back to article Bill Gates strangled Microsoft's 'tablet for creatives'

New details have emerged about who, why, and how Microsoft killed off its Courier dual-display tablet 18 months ago. The simple answers: Bill Gates, Windows, and abruptly. In a fascinating 3,000-word tale of woe and intrigue, Cnet's Jay Greene details the life and death of the Courier, and the internecine Microsoftian warfare …


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  1. Robert E A Harvey

    >Gates reportedly asked Allard how Courier users would receive email on the device

    See, much as I dislike him, this is why he got rich. He understands the real world, not some sort of fantasy like the RIM people have.

    I still don't like his company, but he goes up in my estimation again.

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      He was right - somewhat

      But surely a courier with a set of apps capable of interoperating with standard windows apps would have had far more chance of competing in the tablet market than a 2 1/2 year late windows 8 tablet will.

    2. hplasm Silver badge


      "He understands the real world, not some sort of fantasy like the RIM people have."

      And tries to change it to match the view throughHisWindows...worked for a while-not for much longer,thank FSM.

    3. Ron Christian

      email is easy to fix

      The problem is, Windows on tablets sucks and always has. It's an old problem -- a KVM-centric interface trying to work on a touch screen. Apple solved this by designing a different interface on top of their existing kernel. The Courier was a step in that direction, but protectionism prevented them from following through. Again.

      A tablet running Windows isn't really a tablet. It's a laptop with a touch screen that has temporarily had it's keyboard and mouse disconnected. With Windows 7, Microsoft rebranded their accessibility suite as "tablet edition", and it works about as well as you'd expect. It looks like Windows 8 is rebranding Media Center as Metro. And that will work about as well as you'd expect. For real work, you're still going to need a keyboard and a mouse. And that's not a tablet. They'll see an initial spike as all-Microsoft environments try to make them work, but they'll end up with a tiny percentage of the marketplace, just like the other times they tried to come out with a tablet.

      The only thing that might have worked was a different approach. But as we've seen, different approaches are not tolerated.

      1. MGJ

        I was in a meeting with MS yesterday, and one of their staff was taking notes and using OneNote with Windows 8 Alpha. From the demo, it works perfectly. Battery life, weight and cost have stuff to work on for consumers, but for corporates, they are getting close.

        They were also victims of the tsunami; lots of niche launches got put back when certain components had shortagges.

    4. Giles Jones Gold badge

      Yes and no. He understands the current clunky boring things business users want, but you could hardly call Microsoft software fun to use.

      Courier would have been radical, ahead of the game and desirable simply because it was more original and a new beginning. It is this idea that everything from Microsoft needs to be a small step forward to avoid breaking backward compatibility that has crippled them for years now.

      1. Dan 10
        Thumb Up

        Big firm falls into big firm trap...

        How many times have we seen a company grow to such a size that their politics/people/business model prevents them from innovating? Courier was the opportunity to be brave and make MS relevant again.* Instead, like some latter-day Sun, they labour away behind those rose-tinted specs...

        Although to be fair, not having email would have been an issue for an ipad competitor. I do see Bill's point, but don't think outright nuking the project was appropriate.

        * Yes yes, I know SQL Server, Office, Windows etc are still very popular, but there's relatively little innovation going on.

    5. A. Lewis


      Good point.

      But I think there are two sides. This approach may have got Microsoft in their current position, with their current piles of cash. But surely it behooves companies like MS to use that cash to innovate in order to stay competitive and relevant?

      Then again I'm rubbish at business, so maybe if it was me, I'd have run MS into the ground with my reckless projects. :)

  2. Leo Maxwell
    Paris Hilton

    Once acain the dinosaur turns in its sleep

    Not surprising really, given previous decisions.

    Zune, MSN, etc.

    The behemoth that MS has become does not turn easily.

  3. petur


    So they can spend tons of effort on a project, and when it is almost done, have a meeting to see what they want and if this project fits? Sounds like the right management technique. Not.

    1. Robert E A Harvey


      Right. And who was running the company? The Balrog.

    2. aThingOrTwo

      I think it is more common than you think...

      Apple apperantly did the same when working on the iPhone.

      It's common to pit teams against each other internally.

  4. John McCallum

    Typical of most large Corps slow to react and always late.

  5. aurizon

    Gates was no visionary

    He was a one trick cowboy on a monopoly ride that continues to this day. He lacked vision completely. That said, he presided over a long running and profitable monopoly. What else has he done? Killed off competing browsers via his monopoly power, not by being better. Killed off word perfect the same way.

