Why Bill Gates Killed The Tablet That Could Have Saved Microsoft From iPad

Why Bill Gates Killed The Tablet That Could Have Saved Microsoft From iPad

Do you remember Microsoft’s top secret Couriet tablet project? It was a dual screen, book-like tablet first leaked well before Apple unveiled the iPad, created by J. Allard, the mind behind Microsoft’s fantastic Xbox console.

It’s a concept that has aged well, mostly because it’s one of the only tablet designs around that isn’t just trying to rip off Apple’s idea of what a tablet should be wholesale. It’s still, in fact, brought up as an example of how Microsoft could have competed with Apple in the tablet market from the get go.

So what happened to the Courier? Why wasn’t it released? It all came down to the fact that Bill Gates had an “allergic reaction” to the project because it didn’t run Outlook.

Cnet’s got a great story on what ended up killing the Courier:

At one point during that meeting in early 2010 at Gates’ waterfront offices in Kirkland, Wash., Gates asked Allard how users get e-mail. Allard, Microsoft’s executive hipster charged with keeping tabs on computing trends, told Gates his team wasn’t trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also have a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get e-mail from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

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.

“This is where Bill had an allergic reaction,” said one Courier worker who talked with an attendee of the meeting.

What’s fascinating here is that while it’s easy to say “no email” is madness on a tablet (after all, that’s what sunk the BlackBerry PlayBook), Allard at least had a cohesive vision for the Courier: it wasn’t about being a laptop or smartphone replacement, it was about being a device for media consumption and creation.

Sound familiar? Allard had identified the core tablet idea that Apple ended up embracing for the iPad… and Microsoft axed the project, even though if Allard had been allowed to continue, Microsoft and Apple might have reached market with similarly exciting devices at the exact same time. It’s this sort of institutional short-sightedness that is at the core of Microsoft’s problems these days, and sadly, with Windows 8 still another year away, that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

  • Sp

    Microsoft, like Xerox, like HP, all great at talking the talk but no so great at walking the walk. Even if this idea was green lighted the end product would have been vastly inferior. 

  • Gregz0r1

    ANYONE can dream, and render up any OMG-OS. Actually developing it, making it smooth, fast and then shipping a device running it, is a different proposition.

  • Guest

    Who would want a Big POS like that. 

  • FriarNurgle

    I love the concept… but you close it and you’ll destroy it if any tiny little thing is stuck between the glass screens. 

  • Andy Murdock

    Exactly what I thought when I saw it. A pen, a penny a paperclip and the thing is scratched and cracked. Not a good design.

  • Alberto Hernandez

    It tried to do too much at one time.

  • obamapacman

    It’s because it’s VAPORWARE, similar to most bullshit spewed by Microsoft PR.

  • WVMikeP

    “Real artists ship.”

  • Stephen

    I loved the demos I saw of it. Shame it never got released.

  • Simon John Othen

    all due respect you can do that with any laptop…not an issue !

  • MarioWario

    Microsoft is good at engineering – but too greedy to invest the right amount of passion (unlike apple (in the past)) to realize the outstanding PIECES (of art / products)

  • mlahero

    Yeah what a shame they didn’t make it. It’s a great idea really, with a clamshell you get much more screen space and dual screens quite often help people keep organised.

    This demo is good;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

  • synthmeister

    “Courier, first of all, wasn’t a device. The project and the incubation
    and the exploration we did on Courier I view as super important. The
    “device” people saw in the video isn’t going to ship, but that doesn’t
    mean we didn’t learn a bunch and innovate a bunch in the process. And
    I’m sure a bunch of that innovation will show up in Microsoft products,
    absolutely confident of it.”

    This “device” was pure concept with little or no foundation in the realities of software, physics, battery life, OS, manufacturing and pricing. There was never even a working prototype of any kind. It was all photoshop and CGI smoke and mirrors. It was very, very far from reality. The fact that Allard considered an email app non-essential is mind-blowing.

    First quote is from Microsoft’s outgoing Entertainment & Devices Division president, Robbie Bach, May 26, 2010.

  • Len Williams

    What impresses me about Courier is that it looks nothing like an iPad. Every other tablet manufacturer in the market has copied the iPad, so when Microsoft killed the Courier, only Apple was thinking different. It seems like email could have easily been added to Courier, but as usual, Microsoft just couldn’t envision and bring to market something as radical as this. I am not a fan of Microsoft software or hardware because it all feels so inelegant, even the latest Windows 7. It’s software designed by programmers not artists. If Microsoft could come out with products as aesthetic, functional and user-friendly as Apple, I’d use them. I’m not stuck with Apple if there’s something better on the market, but Microsoft has proven time after time that it just can’t get there. The Courier was the first product of theirs I was interested in, but in his wisdom, Bill cancelled the darn thing!! Duh!

    Then again, if they had actually brought it out they’d probably have colored it brown.

  • payam

    Somebody said that someone is a man without imagination, couldn’t be more true. 

  • John Howell

    When I saw the Courier video the first time, I through cool!, Then I thought, OK, battery life will suck, running two colour screens, and a stylus makes it fiddly. I would be supprosed if this sells for anything less than $3G when it comes out, and will be tightly coupled with Office and Windows, neither of which I use. It will be an executive toy.
    Than Apple came out and said, here is the iPad. It is a bigscreen version of your phone. And the battery lasts all day. I mean not just 8 hrs of standby and a couple of hours use, but 10 HRs actual use! No preview video, no “it will be available next summer” but here it is, buy it today!
    So I waited for their second version and bought that at NZ$799 8) never buy Apples V1 products, a better one will be out in a year!

