Why Microsoft's Courier' Tablet Will Never Exist

Wednesday Sep 23rd 2009 by Mike Elgan
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Despite the hype, there are at least six good reasons why the Microsoft tablet will exist only in the fevered imaginations of A-list bloggers.

Microsoft geniuses are secretly toiling away in an underground lab to build a gadget that will kill the coming Apple Tablet device, right? Wrong.

The device in question is called Courier, and it's got two 7-inch screens, one camera, one stylus pen and no chance of ever seeing the light of day.

Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, here. Everybody seems really excited about the Courier.

The demo implies that the device won't be a tablet PC, per se, but a special purpose "notebook" used the way people now use leather-bound project organizers.

The demo is cool, just like all purely fictional mockups and CGI renditions. Just check out Yanko Design. Everything is awesome when it doesn't have to actually be manufactured, sourced or developed at an affordable cost.

I don't think the Courier will ever exist. Here’s why:

1. Microsoft research projects rarely see the light of day.

I've taken Grand Tours of Microsoft's research facility. They show you all this stuff that's just fantastic, and seems to be perfect feasible given today's technology.

In the late 1990s, I was shown a breathtaking project involving two webcams on a computer monitor for video conferencing. Instead of conferencing with video, the cameras captured a 3D image of your face and superimposed it on a 3D CGI version of you. It enabled you to look the person's lifelike avatar in the eye. It simulated eye contact.

Another project they demonstrated for me was incredible voice synthesis based on text. You could pick celebrities, or even have it speak in your voice. The promise was that you'd be able to send e-mail, but have a computer-generated version of your own voice leave a voicemail. Microsoft demonstrated the prototype on an average laptop available 10 years ago to prove it didn't require special or advanced hardware.

Awesome stuff. But where are they now? I saw dozens of incredible projects, and not one of them has seen the light of day. Microsoft has a Xerox complex. Their labs and university partnerships invent awesome concepts, ideas and technologies that never become products.

2. Pen is dead.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." By that definition, Microsoft's continued belief in pen-based interfaces is just plain crazy.

Microsoft apparently hasn't noticed that Windows for Pens in the 1990s failed; that their pen-based Tablet PC and Ultra Mobile PC initiatives have been destroyed in the market by non-pen devices (namely conventional laptops and netbooks); and that Windows Mobile devices with pens aren't exactly catching the world on fire, while Apple's touch-only device is doing exactly that.

Yes, pen will always be desirable by a niche audience, mostly in vertical markets. But Microsoft thinks pens are for the masses. Microsoft is wrong. Touch is the future.

In all fairness, the Courier device combines touch with pen. And in fact the touch bits of the demo are the most thrilling. I don't think pens have any role in mass-market devices of the future -- certainly nothing that could compete with an iPhone-like Apple Tablet.

3. Microsoft doesn't make mobile computers.

It's a free country, and Microsoft can change its policies any time it likes. But the Courier enthusiasts have to understand that they're not only predicting a new product from Microsoft, but a sea change in Microsoft's business.

The closest thing to a mobile computer Microsoft has ever sold is the Zune. The company makes the Xbox; a smattering of peripheral devices like cameras, mice and keyboards; and the Microsoft Surface table for consumer-facing vertical marketing applications.

But mostly, Microsoft makes software.

Microsoft doesn't make laptops, Tablet PCs or Ultra Mobile PCs. It doesn't make cell phones or smartphones. What Microsoft does make is billions of dollars from supporting the "ecosystem" for such devices. That means currying favor with hardware partners like HP, Dell, Acer and others. Competing with important partners directly is bad for the ecosystem, so Microsoft doesn't do it.

At most, Courier might be some kind of prototype it can show to its partners to suggest directions they might take. But Microsoft won't build it, and it's not a product you'll be able to buy.

Next Page: People don't want a dedicated, single-purpose device.

4. The demo is pure CGI .

Do you ever watch movies where the actors are using computers with slick, high-def, large-type user interfaces and think, "which OS is that?" Hollywood routinely ignores existing technology, and just has special effects wizards dream up UIs. When there's some sci-fi vision behind it, you get "Minority Report" type stuff that's feasible, but way off in the future.

That's what the Courier "demo" shows. It's special effects wizardry, not software or hardware design.

The bloggers and the press seem to think that the obviously Photoshopped images making the rounds are actually "photographs" of a Courier device. Come on, people. It's not even a good Photoshopping job.

If you look at this image, you can see that the edge plastic is not shiny enough to reflect the pen at all. But in this image, the pen is fully reflected, as if that same edge is a very shiny surface.

You can also see the left screen reflected in the right screen, even though the left screen is down flat. There is plenty of other evidence proving these images are not photography, but computer-generated fantasy.

Microsoft is the world's largest software company. If Courier really is in the "late prototype" stage, as reports claim, then why didn't the demo show real software or hardware? It's just a pretty sketch.

5. One killer form factor will be clamshell, but not like this.

One killer form factor has already been envisioned, and the Courier "demo" isn't it. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project mocked up the future of laptops. It's a clamshell usable in four basic configurations, none of them pen-based.

Any future device that develops a two-screen clamshell device where one half of the gadget isn't usable as an on-screen keyboard won't be able to compete with the ones that do.

6. People don't want a dedicated, single-purpose device.

And finally, the world is moving away from single-purpose devices. The stand-alone media player. The dedicated eBook reader. The single-purpose DVD player. These are all going the way of the dodo, to be replaced by cell phones and small mobile devices that do it all. Nobody's going to buy a dedicated "notebook" device that has to be carried, backed-up, charged and managed with the inevitable patches and software updates.

If Microsoft really wants to compete with the coming Apple Tablet, it should be hard at work helping PC OEM partners create both consumer desktop and mobile versions of its Surface computer -- a true multi-touch, potentially multi-purpose device that never needs a pen.

As I've argued several times in this space, Apple is in a position to release a killer tablet, which it could leverage into a takeover of the entire PC industry. In order to compete against the coming bloodbath, Microsoft should and must by now understand that any pen-based device will fail as a mass-market device.

In any event, you'll never own a Microsoft Courier device. It's not real now. It's not going to be real in the future. And even Microsoft does eventually make it real, it will fail in the market and you won't buy one.

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