Saturday, March 06, 2010

Courier: Microsoft's most interesting product that doesn't exist?

Engadget got its hands on more pictures and videos of Microsoft's Courier yesterday. If you haven't been following it, Courier is a dual-screen tablet concept--a combination journal, browser, document creation tool and eBook reader--developed by a design studio owned by Microsoft. There have been no pictures or first-hand accounts of actual working hardware and software. All the public has seen to date are visualizations, renderings and animations.

What's interesting is that there are so many visualizations, renderings and animations. Normally, you see something like Courier in a conference keynote speech, the equivalent of a concept car that's exhibited at a few auto shows and then retired. What's curious about Courier is that it keeps popping up, each time with a few more details, a few more tweaks.

So what is Microsoft trying to do? Low-cost concept testing, trying to see if there's a market for the device before it commits to production? Does it want to shift the thinking about how eBook readers and similar devices should work, so that other companies will build devices that the Courier environment will run on? Or, is it readying the market for a product launch later this year or next?

From what I've seen of the Courier concepts, it truly looks like something different than the iPad and other tablet devices. Courier is much more like a "smart notebook" (a digital equivalent of a paper notebook) than a tablet or netbook. It has both a touch and pen interface, and is strongly dependent on the pen for writing and data input. In that sense, it's more like the Apple Newton than conventional tablets or eBook readers, although one hopes that its handwriting recognition is a lot better than the Newton's was.

Courier seems to have a more targeted focus than the iPad--it's a "magic diary" with virtually infinite capacity and connectivity that you can take anywhere. For that reason, it's unlikely to become the application development magnet that the iPhone is and the iPad will become. On the other hand, Courier may not need all that much in third-party software if everything that Microsoft is showing in its previews comes to fruition.

So, the question is whether we'll ever see Courier as a real, functioning product. I think that Microsoft would have a serious chance of establishing a new product category if it releases Courier and it does everything that the animations and visualizations say that it will be able to do. Until then, it remains vapor, but interesting vapor nonetheless.
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