    It is no wonder he was so blind he was unable to see the huge potential in the Courier. I do not feel it is too late at all, it can still get traction.


    1. Neil Greatorex


      Read your "ICT" history on wikipedia then?

      Billy was definitely unwashed, whiney, "evangelistic" & shrill (at least he was in '85) but he had a "vision", which sort of makes him a "visionary".

      We may not like that "vision", nor where it took him/Microsoft, but you can't airbrush him out.

      PS: Still use WP5.1

      1. Magnus_Pym

        Bill Gates is a lawyer at heart. His 'vision' was that licensing, copyright and trade protection law could be used in the software industry to control trading partners and the competition alike.

        Microsoft 'invented' nothing else.

    2. Thomas 18

      At least he wasn't a patent troll

      as seems to be the trend nowadays.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        No, but MS doesn't seem to be doing too bad on in the old coffers dept with their rather weighty IP portfolio!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      How old are you?

      "What else has he done? Killed off competing browsers via his monopoly power, not by being better."

      Spoken like a true person that never used the total utter bag of shite that was Netscape Navigator and err, remind me of the other real rivals?

      1. Magnus_Pym


        Nescape made the classic mistake of playing the wrong game.

        They thought the game was 'lets all run as fast as we can' where as Microsoft were playing 'break their fucking arms and legs off'.

        They killed themselves in the end by trying too hard.

  6. Johan Bastiaansen

    So no email . . .

    And this would have taken them how long to fix?

    1. TheOtherHobbbes

      But also...

      ...that's the kind of question sane management asks at the concept stage.

      The fact that Ballmer didn't, and no one under him did, and he then had to wheel Gates in to be Terminator-bot when the project was ->this<- close to being finished - all of these things underline that Ballmer is the Ronald McDonald of technology CEO-ship.

      Still - MS lost an opportunity to bring something new to market, and that can only bring them closer to Chapter 11.

      It seems with HP spinning its wheels, MS stuck in a bog, Google amputating its R&D teams, and Apple without its divinely inspired former CEO, tech has become less interesting of late.

      Someone needs to peel off the top layer so some new talent can come through and shake up the game again.

      (And no, that doesn't mean Facebook 2.0. In fact it doesn't mean *anything* 2.0.)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "(And no, that doesn't mean Facebook 2.0. In fact it doesn't mean *anything* 2.0.)"

        Well it shouldn't - aren't we up to 3.0 now? :D

  7. Chad H.

    Courier's cancellation highlights exactly what Microsoft is doing wrong.

    They refuse to learn the lesson that they should be learning from the X-Box. Instead of taking the lesson that different devices need different approaches they're married to this idea that every PC Phone and Tablet can have this unified system and interface... And its simply not the case. It didn't work trying to make WinPhone like a PC and it won't work trying to make a PC a tablet - Metro is Fugly and clunky in a mouse environment.

    The Courier could have been a contender - as an iPad Owner I think the courier could have been superior. There's no reason why an email client couldn't have been included (She seems to send an email okay in the video).

    They just simply don't get it. MS spend too much time listening to the marketing folk.

    1. Charles King

      "they're married to this idea that every PC Phone and Tablet can have this unified system and interface"

      So ... very similar to what Apple is trying to do? Or have you failed to notice how Lion is designed to make Macs work like the iPad?

      I liked the Courier promo video as well, but without a communications (email, IM, twitter, etc) strategy in place it would have been a disaster.

      1. Chad H.

        Err no

        Whilst some elements of the iPad have crossed over the Mac remains a very distinct user experience to iDevices. This is completely different to metro being forced to fit in a hole where it doesn't belong.

  8. Don Mitchell


    I'm still waiting to hear why MS killed their E-Book project in the late 1990s. They had something like a kindle, invented ClearType as part of that project, but then just dumped the project.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @ Don Mitchell

      They didn't invent Cleartype, they stole it from someone else.

  9. cloudgazer

    This is why MS hasn't innovated significantly in decades - they're more worried about preserving existing monopolies than blazing new trails.

    1. Peter 48

      not quite

      I think the Kinect and Surface teams would disagree with that sentiment

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @peter 48

        Kinect was kind of born out of nessesity as Nintendo were practically wiping the floor with the competion for a good while. Has it set the industy alight and appealled to the masses as the Wii and it's controller did..? er.. no.

        And as for the Surface, I honestly think yours is the first mention I have seen of it in over a year let alone actually seeing one in use anywhere..

        Anon purely because the icon is the best one. Not relevent, just the best one on El Reg full stop.

