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Microsoft Courier: the third weak link in a miserable mobile strategy

Microsoft Courier history

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.

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The random history of Courier

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.

Newton Lessons for Apple’s New Platform

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 Courier history

Dual-ing Strategies

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.

Microsoft Pink-Zune details emerge alongside Windows Phone 7

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.

The inside track on Apple’s tablet: a history of tablet computing

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.

Microsoft Courier iPad

38 comments

1 alexmalex { 03.05.10 at 5:20 pm }

on a marginally related note – dan do you have any information about what current app store apps won’t work on ipad? seeing as they’ve put the “almost all” qualifier in all info about it.

2 gus2000 { 03.05.10 at 5:25 pm }

Yes, well the iPad may have a proven OS with a well-engineered UI, and a software market already in place with hundreds of developers and thousands of apps, and be available this quarter, and it’ll be “pretty” and “cool”. But it won’t have FREEDOM! Yes, Microsoft gives us the freedom to install boob apps! Hoooray! The freedom to use Flash! Hoooray! Death before walled gardens! pwnage

3 ChuckO { 03.05.10 at 5:59 pm }

C’mon Dan you only expose the “facts” because you know you can’t argue against Microsoft’s real strategy: trying to stop Microtard die hards from buying iPads by giving them false hope.

4 donarb { 03.05.10 at 6:07 pm }

alex,

I think Apple gave a qualified comment because, for example, the Wifi iPad doesn’t have GPS or camera apps because the iPad has no camera.

5 JohnWatkins { 03.05.10 at 6:11 pm }

– “Do you have any information about what current app store apps won’t work on ipad? seeing as they’ve put the “almost all” qualifier in all info about it.”–
Obviously it wont run (fully, at least) apps that depend on features that its hardware does not support (depending on version and services chosen, 3G, camera, GPS, etc. Otherwise it should run everything.

6 JohnWatkins { 03.05.10 at 6:16 pm }

The courier is so obviously “air design.” Everything is so glossed over (the UI etc., not the finish) and undefined. Clearly this thing is not in the “late prototype” stage, but rather in the “early concept” stage.
Funny to hear the oohs and aahs over something that is barely an idea.
I predict it will never ship, or if something called “Courier” ships, I predict it will disappoint. (Skate to where the puck will be.)

7 kt { 03.05.10 at 7:04 pm }

Whether MS ever never ships the Courier, or not, I really wish Apple had gone for this foldable form factor with the option of pen input. It would be fantastic for ebooks, and a pen would make for a really great sketchbook for artists. In addition, a foldable design would be great for a stand-in laptop with any number of software keyboards.

8 Dmitri { 03.05.10 at 8:54 pm }

I’m with @JohnWatkins. This is another example of MS announcing a vaporous future product to try to keep people from buying a competitors product NOW. Really, nothing to see here. As John says, this will never ship, or will ship and be unrecognizable next to the concept vids they are throwing around.

Remember this Longhorn video? It was going to ship in 2003 and blow everybody away… We’re still waiting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJdaODYetuk

(Skip to about 1:03 to see the amazing things that MS was going to deliver any minute now, in 2003!)

So yeah, Courier. Nothing to see here. Can’t wait for my iPad.

9 ulicar { 03.06.10 at 12:13 am }

Users of Microsoft Courier will be, gues who, couriers! Is that market you think Apple is targeting with iPad?

If your day starts by putting a brown shorts on, this ms crap is quite enough. I don’t! That is why I don’t give a crap About ms tablets.

10 David Dennis { 03.06.10 at 3:24 am }

Courier truly does have a beautiful demo.

But use of handwriting strikes me as a big step back. I find it much harder to write legibly than to type, and I notice the handwriting stays as is instead of being changed to type. So in order to use this thing, you will have to be able to easily read your own handwriting and that of others.

Handwriting something like “roughlydrafted.com/2010/03/05/microsoft-(etc)” seems like it would be very difficult. They have it successfully figuring out your writing for http://www.something.com, but not a direct URL to some resource. Apple’s special keyboard for URLs, with special keys for all the symbols, seems like the best way to go here.

I don’t know about you, but it’s tough for me to handwrite into a notebook because of the binder in the center. That’s why a legal pad or steno book is most popular for writing random notes. It would be nice to optionally split the tablet into two virtual screens, but to have it permanently split in two seems both very expensive to build and of dubious utility. Wouldn’t you want a bigger screen most of the time?

