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Microsoft's Courier Saga Highlights Ballmer's Lack of Leadership

Maybe we've been watching too much football -- if that's possible -- but we're in the piling-on mood here at RCPU. So, we're going to jump into the fray of pundits chirping about Jay Greene's excellent story for CNET, which chronicles the brief but intriguing saga of the would-have-been Microsoft Courier tablet.

The Courier, which will never be available, might have been pretty cool, and it might have actually given Microsoft a fighting chance against the iPad back when the iPad itself was brand-new. Greene lays out the tale: Two Microsoft executives, J Allard (of Xbox fame) and Steven Sinofsky (of making-people-forget-about-Vista fame), were each leading teams competing to come up with a design for the Courier.

Long story short, Allard envisioned an operating system that broke almost completely from Windows, including having an unfamiliar interface and poor or no tie-ins to the massive Office franchise. Sinofsky, who is, after all, head of the Windows division, wanted to base the tablet on the forthcoming Windows 8 operating system and make Office a key component of the user experience.

Sinofsky won. Allard left Microsoft. That's kind of the bottom line, but there are a couple of wrinkles here that are interesting. First, Allard didn't envision Outlook in his avant-garde tablet, prompting Bill Gates to ask how, exactly, users would get their e-mail. Oh, via the Web, Allard said (more or less, we suppose), at which time Gates apparently went somewhat apoplectic.

And let's face it -- Gates had a point. What's the use of a tablet that doesn't have an e-mail client? Maybe we at RCPU are in the minority here, but your editor hates Web-based e-mail interfaces; he runs his personal Gmail account through Outlook. It's just easier to use that way. A tablet is mostly about staying connected on the road, goofing around with apps and looking cool. That first part involves e-mail pretty heavily, and we're guessing that Gates was right (as he has been before) about most users wanting Outlook or something like it.

But take a look at those last couple of paragraphs. Notice anything? Who was there brokering disputes and making decisions. Bill Gates...and not Steve Ballmer. Yes, Gates, now one of the world's most charitable human beings and a very busy retiree, came in to clear the air when the two teams working on Courier couldn't see eye to eye. Where was Ballmer? Helping out, apparently, but we find it more than a little interesting that when the rubber was hitting the road (to put it nicely) it was Gates who was summoned to oversee the process.

Beyond that, the real mark against Ballmer's leadership is that the Courier effort just simply died. Hey, we weren't there, but a few quick, simple questions come to mind regarding this whole mess: Was it impossible for Allard's team to collaborate with Sinofsky's? Would it not have been possible to make an e-mail client part of Allard's creation? Was there no way to rethink Windows for a tablet and still protect the Office money-spinner? And ultimately, was it better to just kill Courier before it launched rather than try to reach some sort of compromise between the two visions for the tablet?

Having two teams come up with different visions for a product is common at Microsoft and in the industry in general. But usually, something actually comes out of at least one of the teams and becomes a product. In this case, Microsoft took two of its brightest minds, allocated some relatively important resources to a project, developed some sort of prototype and ended up creating...nothing. Nothing! How does a CEO let that happen with a product that could have been so successful and should have been so important?

Oh, sure, Microsoft will create a tablet one of these days (and is creating one, we suppose), and it might be great. But by failing to get Courier out at all and also failing to get a tablet into the market around the time the iPad launched, Microsoft has ceded market share (and certainly "mindshare," if anybody uses that word anymore) to Apple. Again.

People actually want Windows tablets. They would buy them. They would use them -- at work, where they're now trying to shoe-horn their iPads into corporate networks and infrastructures. Microsoft had a chance to give people a product they were practically begging for, at a time when it could have competed with Apple's offering. But instead, Steve Ballmer's company squabbled internally, threw up its hands and lost a couple of valuable executives. We're not saying that it's all Ballmer's fault, but somebody has to take responsibility for what ended up being a fiasco. Right? And who better to take it than the person at the top?

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Posted by Lee Pender on November 03, 2011 at 11:57 AM


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