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Bill Gates strangled Microsoft's 'tablet for creatives'

Windows, Office cannibalization concerns killed the Courier

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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.

In a fascinating 3,000-word tale of woe and intrigue, Cnet's Jay Greene details the life and death of the Courier, and the internecine Microsoftian warfare that led to its demise.

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. ®

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