I may be lacking in vision, but this seems like something designed very specifically for the person in the video. It’s like they took a very specific use case of someone working for an advertising agency who dealt with heavy graphics and light text, and designed something just for her. The identical device in the hands of a writer could be a disaster.

I was amused to see ideas “stolen” directly from the web and added to her presentation. That’s some intellectual property theft. I remember a recent lawsuit where an author was accused of plagiarism. Turns out she copied long passages from a book, intending to quote them later and then forgot the words were not hers. Seems to me any situation where you can copy stuff directly into one of your pages of original work is going to make such violations easy to make by pure accident. Sometimes it’s good to require things to appear in download folders instead of your own portfolio.

This was undeniably interesting and “cool”. It certainly didn’t feel like a Microsoft creation. But anyone who has seen how well onscreen keyboards work would have integrated one into the tablet instead of using a stylus. It looked like ideas that had developed in a parallel universe from the iPhone. I’m not convinced I would prefer it to an iPad or even a Tablet PC.

D

11 DesperateDan { 03.06.10 at 3:52 am }

Let’s be honest here, the Courier looks brilliant. I would have one in a heartbeat. It really is like something from the far future.

That’s the problem though. This is just a pipedream. Nothing approaching this device will ship in under 5 years. Not a chance.

I believe there are two main problems. Have you seen the state of the handwriting of 90% of the population? The fast an free-flowing handwriting on the demo would be replaced by countless errors and prompts in real use. It just won’t happen like this, and it’s the main reason you can see that this is a first draft concept. The dream before he reality of what is actually possible. It’s little more than a device wish list. “Engineers, here’s what we would like our device to do. Now go and make it”. “Um, Er, you can’t have that, that and that. And you’ll need to replace that pen with a keyboard as the writing thing doesn’t work right yet. And the 2 screen are REALLY expensive so it’s 1 screen only. And we’re having some problems getting the operating system to work without melting the battery and crashing every 5 minutes…”

The other problem I see is who would use a device as specific as this. To be used to its potential this would have a seriously niche audience. Most people just don’t need this complexity, they want to surf, email, play some games and maybe look at photos. The learning curve of the Courier would make it a pro-user item only. I still have to talk people through the most basic of online tasks every day, and I know 2 people who had to get rid of iPhones because they were too hard to use…

The simplicity of the iPad is genius. As time goes on it will gradually and naturally add functionality, as the userbase skills and technological advancement allow.

12 Microsoft Courier: Άλλος ένας αδύναμος κρίκος. « My-Apple.gr { 03.06.10 at 6:32 am }

[...] [Αρχικό άρθρο στα Αγγλικά] Categories: Αφιερώματα Tags: Daniel Eran Dilger, Microsoft, Roughly Drafted Magazine, Αφιερώματα [...]

13 Joel { 03.06.10 at 7:27 am }

“Whether MS ever never ships the Courier, or not, I really wish Apple had gone for this foldable form factor with the option of pen input. ”

Main drawback of dual screens is going to mean more weight for doubling up the gubbins that controls the screens. (Unless of course you have a completely new kind of screen that can display to two discrete screens with the same controller.) But that will increase the R+D cost… Any doubling of hardware is going to increase cost and decrease battery life.

Would also be a hassle for porting applications to it from the Windows iPhone or from Xbox. The form factor would mean you have to write anything from scratch…

14 David Dennis { 03.06.10 at 8:18 am }

I don’t think that would be a problem, Joel, because the same graphics controller can easily handle two screens. I have a dual screen setup on my Mac and except for the screen itself it uses all the same equipment.

D

15 Mark Hernandez { 03.06.10 at 8:07 pm }

Apple said recently that it’s “constantly saying no to good ideas.” That’s important to remember here. Apple’s forward movement is thoughtful, methodical, brilliant, incredibly practical, beautiful and ultimately compelling. The number of choices and possibilities they entertain must be mind-boggling.

But there’s a sweet spot to be found. Our minds can quickly jump forward to a more desirable place, but for all practical purposes, the world we live and work in proceeds at its own plodding pace, which Apple is gently pulling forward to “where the hockey puck is going to be.”

And in the end, (sorry for being cliché) a bird in the hand is worth three in the bush.

16 harrywolf { 03.06.10 at 9:16 pm }

Its got a frickin pen attached to it. And its named after a typeface.
Prediction: Steve Ballmer will be sacked this year, before the summer.

17 harrywolf { 03.06.10 at 9:18 pm }

@ Desperate Dan

How can anything look brilliant? Really. Think about it. Please.

