How Windows 8 KO'd the innovative Courier tablet

There was plenty of innovation in Microsoft's ill-fated Courier tablet. The project ultimately died when Microsoft decided to bet solely on Windows for tablet computing.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
8 min read
Microsoft's Michael Angiulo (left) and Steven Sinofsky show off Windows 8 at the company's Build conference in September. Microsoft

Pitting product groups against one another is almost as much a part of Microsoft's culture as complaining about the employee review system or grabbing a free soda from the employee kitchens.

Win that Darwinian battle and your group can often find itself at the heart of Microsoft's next big product push. Lose, and you can only hope that all of your technological achievement eventually finds its way into some product in some form.

Last year, an innovative tablet concept, borne from the consumer braintrust at Microsoft, was being incubated. The vision of Courier, as the tablet was known, featured two screens, each about 7 inches diagonally. That way, users could research ideas on one screen, while drafting essays, sketching concepts, or brainstorming product plans on the other. It supported both pen and touch computing, and folded in half like a book for storage. The tech press, such as the Web site Gizmodo, which broke the story of Courier's development, raved about the gadget's potential.

Inside Microsoft, though, Courier found itself in competition with a competing vision for tablet computing--Windows 8. It was late 2009, and Windows 7 had just launched that October. Plans were well under way for the next version of the operating system. Apple's iPad wouldn't launch until the following April. But it was already clear to several Microsoft executives that the tablet market was poised for growth. Windows chief Steven Sinofsky's plan called for the next version of the operating system to run tablets as well as personal computers.

That vision carried plenty of weight at Microsoft. Sinofsky was a proven leader at Microsoft, having run the Office division for nearly eight years, before taking the helm of the Windows group in 2006. During his Microsoft tenure, he's developed a reputation for shipping quality products on time, a skill that carries huge weight at Microsoft.

For Courier to come to life, the team creating it would have to convince the Microsoft brass that the device would offer the company substantial opportunities that Windows 8 could not. In the end, that proved to be too large a hurdle for J Allard, Courier's leader and Microsoft's chief consumer technology visionary.

To tell this story, CNET interviewed 18 current and former Microsoft executives, as well as contractors and partners who worked on the Courier project. None of the Microsoft employees, both current and former, would talk for attribution about the project, worrying about potential repercussions from the company. Microsoft's top spokesman, Frank Shaw, offered only a brief comment for this story and otherwise declined to make Microsoft's senior executives available.

While dramatically different personalities, Allard and Sinofsky are deeply connected in Microsoft lore. As young Microsoft employees in the mid-1990s, the duo separately warned then-Chief Executive Bill Gates about the looming promise and threat of the Internet.

In 1994, Allard, a 25-year-old programmer only three years into his Microsoft career, wrote a memo titled "Windows: The Next Killer Application on the Internet," which found its way to Gates. He urged Microsoft to create tools to help Internet users before rivals did.

"Embrace, extend, then innovate," Allard wrote. "Change the rules: Windows becomes the next-generation Internet tool of the future!"

Just about the same time, Sinofsky, five years into his Microsoft tenure, was working as Gates' technical assistant. He had a revelation on a recruiting trip to his alma mater, Cornell University. While there, he watched students using e-mail and checking course lists on the Web. He sent a breathless e-mail to Gates upon his return with the heading, "Cornell is WIRED!," urging his boss to embrace the Web. Back then, the company turned to both Sinofsky and Allard to help create Microsoft's initial Internet strategy.

Over the years, Sinofsky, like Allard, climbed the corporate ladder. But his climb was very much on the corporate software side. After eight years at the Office helm, Ballmer asked Sinofsky in 2006 to clean up the mess that Windows Vista had created. The much-panned operating system, released that November, took Microsoft five years to produce. Almost immediately, reviewers and corporate tech buyers expressed reservations about its compatibility with legacy technology. Others complained about the operating system being bloated and slow.

Windows 7 debuted in 2009 under Sinofsky's leadership. And while it wasn't a revolutionary operating system that users craved, it fixed many of the problems that Vista created and surpassed the low expectations its predecessor had set. In its review, CNET described Windows 7 as "stable, smooth, and highly polished."

Business savvy vs. innovation
Fixing Windows coupled with Sinofsky's track record for producing successful products gave him clout with Ballmer and Microsoft's senior leadership team, which ultimately decided Courier's fate.

"Steven (Sinofsky)'s business savvy trumps everyone's innovative instincts," said a former Microsoft executive who worked on Courier. "He is soberly looking at how to protect the company."

