Bill Gates helped end Microsoft’s Courier tablet project

By Tom Warren, on 1st Nov 11 12:52 pm with 63 Comments

Microsoft's Courier project

Bill Gates had a helping hand in ending Microsoft’s Courier project, according to former Microsoft executives.

Microsoft’s Courier promised a new innovative tablet concept using both touch and pen computing. The project was a new tablet concept that had promised to combine a dual screen book design with finger and stylus input. Various promotional materials leaked in late 2009 that demonstrated a number of concepts that would have brought an unparalleled productivity tool to the market. Microsoft’s Research team had reached a concept stage but Microsoft was never planning to manufacture the device.

A new inside story on Microsoft’s Courier device delves deep into why the Courier project was canned. CNET tells the story of how J Allard, a former Microsoft executive who worked on the Xbox vision, and Microsoft’s Windows chief, Steven Sinofsky, did not meet eye-to-eye on the future of Microsoft’s tablet strategy. Allard created the Courier concept and Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division President Robbie Bach was in charge of the overall project. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had a difficult choice to make for the Courier, keep it or can it. CNET reports that he arranged for the Courier team to meet with Bill Gates to discuss their project. Gates wasn’t keen on the experience due to the fact it wasn’t intended to be a computer replacement and had no functional email client. Allard’s team argued that the Courier was a content creation device. “This is where Bill had an allergic reaction,” said one Courier worker who spoke with an individual present at the meeting.

Microsoft killed the project several weeks later and a few months later both Allard and Bach announced their plans to leave Microsoft. Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s chief communcations lead issued a statement on the Courier’s death last year. “At any given time, we’re looking at new ideas, investigating, testing, incubating them,” said Shaw in a statement following leaked details that Microsoft had killed the project. “It’s in our DNA to develop new form factors and natural user interfaces to foster productivity and creativity. The Courier project is an example of this type of effort. It will be evaluated for use in future offerings, but we have no plans to build such a device at this time.”

Microsoft has showed off a number of Courier-like pen and touch computing concepts since the death of the device. Microsoft’s research teams released a video concept of how they are investigating the use and integration of pen and touch. Microsoft’s Windows 8 work also includes support for pen and touch computing, something that Microsoft will likely push in the beta version of the product. For now though, the Courier is dead and it appears that any work Microsoft’s teams put into the project will now filter over to the core Windows operating system.

Be sure to check-out the full story on Microsoft’s Courier death by Jay Greene at CNET It’s an interesting and unique insight into one of Microsoft’s highly anticipated projects.

Image Credit: Josh Long/CNET

  • Jubbin Grewal

    God dammit Bill, I really wanted this. A LOT.

    • HeatherL

      The problem with Courier for Bill is that it offered an alternative future that deviated from the “Window” story.   It was a similar to the OSX and iOS  divergent  where Courier would run on non Widow OS and in Bill’s world (and Ballmer’s too, owning everything to being Bill’s boy) could not accept a MS future that possibly rejects the legacy product.

      Unlike Apple and Steve who believed in “eating it’s own” of creating tomorrows innovation that cannibalizes todays successful products, Bills would rather hold protect profits by trying to control majority market share.   The book he Innovator’s Dilemma does a great job off illustrating this behavior for those who want to learn more about the insight offered here.  

  • Anonymous

    OK… looking at Courier now, there were some definite usage gaps, but there were also a ton of good ideas. Let’s hope that when MS adds dual screen support for a tablet notebook like this that they will include a number of those intuitive features. The center binding for “tucking-copy/paste” was a really cool and useful idea. Dual screens makes so much more sense than one screen for productivity. I’m really hoping MS decides to reimagine this.

  • Anonymous

    J Allard was over rated..  Look how successful he’s been outside of Microsoft – pretty much non existent.  While i loved the R&D that went into courier, its not like it just vanished. A lot of what they proposed will live on with other proejcts.   Give props to the people behind media center who saw an interface long before the rest of the company knew what they had. Give props to the engineers of OS/2 who were pushing for TCPIP long before Allard thought to push for it in Windows 95.  Change is good, but change for no reason is a waste and MS has to stop changing for no reason.   “Plays for Sure”. hah

    • Post

       >Look how successful he’s been outside of Microsoft

      Wow what a clueless and absurd statement. He barely left a year ago! It is not like he had to run out and start collecting a paycheck right away.