18 daGUY { 03.06.10 at 9:26 pm }

The Courier certainly looks cool, but I like Gruber’s take on it (and Dan’s, really) – this thing isn’t a hardware prototype, and it’s not even some kind of early software: it’s literally just a *concept* of an idea. It doesn’t actually exist in any real way. Yet, it’s being compared to the iPad, which is clearly a REAL product made out of actual working hardware and software.

Essentially, it’s just vaporware that’s designed to make Microsoft look competitive, when really the two products (if you can even call Courier a product yet) are barely comparable – one’s a concept, and the other’s a real device shipping in less than a month.

19 JohnWatkins { 03.06.10 at 10:40 pm }

Thanks for the Longhorn video Dimetri. LOLz
That’s exactly what I’m talking about with “air design” (its like an air guitar — it looks like whatever the individual observer thinks it should look like.)
Longhorn does “look brilliant” (much like Courier.) Very pretty. Works so nice. Responsive too. I wonder why they decided not to release Longhorn and released Windows Vista instead? I’m sure they will not make the same mistake with courier. Surly they will release it later this year and it will work just like in the concept videos (By magic, that is. It reads your mind and does whatever you want it to.)

20 Joel { 03.07.10 at 3:15 am }

I can remember the early demos for Windows 95 (Cairo). It blew everything from Apple and everyone else away and looked amazing. Did it ever arrive…? Nope. Same with this and every other Microsoft Demo. What You See Isn’t What You Get…!

21 Joel { 03.07.10 at 3:15 am }

(But Pundits still fall for it)

22 limey { 03.07.10 at 9:17 am }

@Joel – (But Pundits still fall for it)

They so desperately want MS to succeed, or do they so desperately want Apple to fail? Maybe I could understand if their retirement were tied up in MS stock, which has performed so fantastically in the last ten years, but the other idiots?

Every time MS does this (Announce vapor products) they get called for it (The emperor has no clothes.) I just can’t fathom why anyone would stick with them.

As I’ve commented many, many times before.
Microsoft: So much talent; So little leadership.

john

23 kt { 03.07.10 at 2:21 pm }

@limey: Every time MS does this … I just can’t fathom why anyone would stick with them.

Just in the context of the iPad v.s. Courier design, Each has it’s strengths, but I lean slightly toward the Courier because it can be made more compact than the iPad, like a thin paperback book, and the pen input is a huge, huge plus because I want to use these devices as a sketch pad.

No matter how cool the iPad may be, drawing with your finger just doesn’t cut it. If Apple were to license some of the Waacom tablet pressure sensitivity and include a pen, I’d be much more inclined to buy one. But for books, the Courier would win hands down. It is a form that has been perfected over centuries, is very convenient to hold and read and is completely natural to users. The dual screens also offer a really intuitive way to transfer content from one document to another and to compare multiple versions of a document side by side.

24 Joel { 03.07.10 at 3:52 pm }

@ limey: “They so desperately want MS to succeed, or do they so desperately want Apple to fail?”

I would guess its something to do with Microsoft’s “drinks” budget. Either that or the Pundits are all gullible idiots. Its hard to tell sometimes… :D

25 Joel { 03.07.10 at 3:56 pm }

@kt: “But for books, the Courier would win hands down. It is a form that has been perfected over centuries, is very convenient to hold and read and is completely natural to users.”

Books are just the result of centuries of evolution to deal with the constraints of the book making and distribution process. I’d much rather see someone *ship* an interesting re-think of them, rather just re-hashing the same concepts.

26 TheMacAdvocate { 03.07.10 at 6:57 pm }

IMO, the Courier is the most pathetic recent attempt by Microsoft to forestall competitors’ sales with vapor. At least Natal had a (carefully choreographed) launch and series of demos and the Windows 7 Series Phone…series OS has a distantly-related product that actually ships in the Zune HD.

The Courier is the furthest thing from a shipping product; it’s a promotional animation. There’s no component list, no specs, NOTHING. And to hear the frothers on Engadget and Giz talk about the “evolution” of the product? What – from the last animation that was released? People must be spoiled by Apple announcements that feature discrete, shipping products when they’re unveiled – or people really are that stupid. I think probably both.

