Blog Post

Microsoft Courier Shaping Up as a Truly Novel iPad Competitor

Stay on Top of Emerging Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

It may be a little early to say this, but to me it seems like Microsoft (s msft) took all the disappointment and fear resulting from Apple’s (s aapl) dominance of the mobile devices category over its own products through the years and used that energy to create the Courier. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen another company’s product and thought “That seems like something Apple would’ve made.”

Engadget posted more details about the device late last week, including two lengthy HD interface videos. Microsoft isn’t yet officially saying anything about whether or not this will become a production device, but Engadget seems very confident in its sources, and I’d be inclined to believe them since it seems more than likely Redmond is taking a page out of Apple’s marketing playbook by keeping things somewhat hush-hush but using “leaks” to steal focus.

Microsoft gets a lot of flak for doing a tablet the wrong way, as demonstrated by the HP model it unveiled ahead of the iPad to grab some of the attention away from that spotlight hog. But the Courier doesn’t have the same shortcomings. For one, it’s not based on Windows 7, but on a version of Windows CE 6, which also provides the basis for the Zune HD’s interface and the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS. It also runs on the Tegra 2, an impressive mobile processor.

It also has some considerable advantages over its Apple rival, especially if the hype is actually representative of what a production version will look like. First, there’s the size. The clamshell design allows it to be smaller than the iPad, while providing more screen real estate. Closed, it’s said to measure five by seven inches, and still remain less than an inch thick. It should also weigh less than a pound. It should take up just a little less space than the Amazon (s amzn) Kindle, for reference, which goes a long way toward making it truly, conveniently portable.

The Courier’s big advantage over the iPad, for me, isn’t the dual-screen design (although that helps), but the combination of pen and touch input. If I had to choose one, I’d go with touch, as Apple’s done with the iPad, but the opportunity to have both is a major selling point. Viewing the UI videos emphasizes why, and if you’ve ever used a tablet with a computer, especially those with a built-in display, you’ll know why a pen is a much better option than trying to learn to write or draw with your clumsy finger.

Microsoft’s notebook tablet is also refreshing because of its emphasis on interactivity between components and hardware features of the device. The software seems designed from the start to work perfectly not only with the specific features of the device, but also with every other software component of the OS, and all through a brilliantly intuitive UI. Nor is it a closed system despite this sharp focus, since the sharing features appear to be rich and varied.

Apple, for its part, emphasizes the apps. Apps are great, and they provide some pretty useful functions and terrific distractions, but they don’t really seem to work as well or with the same degree of interconnection as the Courier’s software promises to. Even Apple’s own built-in apps don’t have anywhere near as much potential for communication between and across each other.

In my opinion, where Apple got lazy with the iPad, Microsoft is throwing its entire mobile future behind the Courier. Not only that, but these previews are emphasizing the Courier’s strengths over the iPad without addressing things like media playback. The impression I get isn’t that the Courier is bad at those things, just that they’re taken as given. Instead, Redmond’s project is all about what a tablet can do that a media player can’t, something I’ve yet to really see illustrated by Apple regarding the iPad.

Related Research from GigaOM Pro:

51 Responses to “Microsoft Courier Shaping Up as a Truly Novel iPad Competitor”

  1. If it works per these clips, its for me and I wont be married to what apple wants to sell me.

    lets face it all apple wants to do with the iPad is sell you a platform that permits you to buy apps from apple and ONLY from apple. I prefer choice.

  2. Oh my dear it’s Pragmatic Himself.
    Is it PRAGMATIC to waste billions on fixing the XBox and compensating customers, and rethinking the XBox and still having to compensate more customers? We’re talking about throwing away, what, 2% of their market cap (imagine that) on a device that is only now slowly becoming what it should always have been? And Ball meh is Fortune’s top rated CEO too, right?
    Maybe you too would be interested in an architectural antique from London? I’ve got a Royal palace on my books. Worth a couple of billion but for you, pragmatic, let’s say half a mil, ok? I’ll send you a crafted vid animation, just so you know you’re not being shafted. Sold!