It's impossible to know whether Courier would have been a success. When Gizmodo published the internal pictures and videos of the device, they were met almost universally with kudos from the technology press. But it's unclear if the final product could have met those lofty expectations.

Like Sinofsky, Allard has his critics inside Microsoft as well. They argue that Allard, whose star soared with the creation of the Xbox, was losing his touch. He led the team that created the Zune digital media player, which barely dented the market lead of Apple's iPod.

To those detractors, Allard created a fantasyland inside Microsoft where Apple fanboys could tinker on stylish products that would never see the light of day. They point to the opulent 36,000-square foot office of Pioneer Studios, headquartered in Seattle's Pioneer Square, that featured huge open spaces, dotted with cushy Eames lounge chairs, angular white desks, blond wood floors, and exposed brick walls. It may have been 16 miles from Microsoft's far more corporate Redmond, Wash., campus, but it was a galaxy away in terms of workplace design.

Pioneer Studios SkB Architects

When the Courier project was eventually shuttered in April 2010, Ballmer made that 16-mile journey to Pioneer Studios to tell the team in person. The group gathered in the biggest conference room there, and Ballmer told them of his decision. Strategically, Courier wasn't aligned with Windows or Office. While Allard, Entertainment and Devices division President Robbie Bach, and a handful of other senior leaders knew of the corporate debate, the rest of the team was heads down, racing to create what they felt was a world-changing product. As Ballmer detailed his decision, several Courier workers' eyes began to well up.

"You could hear a pin drop in that room," one worker recalled. "People were like, 'What just happened? That couldn't be.'"

"It was a shock," said another team member. "It was hard to move onto something else because I so much wanted to see it come to life."

Lessons from Courier
In hindsight, some on the Courier team wonder if their efforts might have been more successful had they worked to align the strategy with Windows and Office from the start. That might have created an altogether different looking device. But it would have been a device that had a better shot at coming to market.

"A big lesson is that it may be easier to go into your quiet space and incubate. But when you want to get bigger and get more resources, you want to make sure you're aligned," a Courier team member said. "If you get Sinofsky on board from the start, you're probably going to market."

It's unclear what, if any, pieces of the Courier technology are finding their way into other Microsoft products. Longtime Microsoft reporter Todd Bishop noted last year that Microsoft filed a patent on technology that appears to be the Courier concept. In previewing the tablet features in Windows 8, Microsoft showed a user interface that takes advantage of both touch and pen computing as Courier did.

Courier team members scattered. Many moved on to other products at Microsoft, such as Xbox, Windows Phone, and Bing. Others are involved with different incubation efforts at the company. And a few employees who contributed to the product's development have left the company altogether, joining other tech firms such as Amazon, Zynga, and Facebook.

The biggest departures: Bach and Allard. Both have said their departures were unrelated to the Courier cancellation. These days, Bach is on the boards of the Boys & Girls Club of America and the U.S. Olympic Committee. He recently joined the board of Sonos, maker of wireless digital music systems.

Allard has almost completely dropped out of the public eye. Shortly before leaving Microsoft, he became a director of The Clymb, a flash sale site featuring outdoor products. In June, The Clymb raised $2 million from a handful of angel investors, including Allard.

It's clear Allard still harbors some passion for Courier. Shortly after the project was killed, two developers from the Seattle suburbs, Benjamin Monnig and Ricky Drake, decided to bring the Courier concept to the iPad. They turned to Kickstarter to fund the app, dubbed Tapose, which is slated to debut near Thanksgiving. The duo quickly raised $26,561 on the site and roughly $100,000 more in private investments, Monnig said. One of the largest backers, according to Monnig: J Allard.

"J has been an adviser to me and our team," Monnig said. "He has made sure to keep enough distance, but has helped guide us in the right direction."

As he left Microsoft, Allard penned a farewell mail that offered a slight wink at the Courier debate as he explained leaving on his own volition.

"In response to the curiosity, no chairs were thrown, no ultimatums served, I am not moving to Cupertino or Mountain View, I did not take a courier job and I require no assistance finding the door," Allard wrote.

And then he issued something of a call to arms for The Tribe, a term he used to describe Microsofties. He encouraged employees to seek out new colleagues with diverse backgrounds who could challenge Microsoft's conventions and push the company to approach new opportunities in different ways.

"Infuse them with our purpose," Allard wrote. "Give them the tools. Give them lots of rope. Learn from them. Support where they take you. Invite them to redefine The Tribe."

Editors' note: This is part two of a two-part series. To read more about the innovation behind Microsoft's Courier, a creative tablet computer concept that the software giant killed last year, see yesterday's "The inside story of how Microsoft killed its Courier tablet."