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Microsoft Courier axed over Bill Gates' 'allergic reaction'

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.

by MacNN Staff



  1. beb

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Allard and Bach

    Can we hire these people at Apple? I think they would make a great fit in Cupertino.

  1. lshaner

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Gates was right -- no native e-mail = #FAIL

    If they don't include native e-mail and rely on web-only interfaces, then the device will be useless on most flights, subways, and when traveling abroad (and not wanting to pay exorbitant data rates).
    It needs to be able to open and edit the same docs as people use on their laptops--so that folks can still get real work done while collaborating with people on real computers.

  1. jpellino

    Joined: Dec 1969


    If your only tool is a hammer...

    ...every problem looks like a nail. Yes, they get lots and lots of money from their existing technologies. So did Apple, but Apple figured out a way to have a seamless transition from mobile devices to the 'computer" OS, with now-legendary results.

    For the umpteenth time, with everything from the ads to the devices to the "innovations" MS is just playing monkey-see/monkey-do with Apple. Yeah, yeah, Bill, Office was on the Mac *kinda* early ('89?), but it was PageMaker and the LaserWriter that really sealed the Mac's position as a serious computer.

    Windows was a reaction to MacOS. The "I'm A PC" ads were *only* made as a reaction to the Mac-PC ads. The Zune was a (toxic) reaction to the iPod. XP is a reaction to Mac OS X. Every Tablet They Have Floated is a reaction to the iPad. The MS portion of the (Snow?) Leopard launch was a breathless MS VP gushing about how you can one-click fit a spreadsheet to a printed page. Be still my heart.

    People like Andy Rubin and Steve Perlman know what happens at MS when a new technology gets wooed and absorbed - it's all hugs and kittens until the suits realize this is not the cash cow they feared/hoped for since they can't figure out a way to shoehorn Windows and Office onto it. Joke's on them - Andy has Android, Google and Steve has cloud gaming, DIDO. MS lacks innovation on any significant level, and I could see some hope if it was simply a matter of they haven't learned what to do when some falls in their lap, but in each of these cases they specifically sought out and asked for these technologies and then carefully and exquisitely eviscerated them. How X-Box saw two full product cycles is a minor miracle, but I guess you should never underestimate the power of 20-year olds with lots of time on their hands.

    MS has really become the GM of computers. Hints of innovation here and there, but evolutionary change rather then revolutionary change. Lots of expected products (every Chevy ever made except one) and a few glamour ones (Corvette). Hints of innovation (another new Malibu? 90% the same as the old one?) Notable innovation (Saturn) is eventually subsumed and left for dead / killed off.

    I expected much, much more from a company that had the brains to employ Allard and Myhrvold.

  1. jpellino

    Joined: Dec 1969


    And another thing...

    How these new ads (Puppy... Dancing Dad...) every got past anyone who draws a salary is beyond me. Apparently they employ a room full of people conditioned to cringe and holler "I LOVE it!" on command.

  1. PRoth

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Virtual Allergic Reaction?

    So did he break out it byte-sized hives? Intestinal problems? The runs? Was it anaphylactic shock?

  1. qazwart

    Joined: Dec 1969


    No Email?

    I was never enthralled with Courier. The UI needs a stylus to work. Notice how the drawn hand holds the stylus in-between the middle and ring finger when it has to use the index finger to do something. And, the interface was rather ill defined. It's like MS newest futuristic project where whatever the user wants to do is just a push left to the next screen.

    I can even understand killing the project for a variety of reasons: The lack of an email client meant that the project didn't take the Internet seriously. The dual screen would have been expensive to produce, but give little benefit. The idea that the project was completely designed to be subservient to the PC. The "futuristic" ideas that are barely developed. Courier would have flopped in the marketplace. It would have been much like the Newton.

    What worries me is that none of this, according to the article, killed Courier. It was the fact that it wasn't Windows.

    In many ways, Windows 8 and the Metro interface shows a lot of promise, and probably is a more realistic operating system for a tablet than Courier which would have been hemmed in by its initial design concepts. But, whatever Courier's problems were, the fact it wasn't Windows was not one of them.

  1. joecab

    Joined: Dec 1969


    (here's my Bill Gates impression)

    "TRUE innovation?? Achoo! Achoo!"

  1. BlueGonzo

    Joined: Dec 1969


    windows & office cartel

    Both Gates and Ballmer don't get it. They can't think outside the box. By "protecting" Windows and Office they axed so many concepts. Microsoft is stuck in the office & corporate dilemma and I can't see any change as long as both divisions get the most credit from a Microsoft CEO.

    An advice to Microsoft: Fire Ballmer, don't listen to Bill Gates (you are not a CEO any more) and watch out for a CEO with more charisma and an open mind (but Microsoft doesn't listen to my advice).

  1. SockRolid

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Wild goose chase

    Apple's Knowledge Navigator video, from 1987, showed a book-like device with a Siri-like interface. 24 years later, Apple released iPhone 4S with Siri. 23 years later, Microsoft gave up on the concept and fell back on the same old "Windows everywhere." What took them so long?

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