      >Give props to the engineers of OS/2

      Good for them but we are talking about MS. The engineers of Os/2 did not convince MS to put TCP/IP in – Alllard did. The fact that he had to do that is crazy and shows how moribund MS can be at times. He arguably convinced them that the internet was important. Giving “props” to soley to OS/2 for that is a non-sequitur.

      Allard was a disruptive force for good within a company that badly needs them because it too often relies on idiotic turf wars. Courier was a just such a project and it got people, even MS haters, more interested in a MS project that ANYTHING in the past 10 years. Its interface will continue to influence tablet computing for the next decade.

      So to recap the “Change is good, but change for no reason” Allard has been involved it:

      Zune whose interface influenced wp7 (perhaps the most innovative UI MS has ever shipped), the Xbox (ultimately most successful pure consumer play MS has ever been involved in)  and convincing MS the internet would be important to a desktop OS. Yeah lots of change for no reason.

      Frankly he is much more what is great about MS than the hideous and visionless Ballmer.

      Losing a person like that, even with their mistakes is s shame. Bill is not always right. (It is especially disturbing, as a content creator, that Bill’s problem with courier is that it was for just that purpose. Of course, he still thinks the iPad needs a keyboard to be successful.)

    • Anonymous

      Metro was around before Allard knew what to do with it and TCPIP was directly the result of competition, not Allard.   Ironically, almost everything improved when Allard wasn’t involved.  He may have had some great vision, but his execution was terrible.  Microsoft put BILLIONS of dollars to his name and all they got in return was someone who turned around and quit.

    • Post

      > TCPIP was directly the result of competition

      No, no and No. According to an MS’s own internal emails, it is Allard who is responsible for convincing them to compete on this level in the first place. He also wrote the the API for socket that allows windows to connect to the internet, created the first internet server at MS and most importantly he is the guy that wrote the memo convincing Gates to take the internet seriously and that’s according to…Gates. He is also largely the reason that Xbox Live exists which turned out to the be the killer app for the console. The idea that he did nothing but spend money is just shortsighted. If anything he always has had to push against MS’s own moribound tendecy to think only in terms of Windows (oh yeah if it wasn’t for him Xbox might have run windows as Gates wanted it to). MS is a a company, that to this day, still barely has an understanding of what a pure consumer product is and how to communicate the benefits of said product. In fact, w/o the xbox (and now kinect) MS would still be known mostly as a the people who make the thing that runs on my computer. People like Allard have a vision for the company beyond that and ultimately that will be missed.

    • Anonymous

      @9399f097ae0e0a04821c426bba0858e4:disqus Oh come on, Allard just finally got the balls to say “hay, we’re late to the game” but he most certainly wasn’t visionary.  IBM had TCPIP on all of its Operating systems and in 1994 IBM Shipped OS/2 Warp with everything built in that had MS not shipped windows 95 with the same functionality, they may have lost the OS war. EVERYONE knew the internet was coming. Allard may have saved MS’s ass, but he certainly wasn’t visionary.    As for XBL, again, he may have saved Microsoft’s ass there again, but even then, i’d wager that had Allard really been visionary.  It was Sega that put Windows CE on a console and launched that really inspired Microsoft to get off their collective asses and even when it comes to zune, it was 3rd party companies begging microsoft to offer something but only Allard that told them to go to hell, we will do it ourselves.  Do i like my Xbox, sure.. did i like my zune? sure.. but what would have happened had zune been an OS that fit a device spec that was later expanded to include apps and then a phone rather than the massive failure that was EOL products all the way through that burned many views of microsoft as a company?  I mean, for christs sake, maybe the xbox should have ran something closer to windows than what it did and maybe they shouldn’t have gone powerpc for 2nd gen – then maybe Apple with their standard desktop os and standard device iOS wouldn’t have punched them in the balls and beat them to the market.  We shall never know.

    • Guest

      Allard did some interesting things up to Xbox. After that he lived off his reputation. Courier had obvious problems that would have made it stillborn. Let’s face it, Allard and Bach could always talk a great story but rarely delivered.

