On Microsoft's Courier Tablet, Fear, Disruption, and the Future

Microsoft Courier

Jay Greene, writing for CNET, delves into the fascinating story surrounding the death of Microsoft's Courier tablet. Initially leaked by Gizmodo in 2009, the concept device came to embody the vision of the ideal path for Microsoft and its PC division. Embracing new ideas and paradigms regarding the future of the PC, J Allard's project appeared destined for success.

And yet, the Courier never became official, and later, Allard -- the product's chief designer -- left the company. Although he stated that it was not due to the death of the Courier project, CNET seems to demonstrate otherwise.

According to Greene's source, Bill Gates had "allergic reaction" to the prospective tablet, disappointed that it did not embrace Windows or Office, Microsoft's primary revenue-generating product lines. While this is not a difficult response to comprehend, it underlines the most common criticisms Microsoft faces in the modern market in regard to innovation and stagnation.

Often portrayed as being afraid of change, Microsoft's Courier project highlights the fact that there is (at the very least) a contingent within the vast company willing to embrace new trends. At the same time, the project highlights the apparent willingness to stifle bold innovation despite popular demand.

Joshua Topolsky sums up Microsoft's problems rather aptly in his piece on Windows 8 for the Washington Post:

Apple has succeeded where Microsoft has failed because of its willingness to take risks and because of its uncanny habit for predicting what users want before they know that themselves. And that’s what makes Windows 8 so frustrating.

Microsoft has produced an operating system advanced enough to not just see around the bend, but to be what is around that bend. In many ways, the Windows 8 interface outclasses what Apple and Google are doing in the tablet space by being cleaner, simpler and more intuitive.

But Microsoft has to go all the way. This cannot be a half-step or a feint. If the company believes in the new product it has built, it needs to make it the focus of the Windows experience, not just an afterthought or view you can casually switch in and out of.

At the end of the day, the Courier project may prove to be a mere bump in the road for Microsoft. With billions in revenue for their products, and with a version of Windows on the horizon that the vast majority will be happy with, perhaps they do not need to concern themselves with innovation? While the company may have begun its life that way, perhaps this need not be the case today? Or perhaps the Windows Phone and Xbox cultures will successfully infiltrate and influence Microsoft in future? 

Honestly, with Mr. Ballmer at the helm, who knows what lies in wait for the technology giant.

For right now, though, Greene's article provides an interesting window onto the culture within Microsoft, and the somewhat tragic demise of a once promising product. Anything else is mere speculation.