Killing the Microsoft Tablet

Around the time Apple launched the tablet Microsoft was working on something called the Courier. A Microsoft alternative to the iPad.  Microsoft beat writer Jay Green just did an expose on the Courier and what happened for CNet.  It’s a pretty telling article on some of the inner working at Microsoft and how decisions are made.  It makes for good corporate political intrigue .  It raises a lot of questions.  I shall try to provide my insight.

I remember the first photo’s of the Microsoft Courier, the new, but ill-fated Microsoft project to capture the tablet market. For starters it was different. It opened like a book with two screens. It looked very cool and sleek.  It showed thinking outside of the box ( I hate that term).  Being at Microsoft at the time it was something everyone craved.  Microsoft has and still is in the mindset of let others create the market and we will come from behind and take the market.  In the past against WordPerfect, Lotus, Novell and many others it was a strategy that worked well.  Lately that has not worked so well starting with Search, Smartphones, Social Networking, Digital Music, Cloud Computing (Ballmer’s quote on the cloud -“We’re all in”…did you really have a choice?) etc..it has, in my view, become a rather outdated mode of attack.  The market is moving much faster and the gains some of these companies make in market share, make it a lead that cannot be caught

In reading the article you get a sense of internal Microsoft politics and I have to be honest a rather disconnected Bill Gates.  We will tackle the latter first and then move on to this blogs episode pf “Dallas” in the next segment.  At one point as things unfolded Steve Ballmer turned to his old friend, boss and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates for his opinion and guidance on which direction to move forward with.  J Allard and crew met Bill at his Kirkland office to review and promote the Courier, as the Tablet for Microsoft moving forward.  Things were going well until the discussion of email came up.  The Courier teams view of email was web-based services such as Hotmail and gMail.  Bill still had and has stuck in his head Microsoft Outlook as the greatest email client since sliced bread.  I think Bill has lost touch with how people communicate.  We have services like SMS (text messaging), Instant Messaging, and Social Networking.  There are a lot of options that do not require a desktop app of the power of Outlook.  But Bill is not a hipster so the new communications technologies seem primitive to him.  He is so connected to his inner geek.  As Steve Jobs said, “It would not have hurt him to have dropped some acid when he was younger”.  The Courier team did not gets Bill’s blessing.  They should have brought some LSD.

Microsoft politics at a high level is pretty simple.  The group with the most money wins.  At Microsoft that really means two groups, the Microsoft Windows division and Microsoft Office division.  What the Courier team was doing was a stripped down version of Windows that would have its own release cycles.  I always felt one of J Allard’s great attributes at Microsoft was his ability to see what was wrong with success.  When he launched XBOX he essentially formed a new company within Microsoft and did not fall into the Microsoft product group track.  The challenge the was going to have with Courier was it required an operating system.  He was going to do battle with the Windows Division.  It was to be a David versus Goliath moment.  However in this story David does not win.

Steve Sinofsky is the President of the Windows Division, Though not always popular, he does do one thing very well, ship products on time.  I can only guess at this time but I doubt my guesses will be that far off base.  To talk slightly technical for a moment we have the issue of code bases.  This is the actual code developers write to create Windows.  The stuff that makes most people’s eyes glaze over.  What J Allard was proposing was a “new” Windows OS for the Tablet.  One with its own release cycles.  Over time it would “fork” into a completely different direction and I could see eventually being its own OS with its own fiefdom at Microsoft. .  These are very valid points as Microsoft release cycles are no longer acceptable in today’s technology world.  In the old days three-year release cycles were the norm.  In today’s consumer driven world the norm is 12 to 18 months.  More importantly it would not be under the guise of Steve Sinofsky.  Given that the Tablet space is one of the hottest markets on the planet and Microsoft was starting to work on the planning for  Windows 8, this was a battle Steve was not going to lose.  Steve simply could say, “J I have 10 billion dollars….game over”.  And so it was.

Coming forward to today we look like we are still 12 months from the release of Windows 8 (maybe sooner depending on which rumor mill you are listening to).  In the meantime the market has heated up.  The iPad 2 is a run away success.  It sold 500,000 in its first three days on the market.  We now have low-cost providers entering the market for the holidays the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes and Noble Nook.  These coming at prices below $200.  The early review on the Amazon Kindle Fire are very good.  In the mean time we wait for Microsoft.  Will it be June?/  In time for the holidays in 2012.  What version will Apple be on?  By then they should be hard at work on the iPad 4.  I big bet Microsoft is making is the belief that the market wants Windows, that they specifically want a Windows Tablet.  The market moves fast, it will be different when the Windows 8 Tablet ships.

Finally the frustration for many Microsoft employees was that there was a cool device being worked on.  It was perceived as something that could change the game and make Microsoft likable again.   It was different and dangerous, something that is a must if you are to change a market.  But do to internal politics we never saw the Microsoft Courier.  It was created with a start-up mentality in some cool offices in Pioneer Square.  As Jay Greene comments that has all been shut down.  I am not surprised by the death of the Courier and it’s legacy   It was a battle that it was never going to win.  However I know that the people at Microsoft crave this type of excitement in product development.  Though Windows brand still commands 90% market share, it is frankly becoming a rather dull brand.  In the mean time we are promised better things for tomorrow.  However a promise for tomorrow is a promise to no one.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann November 23, 2011

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