Microsoft’s Grand Tablet Designs (Take Two)

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.

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