The Courier projected the future we live in – but nothing came of it back then.
It’s crystal clear where Microsoft is headed now: every single announcement, every bit of news is about the rise of artificial intelligence, about a future that is expected to completely transform our relationship with machines. From the large corporate sector to home users with the most average needs, everyone will get something from the AI era, the only question is how useful, beneficial or just dangerous and uncontrollable it will be.
With artificial intelligence, a radically new software technology has come crashing down on us like a tsunami, while devices are trying to pick up the pace; sometimes you don’t know if the future is already here, or if the present is just a stupid state, followed by some amazingly progressive development. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to use these big words about the Courier, but the fact is that it was one of the tools with which the Redmond manufacturer was able to read the future shown by the crystal ball. However, the merciless corporate strategy and target system were very different, although if you could see what devices are leading the charge today…
The future has arrived too soon
Again, the key is user interaction and experience in the Windows ecosystem. Before the 2010s, several groups of engineers, UX designers and user behavior researchers tried to figure out where the road would lead in the Internet-oriented world, where continuous online connection and mobility are increasingly decisive. The project called Courier was considered a bold attempt at the time, the tablet concept with two displays, supporting touch-sensitive input, showed a clear evolutionary leap after the previous Windows tablets, i.e. PCs and mobile devices that provided a tablet-like experience. In addition, the book-like appearance brought in an exciting and ergonomic form of digital content consumption, the physical dimensions were kept under control due to the 7-inch panels, and the hinge was given an additional function by displaying the charge level.
Control with fingers was supplemented with stylus input, in addition to drawing, it was also prepared for handwriting recognition, which together were not new in the Windows world either, but perhaps the new input concept has now come together. It wasn’t the hardware that was really exciting in the case of the Courier, but the user experience: it seemed completely natural for the user to pick up a pen and draw, take notes, or browse the Internet after opening the device.
In line with this, the software enclosure had to change, and this has always been considered a beehive, which, if you really had to get into it, understandably ended up being more of an escape. The two-display prototype did not use the Windows version running on traditional PCs, but the CE edition stuck here from the Pocket PC heritage, a unique version of it that was specifically tuned for this eccentric device. This ruled out the use of apps running on desktop configurations, but the concept all along was that the Courier would get its own apps, creating a unique, device-bound app platform. On paper, all this does not sound bad, but in the end it caused a break in the future of the device.
The direction is different
There are a lot of rumors about what happened behind the scenes. The giant company then under the control of Steve Ballmer and the Windows business led by Steven Sinofksy did not necessarily see the same future. The latter, by definition, saw a path paved based on the main system as safe, while the pressure was clearly felt within the entire organization due to the industrial windstorm generated by the iPad.
The future of tablets suddenly became present, and although there was still plenty to polish on the hardware and software foundations of Courier, the team of almost 150 people did not get the opportunity to prove themselves. According to a former team member, there was not much time left until the final commercial version was ready, but the company’s top management decided otherwise. In addition to the fact that Windows 8 was being developed in the background, the discovery and understanding of new user habits did not go smoothly either. The use of classic Windows and Office functions, which is largely limited to location and client, was given priority, launching a completely eccentric system and a device with two displays on the market could indicate a higher than average risk.
Was it just a lack of courage, or was the proactive, offensive product strategy completely subordinated to directions that responded to competitors? Perhaps both, and the real reason may be much more nuanced, but the fact is that the small team that put the Courier together read the future well. It is enough to look at the prevailing trend in the Android mobile market, the versions of the iPad tuned for content production or even the much freer and wider scope of use of Windows 11.
10 years later, the Andromeda project can even be seen as an admission of a bad decision, but it may also be that the time has just come for the concept to really get into the hands of users as a Surface Duo. It is true that it has a competitive operating system, but with the basics. Now it is only necessary to find a place for these devices in the company’s business strategy, although the reduction of the Surface product line and the delay of Android updates for the Duo model do not exactly confirm that Microsoft’s devices have a stable future and development.