    • Pragmatic

      Every device, xbox, ipods, cars, have some degree of failure. Microsoft fixed the xbox, apple has fixed problems when they’ve cropped up. I, myself, had two xboxs get the dreaded RRoD. They fixed them, I still use them. I don’t much care for ‘Ballmeh’ either. I don’t think he’s visionary. I do like J Allard, he has vision and the ability to follow through. I’m not saying who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m just saying that I think a lot of people will be very excited for this product (no matter who makes it)
      Oh, and your half-assed attempt at wit doesn’t suit you, you’re not very good at it…you just come across as angry.

  3. Errr. Excuse me but were you born yesterday or even more recently?

    You say ‘but they don’t really seem to work as well or with the same degree of interconnection as the Courier’s software promises to. ‘

    These videos are beautiful vapourware distractions. You are looking at idealised visualisations of wonderfully functional, seamlessly interconnected apps dreamed up by a design studio, not by MS. Your naivete is astounding. Like the HP Slate ads, these are pure fiction. Based on CE6? Give me a big break. This Ballmer’s latest wet dream recreated by artful animators. I’ve got an antique bridge across the river Thames for sale yeah. You want to buy it? We’ll do the shipping free ok?
    You are living in a daydream. Wake up and …….

  4. @ Brian Hogg.

    MS challenging Apple is good for competition, and they can actually both succeed in different ways. I think you are slightly off though on Apple’s approach. Apple is extremely conservative in that it doesn’t announce ANYTHING until the actual media launch of the product. Any leaks and buzz are usually people finding out something because they are excited, or possibly tiny unofficial leaks that the thing actually exists. I appreciate this method, as they so what they so they are going to do — nothing less, maybe more.

    As far as I know, Windows 7 is the only actual in use product that people can use that is making money and quality — the rest is just buzz.

    They should steal a page from Jesus, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'”

  5. Apple announces products that are preparing to ship and sell. Microsoft is announcing a product they hope to someday build and sell. In essence, vaporware. Like most Apple aficionados, I want competition in the market. But to hype up a product like this from a video is stretching things a bit. In addition, Apple’s mobile products have never been just about the hardware, or just the OS/software. It’s the amazing synergy they have built between the hardware, the software, and store/internet that make their products so superior. Microsoft has yet to show they have the ability to do that. Microsoft has become a company that caters to other companies. Their revenue comes from selling OEM licenses of their OS to HP and Dell, and Office products to businesses. They have lost touch with the consumer, which is evident in most of their direct-to-consumer products.

    • It’s funny how people love Apple for the buzz and hype they create, yet when it’s from the “uncool” Microsoft, those same people dismiss it as though hype is suddenly a bad thing.

      Is Apple the only company allowed to get good buzz? Because it seems like Microsoft is on a roll lately:

      Windows 7 – Great hype, great sales
      Windows Phone 7 – Great Hype
      XBox 360 – Still great buzz
      Project Natal – Great buzz
      Courier – Great buzz
      Windows Phone 7 + Xbox 360 game integration – Great buzz

    • They seemed very consistent to me.

      You pinch-zoom to go out of an application to a parent level, it looks like two-finger swiping up and down switches applications, two-finger swiping left dismisses contextual menus, the stylus stuff looked pretty solid and consistent.

  6. old video, old msft concept that never materialized. More vaporware from msft. Hey, apple blog you need to rename yourself microcrap blog, you shouldn’t even be allowed to use apple in your name.

  7. Difficult to have any opinion on anything obviously not even a prototype.

    However, working on two screens may seem smart, but it is highly impractical. If they had made an actual prototype and not just a cool animation they would have realized this.

    Even when folded it is to big to fit in any pockets anyway. Increasing one screen only 20% would go a long way to eliminate the need for the extra screen.

    The only real criticism you can raise against it is that it doesn’t exist.

    Well, i don’t think Microsnot can afford throwing money down another hole …Like, Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox live.

  8. EliteWino

    I cannot believe so many people are falling for this cartoon of a non existent product. Microsoft pumps out countless concept videos none of which ever make it to market.

    If this thing does reach the marketplace there will be 20 million iPad’s in the wild by then.

    You know, the Zune HD is a really nice device. But, it’s years to late so nobody cares. The game was already over.

    • Why would the Courier need to demolish the iPad in order to be a success? Even if it’s just something that appeals to students, artists, and writers, that’s more than enough market to make it a success.