    • Karl Cramer

      Very true. After the Xbox J Allard seemed like he started to believe his own press. He started to live the douechy hipster lifestyle and saying trendy things like “brau” and calling Microsoft his “tribe.” I’m sure he caused more than one set of eyeballs to roll at meetings.

  • Wemberg Carlo Estil

    Bill knows how Awesome win8 is gonna be so i think it may worth the sacrifice in the long run.

    • Anonymous

      I think Bill wanted to make a good first impression with a Windows 8 tablet and he is thinking way in the future of the device.

    • Kee

      come on, bil is not involved in win8 developement)

  • Keith Franklin

    I think the Courier was the cart before the horse. I think it will be resurrected once Windows 8 is fully complete.  A Windows 7 Courier would have been a nice concept that probably have been a one off and lived a short life. With Windows 8 and multi-touch light weight devices fully supported Courier will rise again.

  • Anonymous

    ahhh.. what a waste.
    All they had to do was add an email client…

    • Anonymous

      I think there was more to the cancellation than just the lack of an email client 

  • Anonymous

    J Allard should have brought Bill Gates in earlier to review the concept. It would have saved a lot money and resources. 

  • Impartial

    I’m sure they will bake some of the good stuff into Win8…

  • GreyWolf

    “An allergic reaction” – that’s funny… :D

  • Wourelia

    Didn’t they use parts of the Courier concept for the KIN phones?
    We all know what a success that was.

    • Anonymous

      Kin was a failure not because it wasn’t. good enough but the way it was carries out.. They were marketing it to teenagers who had very little purchasing power bur ironically it has the most expensive data plans, no apps .. Was basically a feature fone and one more thing they ut got stucked in America which is the bane of all MS failures .

    • Karl Cramer

      KIN was another J Allard and  Robbie Bach production.

    • EM

      Actually Andy Lees won a power struggle with J Allard over Project Pink (as Kin was then known) and then Lees and Roz Ho ordered Pink to be rewritten in Windows CE which delayed it 18 months.

  • Anonymous

    MSFT made the right choice:

    1) this was just a zune.
    Like the zune before it which had a lot of innovation and features which the ipod lacked, it would simply die to the more popular apple rival because MSFT can’t market things properly and the press is hevily biased towards apple.

    2) it would have been slow to update.
    some reason that if they had released this thing, it would be on a yearly update schedule giving them an advantage over windows. false. the zune HD was never updated. the prior zunes would never update either. They had no iOS story, they had no windows phone story. It would be a device you buy, put away and forget about it.

    3) its failure would have crippled the win8 story.
    Just as the KIN has lingered to tarnish the reputation of wp7, and it is seen as a false start that robbed MSFT of a lot of credibility, this table would have eventually met the fate of the zune and the would have been forced to go the way of windows 8 after spending tons of money energy and time on this. If you think win8 is late in 2012, this tablet would have certainly meant no full windows on tablets until 2018 the earliest. MSFT dodged a  bullet by killing it. and it should be celebrated.

    4) MSFT can’t compete with apple in the apple way.
    The zune proved MSFT can’t build a brand new ecosystem. The one thing they have that neither google nor apple can ever hope to have is over a billion customers of your OS. If you leverage that kind of power to give birth to the next tablet revolution, then they stand a chance. The only other alternative is play a google-like game to dump the OS and hope for the best. The failure of android tablets shows the flaw in google’s strategy: this ain’t the smartphone market and it moves under different rules.

    Ultimately MSFT did the right thing. Focus on what they are successful and the one thing only they can do: bring windows to the tablets.  Anything else would fail.

    • DaMarico Fowler

      Part of the problem with the Zune was they were creating a competing device without actually trying to compete on both a marketing level and getting deals with music labels. Also Microsoft is weak on building consumer products outside of the Xbox, the Courier had potential in that regard but Allard should have at least considered how the Courier could work within a more straight line business  

    • Anonymous

      I don’t think the zune HD was weak at all. but apple had iOS and a developer story in addition to new models in a consistent basis. MSFT sat on it, never did anything. to this date you still CAN’T make a zune HD app if you wanted to. not that it matters at this point.

