updated 09:25 am EDT, Tue November 1, 2011
Leak shows Courier killed for lack of Office tech
Microsoft's decision to kill the Courier tablet came after a meeting with former CEO Bill Gates himself, according to a new leak on Tuesday. Not willing to decide on his own whether Microsoft should embrace the book-like Courier or a more conventional tablet, current CEO Steve Ballmer turned to a presentation with Gates judging a presentation by Courier architect J Allard, then Entertainment & Devices head Robbie Bach, and a pair of project engineers, CNET heard. Gates reportedly had a virtual "allergic reaction" when Allard revealed that the Courier's emphasis on drawing, note-taking, and other content plans meant it wouldn't have native e-mail or otherwise tap directly into the Office or Windows ecosystems.
Creating some parallels with what led to the BlackBerry PlayBook's failure, Allard didn't feel a need to include an e-mail client. Those who needed it on-device could get it from the web, he said, and those that didn't would be more likely to have a smartphone or a computer. The Courier was to be a complement to a PC, not a substitute, he argued.
Along with input from others, Gates' advice led Ballmer to shutter the project just weeks later. Allard and Bach left months later, ostensibly for other reasons, although it's widely believed that the end of the Courier shook their confidence in the company's ability to get beyond its traditional base. Allard is well-known for not wanting to automatically tow the company line at Microsoft, having pushed it into game consoles with the Xbox, emphasizing design and aesthetics, and being willing to use Macs and other Apple products rather than limit himself to Windows-related hardware. His exit as a result wasn't surprising.
Leaving the Courier may have also ignored some important developments. The virtual paper interface would know what to do based on the context, such as answering a math question or snapping to lines. It would have embraced a concept called Free Create, which would have let users work in a more natural flow rather than follow traditional computer guidelines.
While the Courier might have faced trouble in the market, the reasons Gates and Ballmer chose echo the same that triggered complaints from the former Danger team of a Windows "cartel" at the company. Both of the CEOs are known to be very protective of the core Windows and Office businesses and have been regularly accused of killing or limiting projects that, while genuinely innovative, didn't fit narrowly into one or both of the two ecosystems. The Kin's early death has been attributed to possible sabotage that forced a rewrite at least partly because it was using original code, not Windows CE.
In tablets, Microsoft has decided to focus all its attention on Windows 8. While it includes Microsoft's first real tablet-optimized interface and will support energy-efficient ARM chips, concerns exist over whether a full desktop interface will appeal to an audience already trained on the iPad. Where Courier was potentially close to shipping before it was cancelled in April 2010, right as the iPad was shipping, Windows 8 won't be available until mid-to-late 2012, two years later and after Apple's tablet has outsold every Windows tablet PC ever made by a wide margin.