      As for the Zune HD, that software, and that interface, is pretty integral to the upcoming Windows Phone 7, which is being hailed by everybody as a truly innovative step in smartphone design.

    • Pragmatic

      Guess who heads up the zune development?
      J Allard.
      Guess who heads up this ‘vaporware’ development?
      J Allard.
      This will happen.

      Apple isn’t the only one that can create buzz over a product.

  9. Pragmatic

    First things first… I own a iphone, a Mac, and a slew of Mac related products. I own, and love, these things for the way they work for me. I enjoy myself more when working with a mac/iphone/ect than a pc/B.Berry/ect.
    I also own an Xbox 360 , it has the games I like and I can stream netflix. Again, it works well for me.
    This hate towards a ‘vaporware’ microsoft product is blind fanboyism.
    This thing rocks, you know it, and hate the fact that microsoft beat apple at their own game on this one. If this works as demo’d, they will have my money…know why? It’ll work for me. It interacts with me and my thoughts and makes it easy to organize and streamline what I’m doing. I already have an iphone, I don’t need another one that’s just bigger. It’s really simple…this does what I want better than an oversized iphone.
    Oh, and to the doubters out there that say this won’t even make it to market, the guy who’s spearheading this little project has done a few other things you might’ve heard of…Like, Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox live.
    Ask sony how they liked microsoft coming into their house and eating their lunch…seemed to work out ok.

  10. It’s interesting that with all the history behind it, Microsoft can spit out obvious vapor like this and still get coverage as if the product will really happen. There’ll be no Courier in 2010, and I wouldn’t bet any money on 2011, either.

  11. Microsoft is going for a totally different market then Apple. This is a business colaboration device and slick idea, but not who the iPad is going after. The iPad is targeting the average person, not the tech savy or corporate type. Most people surf the web, read email and consume light entertainment on their pc. Most hate the complexity of their pc or mac. That is why the ipad is perfect for them. It will sell like crazy. Apple has been targeting successfully this segment of the market for years with everything but the mac. The pc is too entrenched to be replaced by a mac. An ipad, on the other had is not pc replacement. At least not at first. Many will buy ipads and slowly not replace their pcs. They won’t need then anymore for what they do at home.

  12. Oh, PUH-LEEZE. Give me a freakin’ break!!! This product isn’t shipping yet, and it most likely never will. It certainly won’t ship in any form resembling what these demos look like…. and it certainly won’t “just work” like Apple’s products do!!!

  13. Best way to lose a battle? Underestimate your opponent. Declaring something crap out of ignorance and spite is rather silly. I understand the terseness, I really do, but someday, sometime, MS is likely to make a good product. I doubt the Apple bigwigs are as quick to blow it off.

    • ya, pain in the ass for your everyday apple-tard. Apple really is making the computer culture stupider isn’t it?

      But for people with patience and half a brain, this will be a great tool for many PRACTICAL everyday uses. not just watching fucking movies, reading magazines, and playing video games.

  14. paulgpetty

    Vapor ‘ware … vapor product.

    Not doubting that this is what Microsoft would like to build, but what does that video have to do with Microsoft? It looks like a 3rd party pitch for a cool productivity app. If this was an MS video I’m not sure they’d want to demo it as a one-trick pony.

    Oh, and does it come with Minesweeper?

  15. Michael

    If Microsoft actually makes and delivers this (which is a big if) I will be interested to see how it works in the wild. The big challenge is closing two screens against each other. To me, this is the biggest hint that we are talking vaporware. How does anyone feel about folding two iPhones or iPad screens together? There is a reason why the DS is ugly (functional, but ugly)— you’ve got to protect those screens somehow.

    It’s an intriguing design challenge that I am curious to see how they overcome. I also wonder how a split screen will work everyday. It seems like the novelty will wear off soon.

    But if they bring it to market, I’ll be happy. Competition is always good. Given Microsoft had none for years, it is nice to see them having to compete.

  16. Hmm, I like the clam shell because it’s very book like. I also like it from the point of view of effectively having two workspaces as demonstrated. The downside is that if you want to view something bigger, using the two screens together is not visually friendly as one. So there are pros and cons both ways.

    As others have said, being a MS proposal is also a serious downer. They have a well worn history of promising a lot and delivering a second rate product or not at all. So until they announce the 4th or 5th release date, I’d regard this as an interesting idea from an industrial design point of view only.

