Bill Gates strangled Microsoft's 'tablet for creatives'
Windows, Office cannibalization concerns killed the Courier
New details have emerged about who, why, and how Microsoft killed off its Courier dual-display tablet 18 months ago. The simple answers: Bill Gates, Windows, and abruptly.
As Greene tells it, there were two competing tablet efforts in Redmond at the dawn of the decade. One was headed by Xbox "godfather" J Allard, which was working on the Courier, a device designed for creatives. The other was a Windows-centric vision espoused by Steven Sinofsky, the head of Microsoft's Windows group.
CEO Steve Ballmer had to choose between the two – not any easy call: both Allard and Sinofsky were powerful Redmonians with bright futures in the company. What's more, Allard's Courier was well along in development, while Sinofsky's Windows-for-tablets was at least two years from seeing the light of day.
Ballmer, writes Greene, "sought advice from the one tech visionary he's trusted more than any other over the decades." Yes, that'd be Bill Gates.
The Courier – a device for creatives, not a support system for Office and Exchange
Ballmer arranged a meeting between Gates, Allard, the president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division Robbie Bach, and two members of the Courier team.
It was at that meeting that the Courier's fate was sealed.
Gates reportedly asked Allard how Courier users would receive email on the device. Allard replied that the tablet wasn't conceived to be an email device in and of itself – it was intended as as complement to such email-capable devices as smartphones and PCs.
"This is where Bill had an allergic reaction," a Courier team member told Greene. Gates wanted to protect Microsoft cash cows such as Office, Exchange, and Outlook, and the Courier – although it ran Windows at its core, albeit with a completely different user interface – was not a Windows machine, per se.
Within weeks, Courier was cancelled. Sinofsky's belief that any Microsoft tablet offering should be based firmly upon Windows – along with its apps, tools, and corporate connectivity infrastructure – had won.
Apple's iPad was released three weeks before the Courier's cancellation – and we know how well that proprietary-OS device has succeeded. Sinofsky's tablet-capable Windows 8, on the other hand, will likely not be released until mid-2012 at the earliest.
With the end of the Courier project – which Greene's sources say was close to fruition – Apple gained a heady head start, and swallowed great chunks of market share in the process.
Both Allard and Bach left Microsoft a month after the Courier's death – although, as Greene points out, "both executives have said their decisions to move on were unrelated to the Courier cancellation."
It may have helped Bach's decision that at a strategy review the previous December, Sinofsky was said to have referred to the entertainment and devices division head's "continued failure in the mobile space."
Whether the Courier would have added to what Sinofsky branded as Bach's failures in the "mobile space," or proved a worthy competitor to Apple über-successful fondleslab will never be known.
There does remain a slim flicker of hope that the Courier may rise again – after all, Microsoft was granted a patent on the concept in June of last year – but The Reg is not holding its collective breath.
It's too late. ®
email is easy to fix
The problem is, Windows on tablets sucks and always has. It's an old problem -- a KVM-centric interface trying to work on a touch screen. Apple solved this by designing a different interface on top of their existing kernel. The Courier was a step in that direction, but protectionism prevented them from following through. Again.
A tablet running Windows isn't really a tablet. It's a laptop with a touch screen that has temporarily had it's keyboard and mouse disconnected. With Windows 7, Microsoft rebranded their accessibility suite as "tablet edition", and it works about as well as you'd expect. It looks like Windows 8 is rebranding Media Center as Metro. And that will work about as well as you'd expect. For real work, you're still going to need a keyboard and a mouse. And that's not a tablet. They'll see an initial spike as all-Microsoft environments try to make them work, but they'll end up with a tiny percentage of the marketplace, just like the other times they tried to come out with a tablet.
The only thing that might have worked was a different approach. But as we've seen, different approaches are not tolerated.
>Gates reportedly asked Allard how Courier users would receive email on the device
See, much as I dislike him, this is why he got rich. He understands the real world, not some sort of fantasy like the RIM people have.
I still don't like his company, but he goes up in my estimation again.
This is why MS hasn't innovated significantly in decades - they're more worried about preserving existing monopolies than blazing new trails.
He was right - somewhat
But surely a courier with a set of apps capable of interoperating with standard windows apps would have had far more chance of competing in the tablet market than a 2 1/2 year late windows 8 tablet will.
So they can spend tons of effort on a project, and when it is almost done, have a meeting to see what they want and if this project fits? Sounds like the right management technique. Not.