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Summary:

Poor old Microsoft. You can’t blame them for trying, can you? Back at the start of the decade it gave us its vision for tablet computing in the form of Windows XP Tablet Edition and (via its OEM friends) a series of bulky, underpowered, overly-expensive machines. […]

Poor old Microsoft. You can’t blame them for trying, can you? Back at the start of the decade it gave us its vision for tablet computing in the form of Windows XP Tablet Edition and (via its OEM friends) a series of bulky, underpowered, overly-expensive machines.

Courier Tablet

Now they’re at it again, according to leaked prototype designs published yesterday by Gizmodo. The plans describe a machine codenamed Courier, a remarkable concept device that sports dual seven inch gatefold screens, touch-input and stylus-input support, wireless capabilities and a whole lot of awesome to boot.

Gizmodo say it’s not a tablet, it’s a booklet. They add that it started life as a skunkworks project few in Microsoft even knew about, but is now “…a real device, and we’ve heard that it’s in the ‘late prototype’ stage of development.”

Right now everyone is working on a tablet device of one kind or another. The horribly-named and equally-horribly-styled JournE Touch prototype was recently showcased by Toshiba; Arrington’s been talking-up the CrunchPad for what seems like forever, and as we all know, Apple is perhaps maybe possibly (absolutely definitely) working on its very own MacTab.

Poor old Microsoft must feel a little like “Woah! Dude! Didn’t we do this already?”

Despite the ambivalence of consumers, Bill Gates was always dedicated to the Tablet concept, and, I gotta admit, so was I. In 2003 I got my hands on my first very own teeny-tiny Acer hybrid Tablet PC. It was great. A ten inch screen with two pens, digital ink technology, wireless connectivity and — at least for the first few months anyway — decent battery life. There was no internal optical drive but it really didn’t matter, I didn’t miss it (and, as it turns out, getting along without an optical drive was early training for living with my MacBook Air!).

Sadly, the poor little Tablet PC was painfully underpowered. Even with a gigabyte of memory (which, for the time, was an awful lot of RAM for a notebook device!) it was glacier slow. Also, I was constantly worried that the hand-held, ultra-mobile nature of the device would be bad news for its 2.5 inch traditional spinning-plate hard drive; after all, solid state discs were but a rich madman’s dream back then. (As it happens, it did eventually spell doom for the HDD which bravely clung to life until 2006 when it finally clicked its last.)

Fundamentally, Microsoft was right about its vision for tablet computing, but — predictably — got the execution all wrong. For a software publisher famous for developing new platforms at the drop of a hat (I’m still struggling to understand Azure) the boys and girls in Redmond made the bewildering decision to use a modified version of Windows XP as its Tablet OS of choice. And it was unsurprisingly terrible; after all, Windows XP was designed with the desktop computing paradigm in mind. Its designers expected end users to click away with the humble mouse — not wield a pen.

If you ever tried using a Tablet PC on-the-go you’ll know what I mean; hitting those tiny buttons and icons with a fiddly stylus as you cradled an expensive slate in one arm while trying to write with the other was not particularly intuitive or fun. Mind you, it looked impressive.

I think Microsoft’s vision was simply too far removed from the reality of the hardware ecosystem at that time. Tablet PC’s simply weren’t powerful enough, didn’t offer the right storage solutions and couldn’t even stay powered-up for long enough to do anything particularly meaningful.

Learning From Other’s Mistakes

Apple watched where things failed for Microsoft and learned from their shortfalls. The iPhone and iPod Touch benefit from an operating system and user interface designed specifically with touch-control in mind. The hardware is thin and light, there are no spinning discs and, crucially, power consumption, while occasionally mucked-up by inadequately tested firmware, offers hours of reliable, productive use.

The phenomenal success of the iPhone OS proves that — just as Bill Gates believed — there is a huge market for tablet computing. Had the original Tablet PCs not been so insanely expensive they might have enjoyed higher adoption rates than the five or six people who eventually bought one. (I know I bought two. I expect Paul Thurrott bought the others.)

Microsoft has a long, rich history of developing amazing new technologies and showing them off in super-awesome demonstrations at packed conventions only to, ultimately, fail to bring them to market in the same awesome form. The original Zune wasn’t so bad, but Microsoft hobbled its potential by limiting its availability (a mistake it’s still making with the Zune HD). Microsoft Surface was another cool technology that should have been developed into super-cool new products… but today can only be found in a few hotel lobbies and, it turns out, a branch of Barclays Bank in Piccadilly Circus. (I’ve been there; they have a few Surface tables, usually not switched on, upstairs where no customers ever see them. Effective use of new technology, right?)

