microsoft decided to terminate the Courier, a dual-screened device that allowed for touch-based and pen-based inputs. In so doing, it just might have killed the only viable way to improve upon the iPad experience by facilitating the content creation experience in a way that the iPad resolutely fails to do.

Let's face it: the iPad is awesome if you just want to browse/watch/read content – movies, pictures, The Economist, whatever. But try to respond to any of that content, and you're largely going to be frustrated. Yes, you can get peripherals (e.g., a keyboard) that remove the pain, but they also remove the whole point of the iPad as a self-contained device.

Enter Microsoft. The company has always been about content creation. It has billions of dollars in quarterly profits from Office to prove it. If there's a company that can get this particular slant on tablet computing right, it's Microsoft. So why did Microsoft back out of the fight before it even began?

To paraphrase Andrew Marvell: If Microsoft had world enough and time, this coyness to compete would be no crime. But Redmond must compete now or never. Carriers have only bought 1.5 million Windows Phone 7 devices as of December 21. It's not touching iPhone or Android smartphones, in other words. Not yet.

And maybe never. Microsoft is apparently experimenting with ARM-based chips for mobile devices, but it's going to be too little, too late, particularly if all these new low-power Windows machines do is poorly ape the iPad experience. Rumors are also swirling about Windows Embedded Compact-based tablets at the upcoming CES. Again, too little, too late.

It's not that Microsoft needs to innovate new computing paradigms to be successful. Like Red Hat today, Microsoft's history has been riddled by repeated reapings of others' innovations. From Windows to Office to XBox, Microsoft's biggest successes have been refinements of others' inventions.

The problem is that Google has already done this to mobile computing. Android is to Apple's iOS what Microsoft Windows was to the Mac. There is no room for Microsoft to play "Me, too!" to iOS, because Android has already done so. Google is also working hard to hem in both Microsoft and Apple with its "nothing but the web" strategy, which hopes to minimize the importance of client-side software.

This leaves Microsoft with the fundamental genius it had in the Courier: content creation. It's different. It's important. It's consistent with Microsoft's DNA.

Now Microsoft just needs to deliver.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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