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Why did Microsoft kill the Courier tablet?

by David Needle

November 1 2011

Microsoft's two-screen Courier tablet
Microsoft's two-screen Courier tablet

Even though Microsoft sparked the development of tablet PCs over ten years ago, the company is woefully behind Apple which essentially created a whole new category of tablet device with the release of the iPad back in April, 2010. A new report by CNet details what led Microsoft to kill one tablet project that was on track for release shortly after the iPad.

Based on interviews with 18 current and former Microsoft executives, as well as contractors and partners who worked on the tablet project, the CNet article details how the ill-fated Courier tablet lost out in a power struggle with the competing Windows 8 project. 

Courier, which had been publicly disclosed, was going to be a very different tablet than the iPad or earlier Tablet PCs. The sleek Microsoft prototype featured two screens that users could control with either pen or finger touch input. It was also near ready to ship, versus tablets based on Windows 8 that were a good two years ago from release (Windows 8 tablet prototypes have been given to developers, but aren’t expected to be generally available till the second half of next year). 

But a sticking point for Ballmer, and chairman Bill Gates who the article says was also consulted, is that Courier ran a modified version of Windows. As a result Courier couldn’t, for example, run Microsoft’s feature-rich Outlook email app. The software giant makes billions of dollars a year on its Exchange e-mail server software and Outlook. 

Gates reportedly had “an allergic reaction” to the news Outlook wouldn’t run, according to a Courier worker who attended the strategy meeting where Courier’s fate was decided. 

The Courier team argued in vain that its value lay as a content creation device -- which would have been an interesting contrast to the iPad touted as a media consumption device. J Allard, who headed the Courier project and is best known for the XBox, said  Courier was for creative people, a gadget that for example architects might use to sketch building plans, or a writer might use to begin drafting a novel.

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