So what of Courier? Well, I expect Microsoft has built a great prototype. It will likely go to CES and demonstrate a fantastic “new” touch-based platform (no doubt some derivative of Windows 7) and it will get acres of column inches from breathless tech journalists who won’t waste a second branding it the Apple Tablet Killer.

But, in the end, it will do what it always does; it will leave it to its hardware partners to decide whether it’s a technology it wants to produce. And you know, some of those OEM’s might, tentatively, knock-out a few machines that will be both massively expensive and so deeply-flawed only the most ardent early adopters will buy them. (So that’ll be me and Thurrott again, I suppose.)

In the meantime, Apple will dominate with a killer tablet that will prove to Microsoft, yet again, execution really isn’t its strong suit.

  1. I know you’re the Apple blog, but seriously? This post has 0 content of any use to anyone.

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    1. Glad you liked it. :)

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    2. I have to agree.

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    3. I agree as well, this sounds like that appleinsider bash on the zune hd before it was even released. As technology has developed, tablet pc’s have continued to improve and trying to compare a 2009 tablet to a 2003 tablet is a joke. I think overall if both devices are actually produced they will both find their own niche.

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    4. Wow, Tablets have improved… but where? In my college the only ones with tablets are the Lenovo X61 guys with Win XP on it.
      Sounds to me like 2003 only with better hardware.

      I like the article. The Zune is ok, so I think this tablet will be also better than before.

      But it’s still microsoft and I have enough of them. So I’m waiting for the Apple tablet and another 5 years to buy a really good tablet.

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    5. I thought the article was quite insightful. On things like new product introductions related to new product categories, splitting the software and hardware decisions does not seem like the best approach. This is an undeniable advantage that Apple has.

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  2. While this is a really cool looking prototype, the real question is when will the actual product ship and what’s the OS and tools side of the equation, as Apple has pretty much shown this to be the bar for success.

    Clearly, Apple learned this lesson from Microsoft (in PC 1.0) but MS feels long removed from those days (i.e., cultivating and growing a software centered ecosystem), especially in light of all of the legacy that they have to support.

    Btw, here are some thoughts on where Apple’s Tablet and the e-Book is headed:

    Rebooting the Book (One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time):
    http://bit.ly/zOoEu

    Check it out if interested.

    Mark

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  3. I think it’s ironic that the commentators taking the author to task for lack of content and relevance, not only read the article anyway, and not only bothered to complain, the complaints have almost no content, and avoid any actual mention of the topic at hand and are thus equally content free and equally irrelevant themselves.

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  4. It’s funny how they would cap on the MS tablet concept but would go ga-ga over a mythical Mac tablet.

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  5. I was surprised that no one seems to have noticed that the demo used a lot of Apple patented hand/finger gestures.

    Also as a so called leak of a prototype, how is it that Gizmodo has what looks remarkably like advertising shots of the device. This wasn’t a leak or coup by Gizmodo, this was planted. Someone is stirring the pot :)

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  6. Yeah Gazoobee, where’s all the InfMofo’s “content”. I love the way the official video seen here http://gizmodo.com/5365299/courier-first-details-of-microsofts-secret-tablet
    shows a virtual hand. I reckon this is just a virtual product i.e. VAPOURWARE. Microsoft is really good at bringing out these types of products. Apple while secretive announces real products and even the rumours show real hands. See here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_taY7tnkSbY

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  7. Well, regardless of the fan boy/hater bun fight, I think everyone agrees it’s a cool demo with some good ui ideas.

    That’s what’s important because the ideas will make it into future generations of devices and the platforms will evolve. Ridiculous patents of no real merit like on multitouch gestures, just slow down this evolution.

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  8. “I think everyone agrees it’s a cool demo with some good ui ideas”

    I don’t. The UI was canned to the demo. No matter what task was to be done, the same swipe did it.

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  9. TAB often has some interesting posts, but I have to agree with earlier posters that the consistent MS bashing everytime there’s a story about them gets very old very quickly. Shouldn’t we all be past that by now?

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    1. who is “we”? You got a gerbil in yer bum?

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  10. A reason for not being too impressed with the CG video of the Courier is that it is a CG rendering for video. It would be a pleasant surprise were the model on the screen achieve delivery as a genuine product. It should also be noted that the original specs were the “Windows for Pen Computing” project, which was proposed in 1991 to stymy the plans of GO and its PenPoint OS.

    For further explanations of the MS tablet operating environment, you might check on: http://www.pencomputing.com/developer/pen_extensions.html

    Cheers

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