        It'sa Mea... Mario

        1. Peter 48

          missing the point

          The reasons for innovation are irrelevant, the fact is MS have stepped outside of their core product to bring something highly innovative and risky. Surface isn't a commercial success but kinect has been incredibly successful.

      2. Magnus_Pym

        Didn't Microsoft buy Kinnect technology from PrimeSense?

  10. Adam Trickett

    Monopolies don't innovate

    If you are sitting on a monopoly you don't do anything innovative or disruptive, or your whole empire comes crashing in on you, as your new innovation has just levelled the playing field.

    You slowly add features as required to fend off competition and protector your monopoly. It's not in Microsoft's interest to promote any kind of computing device that isn't basically a fat client PC running Windows and fat windows binaries connected to a Windows server. All this web stuff and mobile device stuff isn't very good for them...

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Which is why patents, aka. monopoly armor, should be flushed down the toilet along with all the "Intellectual Property" lawyers.

      That's something OWS could actually be for. Instead of clamoring for someone, anyone to pay their phone bills.

    2. Richard Wharram

      Like Intel. They keep adding new features to tired old x86 and ramp up the speed when competition from AMD forces them to. When the competition isn't that hot though they try to hoist shite onto the consumer for profit (RDRAM).

      Nothing innovative though.

      1. Displacement Activity


        They practically created the home/business/microcomputer revolution in the 70's and early 80's by inventing DRAM. I was building computers then (~82) and my recollection is that it was the 2112 (?) that kick-started everything. The processors weren't a big deal - memory was. As far as I'm concerned, Intel have always been innovative. It was Microsoft that forced them down the x86 route.

        1. david 63

          Motorola should have won...

          ...their 65-- instruction set was much cleaner than the intel 80--

        2. Richard Wharram

          70s and 80s being the key words there...

          Think what crap Intel came up with in the late nineties and early naughties. RDRAM which performed worse than DDR mandated on customers because Intel had struck a deal with Rambus. The Netburst architecture which put GHz before actual performance, presumably to aid marketing. Itanium, which is just shit.

          Utter crap basically but they successfully defended their monopoly so made billions. Fair play to them as a business. Bah humbug as a consumer.

          1. Displacement Activity


            I can't believe (a) that anyone thinks that Intel isn't innovative, and (b) thinks that enough to downvote me. 22nm? 14nm next year? 3D? Yes, there's been lots of crap on the way - Netburst, for example - but all the silicon companies have produced crap, and many of them have produced much worse crap. It's completely irrelevant that some have been arguably "more innovative". Yes, AMD occasionally produces better x86's than Intel, on less resources, by being more innovative, or just smarter. I started by building bit-slice computers based on AMD, and they shafted me years later with one of their stupid new-chip-every-month-"Liberty chips" that didn't work. Every engineer has been shafted by some crap chip from some supposedly innovative company.

            If you actually bothered to read my post I was pointing out that Microsoft and Intel were very different. Intel is innovative, Microsoft is not, in any real sense. If Microsoft hadn't adopted x86, Intel would have moved on, dropped it, and produced something much better. They made the best of a bad job and did something that we all thought was next to impossible, which was to produce a world-class processor out of a dog of an architecture. Good luck to them. And, when you've spent 30 years in real hardware design, come back and downvote me.

    3. TheOtherHobbbes

      Er, why?

      Courier would hardly have killed Windows. It likely would never have been more than a niche product. At worst there would have been some UI crossover back to Windows.

      But enterprise types were never going to say 'Oh no let's not upgrade Office because that Courier thingy is a long-haired hippy toy, and that means MS aren't serious any more.'

      Besides, it was never going to take on the iPad, because the point of the iPad isn't that it's a tablet, but that it's a portable UI for the App Store, for iTunes, for Newsstand, and for sales of carrier minutes.

      The hardware is just the physical bit.

  11. Graham Dawson

    I would have bought one of these. I can't quite think of what I'd use it for, but I would have definitely bought one because it is *exactly* the sort of device I have been craving ever since I realised what a computer was. But no, Gates had to take it away before I could spend my money on it...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't fret

      Console yourself that it would have either weighed too much to be comfortable in your hand or else would have had a 30 minute battery life (or a combination of both).

      I love the concept too: It's Penny's notebook out of Inspector Gadget. And I would have something like it in a heartbeat, but the display technology is just not up to scratch yet. (And you would certainly want something like that to work outdoors too.)

  12. Steve Brooks

    wrong end of the stick!