  • BT

    Can you imagine how heavy it will be with two screens?  Plus, based on the history of MS, I can’t imagine MS can suddenly crate a table that is magically easy to use like the iPad. The title of this article is so mis-leading. Bill Gates did the right thing to kill it to save MS from the embarrassment.

  • macgizmo

    Gates was right. No email = D.O.A. And really, for content creators, that would be one of the FIRST apps that should be put on a tablet or hand-held device.

  • prof_peabody

    I disagree about email. Gates is wrong as usual.  

    I use my iPad all day every day (and for real work too, not watching movies or playing games).  I don’t do email on it however and I find the email program it comes with is so awkward and horrible I couldn’t imagine anyone getting much use out of it.  Remember too that most users of iPads also have an iPhone (with their email on it), right in their pocket or purse.  Why would you need it on the tablet as well?  Especially since this particular concept is aimed at content creation, writing, drawing, etc. 

    “Not having Outlook” is probably a bad reason to kill the project, but this project was not really a project in the first place and therefore not really “killed” either.  The title of this article is just link bait as has become typical of CultofMac stories.

  • prof_peabody

    Technically they weren’t demos, because this product never got past very early prototyping and renders.  

    What you saw were some “what if” kind of scenarios similar to that silly movie Microsoft just put out about “the future.”  

  • Goldie20

    ” Remember too that most users of iPads also have an iPhone “

    Uh, NO. Most users of iPads don’t even own an iPhone.

  • tstportal

    Microsoft, 90k employees and 90% desktop market share; Apple, 60k employees, 5% desktop market share, 90% tablet share with walled garden approach to software. I’m totally NOT disappointed that M$ didn’t develop the Courier, because when they axed the project I already had full-screen apps on my desktop thank you.

  • Brandon Dillon

    Anyone have source on either claim? I’d be interested in knowing the answer to this. Personally, I would guess that Brownlee is right, but I may be wrong.

  • robdaemon

    Anecdotally, I’m one of the iPad owners that does not have an iPhone.

  • Chuck Norris

    Another iPad owner, who has no plans of buying an iPhone :)

  • JonathanRWegner

    Agree: No email = DOA.
     
    I have a Mac, iPad and iPhone. I want TOTAL cross-platform integration. What annoys me now is where the integration stops, ie: apps that I love on my iPad / iPhone not being available or integrated with OSX and vice versa. It’s beginning to be expected and it will be expected as a standard feature soon.
     
    Where MS continues to fail is in their lack of a wholistic corprate-driven vision for the integration of their systems and the development of a seamless ecosystem. They are instead a collection of disparate divisions working on their own discrete projects that just happen to be under the banner of Microsoft.
     
    However, I believe with Windows 8 we are starting to see integration across mobile and desk-top devices and a more integrated approach to their products. I, for one, am watching with great interest how this will play out.

  • JonathanRWegner

    You forgot to mention that Apple gets a 231% better ROI per employee than Microsoft, with FY2011 revenues of $108.249B versus $69.940B respectfully.
     
    That’s $1,804,150 brought in per Apple employee versus $777,711 brought in per Microsoft employee.
     
    So what does Microsoft do with all those extra employees? Full screen apps I suppose.

  • gareth edwards

    Time for Cook to get Allard on board of the Apple mothership, me’thinks.

    It’s a pity that this concept of future mobile computing didn’t get out of the blocks.  I remember seeing the short film they did for it some years back and I was very impressed, and that’s coming from a dyed in the wool machead.  I understand Gate’s POV but he, in this case was wrong, biblically wrong. If this had got out there, inline with Allard’s view of how it fits into a mature technology ecosystem Apple would have had a very hard time selling the iPad to anyone but Mac users.

  • Anon

    +1

  • tstportal

    which is funny because in the 80s when Apple made more Profit than Microsoft, Apple always boasted it was the more profitable company; then Microsoft became the more profitable company, a measure of how sustainable a company is in the long-term. once Apple took in more Revenue than M$ (a factor of charging more for walled garden hardware), then Apple boasts it is the more revenue-generating company. This time last year M$ still took in MORE than $1b more in profit than Apple ($5.4b vs $4.3b). So defend it however you want buddy, but I expect nothing less from you than to follow the Apple status quo and repeat whatever they tell you makes them better.

  • John Mozelewski

    I agree i have android phone and doubt i will ever have a iphone but i do have an ipad.  I love android for my phone but i consider my ipad a toy not a computer.  I dont really like idea of how the iphone is so small and you dont have many choices but i like idea how everything works on the ipad and i dont really need to use root permissions on my toy. 

  • JonathanRWegner

    I’m just looking at the latest numbers. Not defending, just stating the facts as you are.

    Each company ebbs and flows as user demand plays into their favor or they create user demand for their flavor.

    Also, if you bothered to read my post above, you’ll see I’m most interested in how MS will expand into the mobile space. A space they are currently lacking an effective presence in.

  • Joshua Curtiss

    Conversely, I am of the opposite opinion, and hate using email apps on the computer now because the simple manner that it is handled on the iPhone and iPad appeals to me. The only downer for iPhone or other devices of that size is it can be a little irritating if drafting a longer email. Because of that, I’ve found the iPad to be the sweet spot for composing email.

    Not arguing, just highlighting that opinions can differ on this aspect of the device.

  • Joshua Curtiss

    I even agree with this article, and it was fine until the last sentence where you betray your poor-taste pot-shot writing style. Leave those types of comments for the readers to express.

  • Shaunathan Sprocket

    What a temper tantrum, why couldn’t there be the email app? The lack of Courier was the reason I even bought an ipad.   

  • Mw

    Perhaps they already had the Nokia-MS relationship in mind, and thought Nokia could deliver that proposition???

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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