Here’s the second half of Jay Greene’s story on Microsoft’s two-screen Courier tablet, and why it never saw the light of day except as a spellbinding concept video.
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Jay Greene of Cnet has an excellent story up–the first of a two-parter–on Microsoft’s Courier two-screen tablet, which got everyone excited with an animated demo, but was killed before it ever shipped:
But the device wasn’t intended to be a computer replacement; it was meant to complement PCs. Courier users wouldn’t want or need a feature-rich e-mail application such as Microsoft’s Outlook that lets them switch to conversation views in their inbox or support offline e-mail reading and writing. The key to Courier, Allard’s team argued, was its focus on content creation. Courier was for the creative set, a gadget on which architects might begin to sketch building plans, or writers might begin to draft documents.
The Courier was a wonderful concept product, but I’m not convinced it’s a tragedy that Microsoft axed it, for three reasons:
1) It’s a heck of a lot easier to make a product impressive in a conceptual demo than in real life.
2) Like the Tablet PC, the Courier was heavily invested in the idea that lots of people want to take notes using a stylus and store them in their own handwriting. I’m convinced that very few folks actually want to do that.
3) It behooved Microsoft to identify the one most promising future path for Windows–which turned out to be Windows 8–and then pursue it as aggressively as possible. (And I don’t see why Windows 8 couldn’t be used as the basis of a Courier-like device.)
Still, it would have been fun to see the Courier in that demo in real life. Maybe the most important lesson is this: DON’T LEAK DEMOS OF PRODUCTS YOU AREN’T WILLING TO SELL.
Just what is Microsoft’s Courier project? All we know for sure is that it resulted in a neat concept video, reminiscent of a modern take on Apple’s it-was-a-vision-not-a-product Knowledge Navigator. But I don’t know if anyone outside Microsoft has had a clear handle on whether Courier was an imaginary romantic ideal of a two-screen tablet or something the company was busy building.
And now maybe we never will. Gizmodo, which published the Courier leak in the first place, is reporting that Microsoft has killed Courier. It quotes Microsoft PR honcho Frank Shaw saying that the concept was one of many ideas explored by Microsoft that doesn’t result in a shipping product (at least for now). But it’s still unclear whether Courier ever existed except as a slick piece of animation.
Another question: Did Microsoft let the Courier video out intentionally, or was it a genuine leak? I hope it wasn’t the former: By getting people excited and then failing to result in anything, Courier surely hurts Microsoft’s reputation for creativity (albeit just slightly) rather than helping it…
Remember “Courier,” the cool Microsoft dual-screen concept tablet which Gizmodo uncovered last September? It’s back. This time, it’s Engadget that’s published Courier imagery, including a photo and new screens and videos.
Until now, there’s been no evidence that Courier was anything more than a slick idea that might or might not ever turn into a product–sort of like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator from 1987. But Engadget’s source talked about details that, if true, mean that Courier is indeed in the works. It’s supposedly based on Nvidia’s Tegra 2 processor and will show up in the third or fourth quarter of this year.
If so, neat–but for now, Courier doesn’t feel very tangible. The videos are animations that look like they were done in Flash; the screens don’t look real; even the photograph might be a mockup of some sort. Until Microsoft says something or more solid materials leak out, it’s tough to know what to think.
I’m a fan of genuinely new ideas in user interfaces, and Courier is full of them. I’m intrigued, however, by the fact that the whole idea seems to center around the idea that folks want to create handwritten digital notes. That was also the theory behind the Tablet PC, a product which Microsoft thought would come to dominate the notebook market–but which never really took off.
I remain skeptical about there being a critical mass of people who want to take notes with a stylus and then look at their own handwriting forever after. Of course Courier, in concept form, looks to be about a hundred times more elegant than the Tablet PC, so maybe it could be the breakthrough that the Tablet turned out not to be. I hope we get the chance to find out…
Gizmodo is reporting on what it says is Microsoft’s prototype for a new sort of tablet computer–one with dual screens bound up like a book, and an interface that involves both multi-touch (like an iPhone) and a stylus (like a Tablet PC). It’s supposedly code-named Courier, and Gizmodo has a video walkthrough–which is done in animation, so this could be a concept rather than a product that’ll ever be available for sale. Here’s a still image:
Nobody’s going to look at Gizmodo’s video and come away saying “Gee, that looks like a boring, me-too product.” I do remain skeptical about products based on the notion that people want to use styluses to input handwritten text that won’t be converted into accurate, editable ASCII into a computing device. That was the notion behind the Tablet PCs which Microsoft unveiled with absurd pomp and circumstance back in 2001–the company said that most notebooks would be tablets within a few years. I thought that tablets were unsatisfactory technology in search of real-world problems back in 2001, and wasn’t the least bit surprised when they didn’t go much of anywhere.
I was, however, kind of startled that Microsoft seemed to give up on tablets rather quickly–other than some modest software updates, it never did much to improve the idea. If Courier’s the real deal, maybe it hadn’t given up so much as skulked away and decided to quietly work on the idea when technology had progressed a bit.
But Courier, if it ever appears in a form that comes close to Giz’s video, may still suffer from Newton’s Conundrum: Really good handwriting recognition still doesn’t exist, and it’s impossible to convince consumers that they don’t really want it. If Apple’s tablet exists and has a chance of finding a large audience, I’m guessing it’ll sidestep the issue by doing very little that involves textual input at all.
Note also the unwieldy way that the hand in the above image is doing two-finger multi-touch while keeping a stylus tucked under the forefinger. On the other hand, Courier would presumably run some form of Windows, and it’s nice to see that in the demo, at least, it’s Windows with an all-new user interface designed for the device at hand. Microsoft may argue differently, but I think the familiar interface elements in both Tablet PC and Windows Mobile were a mistake, since they were familiar elements originally designed for desktop PCs you drove with a keyboard and mouse…