    "'So no email ...And this would have taken them how long to fix?" No No No No No and No. The problem was never about NO EMAIL, the device already had email, the problem was it would have had email WITHOUT Outlook! It was an MS device that couldn't run Office, a definite nono. So when he asked about email he was actually asking whether it could run Outlook, because in MS speak its one and the same. The other tablet, being windows based, could of course run Outlook, so it won.

  13. Wombling_Free

    As a 'creative' myself....

    ... I thought the Courier concept looked fantastic.

    When I first saw the promo clip I thought "YES! Someone has actually worked out how visual design is done!" as a tool the courier looked perfect for the kind of 7 different ideas before breakfast kind of wok we do.

    It was also heartening to see someone other than Apple getting it right.

    What kind of creative, by the way? Architect - a REAL one.

    Now, I have an iPad 2. I wish I had what the Courier might have become. You hear that Bill? You lost a sale there! You probably lost a LOT....

    Oh, and the person who said 'they killed off WordPerfect' - c'mon, that was a mercy killing!

  14. Mikel
    Thumb Up

    It's for the best

    I think it's best of all of us if Microsoft continues to hide their head in the sand for a few more years. As long as they're off in the corner playing with their Windows and Office they're not getting in the way. Cool stuff like Transformer Prime and iPad and Google TV and Apple TV will keep coming out, getting better, and getting all the developers, developers, developers, developers!

    Windows 8 should be out in 2012, or 2013, or 2015 at the latest unless they have to refactor more than twice like they did with Vista and Windows Phone. On launch day it will have hundreds of apps, be buggy as hell, lack critical features and only work on platforms that were cool 2 years prior. By then we may not even remember why we used to care.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Blazing new trails

    Implies something new, starting from scratch, which levels the playing field, which is what you don't want as a monopoly. However, as MS can see, if you don't do it, someone else will.

    I like Google's approach better. Do everything, even if you're rubbish at it. Something might work and its quite a lot of fun too.

  16. Frobozz of Rassilon

    The parts that make no sense...

    1) Why can't Microsoft back two possible "tablet" designs? IMO, both approaches are excellent for different reasons... both have a market.

    2) Bill was right... email, Office and other MS properties *should* have had some tie-ins with the Courier.

    The part that doesn't make sense is that having Office represented was even in question in the first place! If Courier was built on Windows, there's no reason not to.. just do it right and Courier-like.

    Otherwise I, and other long time Windows touch/ink users, would have set them alite with "WTF no Courier ink integration with OneNote?! And I can't scrawl out a rough Powerpoint, dragging images from a browser on the other screen? Really?!" public rants.

    Don't cancel the Courier because the stock Office apps don't scale well to those screens... build better client experiences for those apps, and leverage Office 365 of course. It would be awesome.

    For those that have played with Win8 preview on multiple screens, you could imagine how nicely Metro live tiles and apps would work on one screen while another app runs on the other.

    Here's hoping the Courier eventually sees the light... all that great development, almost there. I know *so many people* who wanted one.


    On a related topic... if I hear one more retard go on about how windows sucks for touch, etc...

    I'd urge them to A) stick it, you know not whereof you speak and B) actually try a modern one out!

    Not a cheap shitbox, mind you, but a powerful multitouch/ink device, that someone has actually taken a few minutes to optimize for touch! So much is possible just by tweaking Explorer, before talking about any of the excellent 3rd party interface helpers.

    (no, I don't know why shitbox OEMs don't do it for you either, it's a travesty).

    The experience way better than is commonly believed... which is shame, because the common belief comes from people who have only played with an un-optimized mal-performing shitbox once for 30 seconds in a Fry's and then tell everyone they know how excruciating it was.

    This is most certainly exacerbated by iFans going in with a closed mind in the first place, and then spreading their venomous review with unparalleled vigor (as evidenced by other comments above). Even worse are those that never tried it themselves, but believe and repeat the opinion with the same vigor anyway.

    iOS wouldn't be any fun on a shitbox either, would it?

    - Frobozz


    I guess you have to kind of appreciate Windows/MS, its apps and its general place in your routine to get what I'm saying here. Appreciate does not necessarily mean love or hate - just knowing you only want to carry one non-phone device, you need Windows and you want it on a better type of device than a notebook/netbook or even a slate..

  17. Mallorn

    Old saying

    MS should really have remembered the old saying "don't shoot the messenger" before they killed the courier.

  18. jim 45

    remember Gates in front of Congress...

    ...pontificating about the furious pace of innovation at Microsoft?


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