    • WixosTrix

      Zune was also about the software and services too, not just the devices.  Any long time Zune user can tell you about watching the Marketplace grow from just a few million songs to complete entertainment service with music, tv shows, and movies.  They have the only service that allows stream you purchased tv shows and movies on any PC (through the Zune software) or Xbox 360 simply by signing in with your Live ID.  And of course you can download them to your PC’s and Xbox.  Same goes for if you have a Zune Music Pass, with the addition of being able to stream through any Silverlight-compatible browser.

      I always saw it as, if MS really wanted to push the Zune devices, they would have.  They didn’t have the content to compete with iTunes and it would be pretty hard to get people to switch when you dont even come close to offering what they currently have access to.

    • Anonymous

      I agree. A Windows tablet is the next evolution of the Windows OS. People are not going to be tied to their desktops in the future but they want all the power a desktop and not the heftiness of a laptop.  

    • oolong2

      I disagree….

      We can all make EXCUSES for why it was a good thing it was canceled, but lets just look at it objectively for a second:

      1.  The Courier got canceled just before the iPad was released.  Yet it is OBVIOUS how  the iPad has changed the  entire industry even without incuding any “content creation” what so ever.

      2.  The fact that we are still talkiing about the Courier years later is indicative of how powerful the story of the Courier was.   Microsoft DID in fact out “Apple” Apple in terms of innovation and design.   To say it wouldn’t sell well because of the “Zune” is comparing apples and oranges. 

      Why not compare it to something else innovated like Kinect that sold millions in less than a month?

      Zune is like an iPod with a couple additional features.  The Courier, like Kinect, was unlike anything on the market at the time.

      3,  Microsoft is now seen as playing catch up to the iPad instead of actually LEADING….    Microsoft could have easily ridden Windows 7 + Courier for 2-4 years before coming out with a product that combined them both in Windows 8.

      Originally I thought Courier was canceled so that it would become part of Windows 8.  Which I thought was a good strategy.

      Now that I hear that it was canceled because of Office and Email.  It really shows how short sighted executives can be…

      I think Windows 8 will be a big deal, but in the end Microsoft is essentially copying success rather than CREATING IT. 

      Windows 8 is to the iPad as the Zune was to the iPod.  The only difference is that Windows already has a large existing user base so market penetration won’t be a problem.

    • Anonymous

      I read halfway through what you wrote and I had t to press like because you were making lots sense.
      The problem with most of the people where is that they will support MS even if they do the most stupid thing.. its just pathetic sometimess

  • Guest

    I think Bill was right. Courier is a nice toy just like an iPad but not very useful. If it would make it into the production it would share the same fate as Zune or Kin.

    This would be a completely new product at the Microsoft line and not really compatible with anything they do. And as we can see such products didn’t sell well. Microsoft would just have lots of costs with this one.

    But I think that parts of this product would have their place in the future development of Windows 8 or Windows Phone Apollo to achieve their 2019 vision.

    • Guest

      Bill may have been right but it was for the wrong reasons. Courier was probably too expensive to build and battery life would have sucked. But MS should be trying to compete against Windows. Apple and Google definitely are. And if MS continues to avoid making those kinds of bets that has the potential to obsolete Windows, then it’s only a matter of time before someone else succeeds and Windows does an IE-like share swan dive that will be unrecoverable.

  • phil jay

    Courier seems to fit perfectly as an Win8 app, not as a standalone device.

  • Anonymous

    I lost pretty much all respect I had for MSFT’s creativity when they dropped the Courier. They had an awesome product; something that could have genuinely competed against the IPad and they abandoned it because it didn’t have an email client built in? Are you freaking kidding me? Email is like 101 in development and wouldn’t have taken them long to develop one. 

    Imagine an email client that you could literally write a note for with a pen? Uhm, epic?

    • Anonymous

      Maybe I missed what you meant but…….I can use handwriting with Outlook with my ancient Toshiba M400 Tablet; I can handwrite an email and have the message converted in block letters or send it as it is.
      Is something like this what you would like to do?

    • Anonymous

      I know that it exists and has existed for some time. Handwriting recognition has gotten significantly better over the past few years and while there are older devices (as you mentioned) that can do it, I think that a modern day device with more touch sensor points and more accurate software would have produced a far, far better user experience.

      The fact that the software already exists just goes to show how absurd of a call that was. 

