Microsoft Courier: the third weak link in a miserable mobile strategy
March 5th, 2010
Daniel Eran Dilger
Microsoft’s Courier concept has rapidly evolved over the last three years, but in rather random directions. It now says it will have the product finished by the end of 2010, an extremely ambitious goal for a company that simply could not deliver its last several product concepts within a year of announcing ETAs, including the Surface and Windows Mobile 7.
The problem is, even if Microsoft ships the Courier at some point, it will still suffer from the company’s randomly aimed shotgun strategy for delivering a viable mobile platform.
Microsoft originally detailed Courier as an initiative to allow Windows Mobile devices to collaborate and share files wirelessly with PCs within an office setting. However, the concept name really took off when Gizmodo leaked photos last year of an experimental notepad device with two screens, driven by both a stylus and touch gestures.
Originally named Codex, the idea was hastily dragged from Microsoft Research to have a counterpoint to the iPhone (much as the Surface was in 2007). It was then souped up by Microsoft imagineering to resemble a vaporous concept Apple had on its drawing board 20 years earlier, the Knowledge Navigator.
Like Microsoft’s Codex/Courier, Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator concept demonstrated a folding touchscreen device with wireless networking and a video camera. It also imagined to offer voice recognition and Enterprise-class artificial intelligence and processing capabilities (as in the Star Trek Enterprise).
Like the Codex within Microsoft Research, Apple never shipped the Knowledge Navigator; it dates back to a time back when Apple was run by a salesman who couldn’t execute in consumer products, much like Microsoft is today. But Apple did eventually deliver the more practical Newton Message Pad, albeit with a subset of those previously demonstrated features.
It’s like the iPad, but without any criticism
Microsoft is now saying it will ship the Courier, but without a camera, without Adobe Flash, and without a concurrent app windowing environment, all things the company’s proponents have been bewailing in regard to the iPad. Apparently this kind of omission is not a problem when it involves something from Microsoft.
The company is also piggybacking on the excitement surrounding the iPad launch by portraying Courier as being a smaller, dual screen version of the iPad, adopting both Apple’s signature, glossy black margin hardware design and the iPad’s sparsely uncluttered, iPhone-derived user interface.
It will not, however, run Apple’s iWork multitouch office suite, nor another 140,000 apps the iPad will have available at launch. Another key differentiator: Courier has no price tag yet.
Ten Myths of Apple’s iPad
Microsoft probably wishes everyone would forget about its Slate PC campaign delivered in January at CES by chief executive Steve Ballmer, particularly given that the iPad’s subsequent introduction effectively erased any potential for interest in a big thick laptop without a keyboard, but running Windows 7.
The company is facing a similar “oops, just kidding!” problem with Windows Mobile 6.5, which it introduced to feigned excitement from its dwindling hardware partners (by which I mean LG) last year, only to be forced to announce this year that the entire legacy Windows Mobile platform will now continue on as a dead end “Classic” platform with about as much inertia as PlaysForSure following the Zune announcement.
That dramatic shift in strategy was required due to two new but rival smartphone platforms Microsoft hopes to simultaneously get to market this year: Pink and Windows Phone 7. They don’t build upon Windows Mobile 6.5, but completely replace it, dumping the installed base of software and hardware in the trash.
No software, no installed base, no problem!
That includes the Windows Mobile Marketplace Microsoft erected just last year, and the new Windows 6.5 phones it sold to its dwindling core fan base, who now have expensive devices that lack any official upgrade path.
Imagine the cries of contempt Apple would face if it announced that last year’s iPhone or iPod touch models couldn’t run the upcoming iPhone 4.0, and that everyone would have to go buy a new phone or stick with their old obsolete model through the final year of their contract.
Windows Phone 7 attempts to compete against the iPhone’s vast array of applications by insisting that apps are now irrelevant, at least on the smartphone, because Microsoft couldn’t manage to develop a viable marketplace for Windows Mobile. Instead, it’ll be launching something new from scratch, yet again, based on the less than wildly successful mobile gaming platform rotating around the Zune HD.
Tablet PC, OMPC, Slate PC… Courier!
Meanwhile, as Microsoft watches Apple take away its dreams for a Windows-branded monoculture of media players and smartphones, it’s also having to anticipate that there’s nothing but more bad news coming for tablet computing, a product category the company likes to think it invented.
Never mind that Microsoft didn’t ever bring to market a product that the public could both desire and afford, or that its 2001 Tablet PC was more than a decade late to the tablet/PDA computing party launched by GRiD and Go and mainstreamed by the Newton MessagePad and popularized by the Palm Pilot.
Ten years later, Microsoft is still just floating pictures of things people might want, were there actual functionality, availability, and an affordable price to be found anywhere. For that, users have the iPad, coming out early next month with a clearly delineated set of features and an impressively low price tag.
Apple also has interest from consumers (in excess of the pre-launch iPhone, according to ChangeWave) and developers, who can sell iPad users their existing iPhone apps and use the same development tools to build original new software.
Microsoft’s mobile platform meltdown
Microsoft’s band of review-gear pundits and Windows Enthusiasts counter that no, their beloved company has a similar strategy that will (this time around) fall into place on time and as expected by the end of 2010. They’ll have Windows Phone 7 and the Zune HD and Courier all running software titles built from the wonderful XNA development tools used by the popular Xbox 360.
The problem is that the Xbox is neither mobile nor multitouch, nor were its tools designed to make any accommodation for those types of technologies. Sorry, having an installed base of console games does not a mobile platform make.
Additionally, the only success surrounding the Xbox as a software platform came only after Microsoft dumped many billions into a loss leader hardware platform over the course of several years, after claiming a year or two head start over rival Sony’s next generation console.
Microsoft isn’t going to give away 75 million mobile devices to catch up to Apple. Microsoft’s fan base might do well to stop and listen to what the company says out the other side of its mouth, such as when it talks about “attach rates” of games for the Xbox. What’s the attach rate for the Zune HD? Does one need more than one hand to count the number of apps for it? And how many hundred hardware units has Microsoft sold at retail these days?
In this new multitouch mobile race, Microsoft is already three years and three product categories behind. And of course, WP7, the Zune, and Courier all sport completely different interfaces that were conceived and designed by far-flung teams who were not even aware of each other’s goals within the cat herds that are Microsoft.
At this point, it would be easier to imagine Sony rolling out a consistent and complete mobile strategy over the course of the next year.