I didn’t want to post about this, because everyone who is anyone has posted about it. I really dislike posting rehashes of other people’s work when they have done an excellent job with their write-up. Plus, I was growing a bit tired of only doing tips and rumors on Twitter (much respect, Twitter, I have grown to respect you and my fellow tweeters). I like to do analysis and informed speculation more than news and rumors. So, I really mulled over whether I had anything decent to say with Courier. After some back-and-forth, here’s what I’ve decided to say:
Much of what others have thought about Courier is true. It was real close to being made into an actual product. It was developed under the leadership of J Allard himself. And its incubation phase was a total black-box within the company, much like the Singularity/Midori/WDN project still is. That’s why it is so difficult to get any reliable information on its true status today as well. It has, however, truly reached a dead-end for now, where the road to commercialization is concerned. I thought about why that is, and what’s next for Microsoft, and I’ll tell you what I think; but first, a history lesson…
Courier started off, as Mary Jo Foley at ZDNet has suggested as an offshoot of the InkSeine project. People really passionate about ink and the stylus as inputs wanted to see where these technologies could go if they could break free of the Windows and Office paradigms and be created solely for a small subset of use cases or input method. Now OneNote looks nothing like InkSeine, and while it is a great program, it isn’t 100% efficient for use with a stylus only.
OneNote is kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. It got money thrown at it and has a decent number of installs only because it was bundled with Office. It has become polished enough to replace Outlook in the core-suite and become bigger than Word, Excel and Powerpoint combined on Windows Phone only because it was bundled with Office. However, Office has also restricted its UI and affected its usability on the slate form factor negatively (remember that slates were around as a TabletPC sub-class long before 2010). And while we may never know for sure, it is possible that an InkSeine-like OneNote might have driven slate sales so well that it could have become a bigger product for Microsoft than Windows or Office. There was too much risk involved in taking that path for Microsoft back then, however.
The InkSeine people went on to build Codex, the true predecessor of Courier. They basically said, “the custom software is usable, so let’s prototype custom hardware” (basically two OQOs put together). Then it apparently caught Allard’s eye in mid-2008. Allard hadn’t done anything exciting since his work on the original Xbox and the 360. For reasons unknown, he had apparently been asked not to mess with the Windows Mobile group (maybe because Microsoft thought that it was a corporate-only market and feared too much change might cause a backlash).
It seems he also had very little to do with Zune during its inception. Zune had been formed as a new team (both new hires and old hands from eHome) when the company’s leadership came to the realization that the Apple model was the only one that would work in the portable player space. In my opinion, Zune has definitely innovated at a break-neck pace, but has only now been given some of the respect and support it deserves within the company (still not enough though).
So, Allard apparently formed a small team of hand-picked people and drove the Courier project in complete silence (with leadership approval of course).
Specs: Two 71/2” x 5” OLED screens at 600x400 (3:2 aspect ratio) resolution each. When opened, the effective resolution would be 800x600 (4:3 aspect ratio). Thus, the Courier would resemble an average paperback in size. Dimensions of the product itself were approximately 9” x 61/2” x 11/4” when closed. The prototype was supposedly bound in a leather cover with a magnetized flap. WiFi b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, a microUSB and 3.5mm audio ports, a 5 MP camera and mic were supposedly included. The device would have 8GB of storage on-board, and would sync with a web service periodically.
The target for productization was achieving weight of less than 1kg. This was entirely dependent on three things: The body material choice (unknown), OLED screens with the digitizer embedded in the glass becoming widely available and improvements in battery technology. The team was aiming for an 8 hour battery life it seems, with improvements to come in future generations. The underlying architecture apparently shifted between Intel’s x86 Pineview platform and Qualcomm’s ARM Snapdragon platform as the team tried to figure out the battery problem.
Although people tend to quickly link x86 with Windows and ARM with Windows CE, Microsoft actually has a port of the Windows kernel for ARM as well, it is simply not available to OEMs. After much consternation, and playing around with a lot of interface and OS ideas (ranging from using the Windows shell or a custom interface and the Windows kernel or the CE kernel or a custom-built one), they settled on one sometime in late 2009 it seems. Courier would use the Windows CE 6.0 R3 kernel and a UI built from the ground up for it (the source, need I remind you, highly unlikely to know what he’s talking about on this thing). The UI had resemblance to KIN OS and Windows Phone 7, but this was due to some members across the three teams having a shared heritage of working on Metro precursors. There was no intentional overlap in design, and communication was limited to the bare essentials.
By early 2010, Allard and co had apparently reached almost all of their goals. The screen technology was available from Samsung, they had chosen a polycarbonate (a la last-gen white MacBook) and carbon-fiber (as in the Vaio X) body. Battery life was apparently in the vicinity of 6 hours, and needed to improve considerably before Courier could be mass-produced. All of this could easily be achieved within 1 year. So why did it die?
I put it down to two major reasons:
1. The elephant in the room, which we have ignored till now, is the cost. When the project was canceled, the screens alone cost close to 700 dollars it seems. Add on the rest, and the hardware manufacturing cost alone would be around $1500 dollars before it achieved sufficient scale. Unless Microsoft sold it at a loss, not enough people would buy what would seem to them like a 100 times more expensive Moleskine notebook. Then there was the fact of the iPad, which no matter how different in functionality to the Courier, could be bought for $499 in 2010, and offered better battery-life, was better suited for movies and had the App Store.
2. The existence of Windows Phone 7 and KIN OS apparently made company leadership uncomfortable with the idea of having a third code-base to maintain and a third UI paradigm for customers to learn. If sold, the product might cannibalize partner’s sales of Windows 7, and later Windows 8 based tablet and slate PCs as well as Windows Phone devices with larger screens. Attempts to finagle Windows Phone 7 OS on Courier were futile at this point in the project’s conception.
With these two big hurdles in the way, Microsoft decided to kill the commercialization path for Courier and disband the incubation team. It apparently asked Allard to refocus his attention on making Windows Phone and Natal’s launch succeed this year. So, what’s next? Will anything ever come of Courier?
From this point on, I’m purely speculating and guessing. Firstly, I think Allard will be asked to return to this at some point in the future. Probably not till a couple more years have passed and component costs are down. In the meanwhile, many of the new concepts and technologies perfected by the Courier project will likely be integrated by the Windows 8 Touch team and the Windows Phone and KIN teams for their next releases. I can see Microsoft returning to attempt to build a Courier-like device in 2013 after Windows 8 and likely Windows Phone 8 has been released. At that time, it could very well start over on the Windows Phone code-base and build a lighter, longer-lasting (battery-wise) and cheaper device and sell it for somewhere around $500 dollars. The apps question would be the one to contend with, of course. Windows Phone apps will specifically not be designed for a stylus, so I don’t know if they’ll work. Perhaps, the stylus could be relegated to second-fiddle status, adding some capabilities but not being required for basic usage. Developers might possible update their apps when feasible to add some pen functionality on the Courier-like device. The future is full of possiblities.
I’m happy to know that Microsoft is willing to move away from Windows when necessary and experiment with new product categories. The only question is—will the iPad dominate the market for this type of device in 4 years much like the iPod? Or will there be room for others as in today’s smartphone market? Stay tuned.