27 limey { 03.07.10 at 7:51 pm }

@kt – “… books, … a form that has been perfected over centuries”
The written/printed word on paper is the form perfected over centuries. Books are just collections of paper sheets, each with two sides. The book form is just a logical progression.
The new paradigm is words on a screen. Single sided so there is no need for two pages/screens at a time.
Now I’m not saying that one is better than the other. We are more familiar with the two page version but that doesn’t mean it’s better than a single screen.
Frankly I’m now more used to reading my news on a computer screen than from a paper. I haven’t tried reading a book with my iPod Touch, the screen is too small for me and reading a book on my iMac doesn’t do it for me either.

But curling up with a great iPad, now that sounds promising…

28 ShabbaRanks { 03.08.10 at 7:14 am }

Microsoft are like the boy who cried wolf. If he’d never been caught out.

Their standard response algorithm looks a bit like this:
Competitor has new product coming out. Is it good? If yes, do we know it’s name? If yes, announce Microsoft branded product or Microsoft “partner” product with the same name as competitors product. Make no plans to ship but announce release before the end of the current year. Promise the product features lots of Windows related tomfoolery. Make sure announcement has an overly long trailer featuring lots of smiling people using the product alongside lots of other Microsoft products (note: one of these products must be a Windows mobile phone and one scene must feature someone transferring their photos from their digital camera to a Windows desktop. There must be no penguins or fruit visible for the entire duration. Anyone wearing headphones must be shaking their head from side to side and holding the earpieces like they’re on the Band-Aid video. The music for the video must have inspiring, Microsoft are enriching peoples lives lyrics – see ‘It’s getting better man’ by Oasis).
Oh, ring Paul Thurrott. Threaten his kids till he agrees that Apple have had it now and will blog this forthwith.

29 Thomas Menguy { 03.08.10 at 11:59 am }

Hi Daniel,

I too strongly believe Sony has a chance to do something, but they miss a “whole company strategy”, linking phones and PSP (this is coming) with their music brand and ebook parts.
Could you elaborate a little more about Sony ?(and it will change you …and us to not pointing the MS failures:) )

30 gus2000 { 03.10.10 at 9:10 am }

To convert the monolithic iPad into a Courier two-page device:

1. rotate the iPad 90 degrees to a landscape orientation
2. place a strip of black electrical tape down the center
3. ta-da!

NOTE: may not fold.

31 Player-16 { 03.10.10 at 6:00 pm }
32 tundraboy { 03.10.10 at 10:49 pm }

Two random points:

The typewriter was invented because handwriting was deemed too slow, strenuous, and inefficient. Those reasons still hold today.

Have you seen how kids slam their laptops shut? Now imagine that level of force used on a device with two LCD screens facing each other. Better yet, make it a pocketbook sized device where you can slam it shut using one hand like you would a pair of castanets. And they expect parents to buy a courier for their teenager? You know, the subpopulation who think it is totally uncool to put something down gently when the option to carelessly toss it aside is always available? Uh hmm, yeah right.

33 Myaushka { 03.25.10 at 10:11 pm }

Looking forward to your analysis of the Windows Phone strategy.

34 Myaushka { 03.25.10 at 10:24 pm }

@kt “The dual screens also offer a really intuitive way to transfer content from one document to another and to compare multiple versions of a document side by side.”

Wait, then why stop at 2 screens? Also, transferring content from one screen to another seems problematic.

35 Myaushka { 03.25.10 at 10:30 pm }

@ Joel RE: Cairo

You know what’s really amazing? At internal meetings, the demos are just as fake. I really don’t get this, it’s demoralizing to the people who actually know the real state of the product, so what’s the point? It’s not /just/ about forestalling competition.

36 Myaushka { 03.25.10 at 10:33 pm }

One more thing – this two-screens thing is like Nintendo DS.

37 Windows Phone 7: Microsoft’s third failed attempt to be Apple — RoughlyDrafted Magazine { 03.26.10 at 8:12 pm }

[...] Microsoft Courier: the third weak link in a miserable mobile strategy Competing with Apple’s past The problem for Microsoft is that Windows Phone 7 won’t arrive until the end of the year at the very soonest. By then, Apple will have had the new iPhone 4.0 out for six months. Additionally, WP7 is really targeting the features of iPhone 2.0 from 2008. There’s a reason why Apple does not continue to sell iPhone 2.0 software: it’s outdated. [...]

38 okli { 04.13.10 at 10:24 pm }

@DD
I agree with DD and DED
its just another poor performance from air guitar virtuoso Mr.Soft Willi
like: WYSIWYNG-What You See Is What You Newer Get
or like: WYSIWYG- What You Steal Is What You Get

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