    • Anonymous

      the courier couldn’t compete with the iPad. The dual screens would make it too expensive for the consumer market. It might have been a big hit with businesses though. IPad is a consumption device. That is what the average consumer wants for everyday use. 

    • Anonymous

      I disagree; back in April of 2010 the Ipad screens cost $95. The Courier would have had smaller displays and thus have an even lower price point. If they made it in Q1 or Q2 of 2011, it would have been even lower. So no, I disagree with your assertion completely.


    • Anonymous

      I disagree, back in April of 2010, the Ipad screens cost $95. The Courier would have had smaller displays and thus a lower price point even there.

    • Anonymous

      Wasn’t there a big problem with battery life dual screens?  I thought that was one of the major drawbacks to dual screen tablets.  Battery life seems to be very important to Microsoft.  I think this is why the Win7 phone does not use a dual core processor.  Likewise, Apple is having major problems with the battery life of their latest iPhone which has a dual core processor.

    • oolong2

      Look at the prices for two small touch screens compared to 1 large touch screen., then get back to me…

      I can’t beleive the amount of people making excuses for Microsoft.  Sorry, but to say what the average consumer wants, AFTER the iPad sold milions is the same short sightedness that led to killing the Courier. 

      Steve Jobs thought about what the consumer needed BEFORE releasing a product.  He didn’t simply wait until a competitor’s product was successfuly before copying it…

      I find it funny that we have people justifying Windows 8 because it can do everything lacking in the iPad yet at the same time we have people arguing that the iPad was successfult because it is lacking.

      Cognitive dissonance at it’s finest.

    • Anonymous

      Think they could have made the courier and win8 tablets to cater for separate markets

    • Devon Garner

      I wonder why the CREATIVITY team did not think of the email with the pen concept. It seems that if the email client were so easy they would have just thrown one on there. I also wonder how long it would have taken for the Courier to go from concept to actual product or even first stage.

    • Anonymous

      Heh, I like how you assume that their CREATIVITY team is naturally smarter than everyone else. Furthermore, whose to say they didn’t and just hadn’t gotten around to it before Bill saw the device? 

      It also sounds like they were intent on making it content-production driven and weren’t giving credence to consumption. This was by far a shortsighted mistake but would have been worked out had it had an opportunity to move beyond the incubator stage. Engineers lose a lot of the pull after that stage.

  • Karl Cramer

    Gates was absolutely right. A tablet device that couldn’t send and receieve e-mails? That’s dumb and would’ve failed spectacularly. Good call.

  • Anonymous

    Their design would have necessitated a custom OS that was different from their Windows and Windows Phone offering… Software designers would have to specifically target this device to develop for.  Since it didn’t conform at all to the current tablet screen size and aspect ratio, apps already written for Android and iPad would not be easily ported to this.

    I think they have a much clearer strategy now with Windows 8.

  • Mikado_Wu

    “Allard’s team argued that the Courier was a content creation device”

    Bill Gates does not want multiple eco systems, essentially this is what would have happened.  Microsoft has always strived to but EVERYTHING into Windows and make it afforadble. 

    I loved the Demo’s of the Courier and may have bought one.  That said I bet you most all the good feature will be in Windows8 and the next version, which is Ultimatley best for me and other consumers.

  • Guest

    That article sounds pretty one-sided. Like J was the guy feeding most of it to the reporter.

  • Anonymous

    The problem with Courier was the same problem faced by all Allard’s
    products, they were islands. Xbox didn’t work with Windows, Zune didn’t
    work with Xbox, Kin didn’t work with anything but Facebook, and Courier
    would not have worked with any other products.

    MS is a platform
    company. Coming out with Courier and not having an email App let alone
    an App store, or an SDK and no integration with other products would
    have embarrassed MS in the face of the iPad. This would have been a
    dual screen Kin.

    In my dreams, Courier is an dual-screen,
    note-taking, angry bird slinging, emailing, web-browsing, ass-kicking,
    iPad killing, super device… In reality it sounds like it was a
    portable OneNote with a Web browser… no apps, no integration, no
    platform. This can be copied in Win8 with software and I hope they
    build something better.