  17. George

    As said above, ‘it’s Microsoft … nuff said.” Unfortunately, I work as the administrator in an office that is Windows based with 90 originally hardware-to-Windows tuned machines. We are on a constant refresh schedule since on whatever platform Windows is deployed mobile, desktop, laptop, or other, it only takes about six months and regardless of maintenance and tweaking, the machines start to decay in performance until they reach terminal velocity. At home I have been Apple product based for the last decade. One old PPC G4 12″ iBook stills runs the same as it did out of the book.

    Perhaps, if Microsoft had absolute control of its hardware, maybe things would change. But, I doubt it will. Windows is cheap, universal, and has its aficionados. But ask those same happy buyers how they feel about the same machine in 6 to 9 months. The won’t answer since they will be out buying a new machine. I can’t see that the Courier will have the shelf life of a gnat in a blowtorch. A brand new side-by-side could demonstrate Courier initial “superiority”, but once the reknown decay sets in: Adios, Courier.

  18. I hate to say it, but I might buy this…of courcec microsoft will do prob do somthing to screw it up by production and it will probably only work on pc’s…aaaand its made by microsoft…. but I can definatly see its usfulness from a educational and design perspective

  19. But *it doesn’t even exist yet.* I don’t understand how anyone can make any judgments on the thing without using it or even seeing it in person, much less compare it to the iPad which we still don’t know fully well what it be like.

    Good lord, it’s like no one even remembers what “FUD” is anymore.

    • Did you not notice the iPad hype, or how many words were written about that device before there was anything at all available to look at?

      At least here, while this isn’t official, is “leaked” internal work, which is based off something.

      Also, the rumors are that this is in the late prototype phase. (One of the pictures appears to be of an actual physical device, which requires it to exist, yes?) Supposedly it’s coming out in less than six months. That sounds like more than nonexistent to me.

      That said, yeah, don’t get crazy over it until it’s confirmed; the excellent interface could be overly toned down as it comes to market, which would be a shame. But *if* it comes out like this, it will be amazing.

  20. Gazoobee

    Anyone who thinks the Courier is going anywhere but the dustbin of history is smoking crack. Seriously.

    At best the functionality is “niche,” and it’s a *sub-set* of the iPad functionality. How is that going to work? Why would anyone buy or use one of these things when they could get an iPad, (which will likely be cheaper as well)?

    Because it opens like a book? Gimme a break.

    If the world was still the same as it was before the iPhone and Microsoft could lock users into the Windows hegemony with this, then maybe. The trouble is there’s a whole new platform and it connects to your desktop whether it’s Windows or Mac or Linux.

    The Courier is a 90’s era technology demo, dressed up to look like an iPad. It will likely never come to market, and if it does it will not catch on with anyone who isn’t a die-hard Windows fanatic.

    • As a creative professional, I think the Courier looks fantastic. I want one. My wife, deep into Academia, wants one, too.

      If someone gave me an iPad for free, I would take it. If the Courier comes out (this year, as goes the rumor) and it looks like this, I will specifically get extra freelance work in order to pay for it.

      The Courier looks like it will do what I want a device to do. Simple.

      As for the iPad, it’s really a different thing, isn’t it? The iPad is meant for people who have at best casual computing needs, but it’s primarily a consumption device. The Courier looks like a creation device, and that’s MUCH more appealing to me.

      90’s era demo? Are you serious? I look at the demo and think that it feels futuristic in the way that the original iPhone did, which is NOT a feeling I got while looking at the iPad.

  21. Jeremy

    In response to the last paragraph in this article:

    With the iPad, Apple has made a platform for third party developers to create apps for. The Courier looks much more like a device to execute Microsoft’s visions of what a device like this should do.

    I would take the creative collective of thousands of development shops, over one.

  22. I agree that the concept video looks impressive, but lets not get carried away here…. This is a demo animation not real software. I will be the first to welcome Microsoft into serious competition with Apple as this is what is needed to force Apple to continue to innovate but I have seen vapourware demos like this from Microsoft before so I am not holding my breath waiting for it to come to fruition !

  23. I must admit this thing does look fantastic. At a software standpoint it’s more impressive than the iPad. However seeing the video’s it does look as if its aimed at a slightly different market.