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Microsoft’s Grand Tablet Designs (Take Two)

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Poor old Microsoft (s msft). 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.

24 Responses to “Microsoft’s Grand Tablet Designs (Take Two)”

  1. While the tone was set rather starkly with the first line of this article, I do agree with the author’s points. Microsoft has a tremenous track record for inventing and hyping new and world-changing technology, yet stumbles upon delivering said technology.

    Remember how cool Longhorn was compared to Vista? Remember Project Origami?

    The author nails it on the head in regards to devices such as these… if MS relies upon 3rd party manufacturers to create the hardware, such devices will fail. Comparing MS to Apple is somewhat unfair (MS is primarily a software company, and Apple is primarily a hardware company), but it does highlight the nature of their problem. The Zune (especially the HD) has been a fairly successful product. And the xbox 360 (despite it’s failures) has been a phenomenally successful product. What did they have in common? Both were built my MS themselves, tightly controlled, engineered, and executed.

    If Microsoft were to delve more into hardware manufacturing and the controlling of the hardware platforms their software runs on, we might just see more of these game-changing devices come to life.

  2. Infophiliac

    It’s becoming clear that there is a real market for

    This kind of stuff, which has zilch to do with Apple beyond the standard “ha ha, our team did it better” paragraph, could live there, and those of us who come to this blog for Apple-specific information can go about our merry way, our RSS aggregators uncluttered by posts that we wrongly think will actually have something to do with, you know, Apple.

    • Exactly! This post is just a half-assed review of the Microsoft Tablet PC from 10 years ago and then some wild speculation about the Apple tablet, which hasn’t even been announced!

      Look I am a die-hard Apple fanboy. I have the iPhone, I have 3 macs in my house, a time capsule, and a hackintosh.

      My ire comes from the fact that I follow this blog to find actual information about Apple products, and this post is not even about apple products, and it HAS NO INFORMATION. It is really a terrible, terrible post, and I felt compelled to call the writers and staff out on it.

  3. Microsoft is good at doing demo of technology they will never do exactly as is, that’s the old way to do things.

    Think back at what Apple promised over the years with the new OS then called Pink (back in the OS 7 times), well that all changed when Jobs came back at Apple. Apple never show stuff they can’t do, they only show available product, that way you don’t create expectation. Ok, sometime they broke their promises but it’s not on purpose.

    Although Microsoft can make great demo, they rarely follow with as good a product, remember Origami ? Ever seen one ?. In this case with Courier what we have is a nicely design prototype, not a finish product. Can you spot a name, model number, Microsoft sticker anywhere on that product ?

    Also the interface is clearly a proof of concept, no way a finish product, even the Origami looked more finished. But it is still a good concept, just not something that will be in store soon, I think.

    p.s. For the bashers of this article, the only problem I see is that the title should have been more like: Microsoft’s Grand Tablet Designs, back at work after a first failed attempt. Of course, it’s a little long but it would show that the article is clearly about the failed tablet revolution Microsoft was announcing back in the day and not this early proof of concept.

  4. Remember the Microsoft “Longhorn” demo videos (all CG) from 2003 ! They look better than Vista (3 years later) and Windows 7 (6 years later)…

    If this is in fact a late prototype (OS/GUI as well… they don’t say… it might just be prototype hardware running test-Vista/7 OS) and they do demonstrate a product in real life rather than animated, and announce when it will be available, that would be great. Until then, I can’t help but think this is an attempt to get people to hold off from anything Apple might release.

  5. J.M. Heinrichs

    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:


  6. 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?

  7. Gregor mcnish

    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.

  8. Bart Hanson

    Yeah Gazoobee, where’s all the InfMofo’s “content”. I love the way the official video seen here
    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

  9. 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 :)

  10. 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.

  11. 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):

    Check it out if interested.


    • 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.

    • 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.

    • supersnapp

      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.