This week CNET published a fascinating two part article on the death of the infamous Microsoft Courier project, which I had rapped about on here previously. It was a maddening walk down memory lane to read; the story of how a categorically innovative product was sacrificed on the altar of “platform synergy” or whatever corporate doublespeak you want to call it.
The intriguing insider tale of exactly how it all went down reads a little bit like the Empire Strikes Back, with an ending that sees the team you rooted for in defeat and their forces scattered to the wind with their home base destroyed. Peppered around CNET’s analysis and echoed by Ars Technica (among many places I’m sure) are references to the device being “consumer-focused”. I have a beef with this term; it should be “creator-focused”.
Someone like me, who curates a website, likes to photograph, and is perpetually jotting down ideas, would truly stand to benefit, perhaps dramatically, from the use of a “digital moleskin” like the Courier intended to be. Ars Technica could not be more wrong when they said that killing the Courier was the right move made for the wrong reasons; it was the wrong move made for Microsoft’s own “right” reasons–maybe preserving a product lineup that operates in lockstep with MS Enterprise 2015 is the right decision to keep your users corralled into your tiny little pen, but squashing this hardware that creative types could use for a whole new digital workflow: that’s a defeat for the everyman, no two ways about it.
It’s not about the device; it’s about what people will do with it. Apple didn’t create Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, nor did they create Filtatron, the Moog synthesizer app; two of the coolest things to do on the iPad. They set up a platform for people to do neat things, and then creative types figured out how to use it, and turned it into the awesomeness that it is now (and wasn’t on day one). In a smiliar way, you can’t foresee the fresh ideas that would have been inevitably spawned on the Courier. If iPad is meant for consumption and Courier was meant for creation, these devices would have been complimentary… everyone loses in its absence. I would probably be using a Courier to collect, organize, and publish content on this blog right now if it existed. That’s just one narrow, specific example.
The sad part is that only a company like Microsoft, with huge amounts of resources in software and hardware design, could actually manufacture a compact device that combined slick interface design, multi-touch/gesture input, pressure-sensitive stylus input, handwriting recognition, integration with cloud content hosting, seamless web publishing and so forth. I don’t see anyone else making something that offers up the “whole package” like that. Maybe it’ll be another 10 years before someone manages to work up to that level. Maybe one company will never do it, but it will only be possible with a hodgepodge of various services and some DIY know-how.
In any event, Courier was a tantalizing glimpse into the future by some very forward-thinking people. A vision too far ahead of it’s time–a byproduct of a company with the creative brainpower to shatter the boundaries of what portable electronics could do, but too straightjacketed by legacy products and enterprise strategery to see the real-world potential of what Courier was.
But whatever. I’ll step off the soapbox. Microsoft will be Microsoft I guess. It’s unrealistic to expect something miraculous from them.