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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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Reader Comments

Mon, Nov 14, 2011 Joe Dyck

Cancelling out Courier may have been dumb, but what about HP and their WebOS tablet? They bring it to market, advertise the tablet on TV and then after 6 weeks, scrap it! Good thing they scrapped their CEO after that fiasco. . .At least Microsoft kept the Courier more or less out of the public eye. I do think Microsoft needs to be in the mobile/tablet marketplace, but I don't know whether they should try to make hardware for it like they do for the Xbox. They have some difficult choices. With the PC, it was defined by one hardware manufacturer (IBM) and Microsoft could focus on making that work. They could consider using the same specs the Android phones use, and make their O/S run on the same hardware as Android does. . .

Thu, Nov 10, 2011 Tyrin Lagos, Nigeria

It has long been clear that Steve Ballmer shouldn't be running Microsoft. He has no clue of the current state of technology. Infact, he is stuck; in the past. Since Bill retired nothing really innovative has happened at Microsoft. The first time I saw the Courier, I fell completely in love with the concept and just waited patiently for the release date. So you can imagine to find out that the project was cancelled for no viable reason. The iPad may be selling like hot cake, that's just because their is no real competitive device out there. Apple has never really had great software for there hardware and this is another clear case. Can you imagine a device that can run familiar office apps even if they were scaled down? Microsoft board needs to review its strategy to remain relevant. The truth is that its not too late for Microsoft to jump into the tablet market. I believe they can still outsell the iPad or any other pad when they hit the stores; Microsoft does/engineer software better than any other competition and the Windows developers out there are more thorough and experienced in development (particularly in UI and UX). Microsoft desires better leadership (CEO).

Tue, Nov 8, 2011 bigpalooka

I have to agree with the decision to side with whoever championed Windows. This is Microsoft - there has to be some kind of Windows on the tablet. Sinofsky won, but then what happened? Does anybody know why the Windows/Outlook/Office tablet that Sinofsky came up with was killed in favor of nothing? And Sinofsky's happy being the winner with nothing to show for it? Maybe it wasn't killed at all, but had to be completely rethought. Is it possible to still make a big mark in the tablet market since that market's still in its infancy? They might as well wait until they get it right rather than taking a beating with a poor tablet OS. Being a little late to the browser battle didn't hurt MS at all.

Tue, Nov 8, 2011

Don't disagree at all with that stated below, except I think he meant Allard rather AllChin - with the brain drain ongoing at Microsoft, for good reason, one can't fault another for eventually struggling to keep the all straight.

Mon, Nov 7, 2011

Thanks, Lee, as what you've written corrects what turns out to have been an undeservedly negative impression of Allchin. Leaves me sad, imagining what might have been, had Gates and Ballmer had the foresight support Allchin and his approach rather than further setting the stage for the debacle now upon us. With Sinofsky and his cadre of Windows and Office cronies now at the helm, seemingly immune to criticism and destined for an epic fail, creating the Windows 8 Frankenstein monster, one's left to only hope that Scott Guthrie, once leading the company as should already be the case, can still resurrect something meaningful from the ashes left in their wake...

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 Lee Pender Waltham, Mass.

Sinofsky is indeed still at Microsoft. I meant to go back and correct that, and I didn't. That's my fault, and I'm sorry.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011

Did I miss something? I thought Steven Sinofsky, whom you call a former MS exec, was still at Microsoft as head of Windows 8 development.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 George Toronto, ON, Canada

Microsoft needs a complete rethink on its offerings. To have competed with Apple would have merely demonstrated how much of a rethink is neccessary. They are not doing everything wrong, but many things are not right and for a long time. But then, you don't know what you don't know.

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Ex-softie

Steve Ballmer should be CFO, not CEO. He defends his record by pointing to stable financials--that's the hallmark of an accountant. Where are the technology successes he's championed? Where are the new markets he's developed? And unfavorable attrition at Microsoft is going through the roof, with many creative and inspirational leaders exiting the Company. Apparently this Board of Directions can't read the handwriting on the wall--I'd encourage the remaining Courier team members chip in and to send every Board member an iPad with a note: "This could have been us."

Thu, Nov 3, 2011

So, first, how hard could it have actually been to do better than Vista? Any idiot could do so, yet we're all supposed to be impressed that Sinofsky somehow raised the dead. Nonsense. He's an ass-clown and along with his WIndows and Office cronies driving Microsoft straight into the ground - truly looking forward to him being driven from Redmond, never to work again. Wake me when Scott Guthrie's running the show, as should have long ago been the case...

Thu, Nov 3, 2011 Jim Johnson Wichita, KS

Have you checked out the HP Slate? Personally, I like it. And it just runs the tablet version of Windows 7.

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