    • Anonymous

      Not everything had to work with windows.. !!
      But to get to your point.. Yes.. the initial idea of iPhone and even Xbox to some extend would have been to make them “island” products which carried out at take and good at them.. Reaction from users will determine the future of these products.. as int he case of Xbox for instance. The initial idea was simple … but today it has been transformed into a complete home entertainment device.. am sure if they brought it on they could have surely find a way to make it little more usable int he future

    • Anonymous

      Even Apple knows that it’s better when you integrate with what people already have. This is why iTunes exists on Windows.

      Not everything has to work with Windows, but it should… especially from Microsoft.

    • Anonymous

      and what way does the Xbox work with Windows?

    • Anonymous

      XBox works with Windows Phone 7.5 and will work with Windows 8. Cut Microsoft some slack, they’re innovating at a rapid pace. I know for a fact their dev teams have been working overtime for years straight!

  • Anonymous

    Hopefully, the Windows 8 tablet will include the best applications from Courier. I think Bill Gates just wants one eco system for their products. Who can blame him with products like Windows OS, MS Office, Outlook, Hotmail, Explorer, Xbox Live, Skype, MSNBC, and Bing.  I don’t Apple could boast a product line as widely used and name recognized as what Microsoft has built up.

  • Arkistriph

    It looks as if Apple is bringing a lot of this to market now and the appletts will eat it up. I believe Zune could have been hughley successfull had they marketed it properly, but imho it was a test for WP7. The form factor and idea behind the Courier could have been successfull as well, if they added a phone function, E-mail, Zune and other basic features it could have been great. Oh well

  • Anonymous

    The iPad killed it, no?

  • Owais_503

    this wouldhave never work unless steve job was going to make it.

  • Owais_503

    i would rather get windows 8 tablet then this.

  • Anonymous

    Am quite appalled by Microsoft’s decision to kill this project after reading details from CNET. This sums up the current situation the company is in right now.. very little urge to push themselves. Since the past decade all so every product (except of Kinect) Microsoft releases has been some sort of reaction to what a competitor has.. talk of Bing, Windows phone, and Windows 8.. they whole direction is to play to wht competitors are doing rather than setting their own route.

    The courier was the only product in over a decade which got me interested in technology again after Apple had very much  dominated the tech industry (and I never liked Apple) Think about the many possibilites this product would have brought to students, doctors, scientist, designers, physicist, anyone who is needs to jot down ideas or involved research some how….  It didn’t have to compete with Win8 tablets..

    before we know Apple or Google will come out with some sort of disruptive device and Microsoft will be having their tales between their legs trying to catch up rather than determining their on fate. This is just sad.. 

  • Olisaebuka Maduka

    I’m very disappointed in Microsoft for this courier debacle. Here I was hoping, praying, anticipating that next year Microsoft would surprise everyone by releasing the courier, and then tell us the reason they cancelled it last year was because they saw it more strategic to release it alongside windows 8 so that it would run on the new winRT framework and access the same marketplace for metro apps.

    This story shows the problem within Microsoft; too much internal competition, and a complete neglect of having a competitive advantage in the technology market over other companies (Apple & Google mostly). Balmer has failed as a leader if he can’t get every division to work together towards the same goal of positioning the company to be an industry leader and market mover. Just when I started to think Microsoft was truly changing for the better, I hear stories like this that prove otherwise and has me really worrying for them.

    The courier could have had a market of its own like the ipad, the market of the digital journal, a new market that the couriers would have dominated. It would replace ntebooks across classrooms, used in professional environments over other tablets and opened up a huge door into the future of natural user interfaces (NUI)

    Please Microsoft release the courier next year running on WinRT, accesing win8 marketplace for metro apps, and built with arm processors for longer battery life and I promise you won’t regret it.

  • JustMe

    This is nothing like the Zune.  Nobody else had anything like this at the time it was “leaked” as being in development.  It’s high concept, and something that Apple would have easily released.  This is why Microsoft stock is down.  They copy what others do.  They don’t innovate.

  • Anonymous

    take a 1280×800 screen and split it at the software level. there you have it. you don’t need two physical screens. thank you bill for ending this project. else it would be MS biggest joke.

  • Guest

    Folks, the screen alone for this device was going to cost $700. All in it would have retailed for around $1500. Battery life was 6 hours. The goal was 8. It would have been DOA vs the iPad.