No E-Mail? Maybe Microsoft’s Courier Is Better Off Dead

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Two years ago, Microsoft shocked the tech world with a visionary concept called the Courier, a dual-screen tablet intended for content creators. Details were scarce, revealed only in leaked documents. But in April 2010, Microsoft at once confirmed and killed the project.

(MORE: Microsoft Admits Courier Exists, Scraps Project)

Now, CNet’s Jay Greene has the inside story of Microsoft’s Courier, based on the accounts of 18 current and former Microsoft executives, plus contractors and partners. Among the juicy details in part one of the story (part two will be published later today):

  • Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer essentially had to choose between two competing tablet visions. One was the Courier, led by Xbox creator J. Allard, and the other was Windows 8, led by Steven Sinofsky, who headed the Windows division.
  • Ballmer called in Bill Gates, Microsoft’s current chairman and former CEO, to help make the decision. Gates was concerned about how Courier users would check their e-mail, and Allard said he wasn’t trying to build another e-mail experience, because people could already check their mail on a smartphone or PC. Gates was not pleased with this answer.
  • The Courier could have launched within a few months of Apple’s first iPad had Microsoft invested more resources, sources said. Instead, Microsoft cancelled the Courier project and is now focused on launching Windows 8 tablets in 2012.

You can count me among the people who were initially excited about the Courier. Gizmodo, the main source of Courier rumors, described a complex interface for passing images and other page elements between the two screens, using either a stylus or multitouch gestures. At the time, in the vacuum of solid information about any upcoming tablet, it seemed like an interesting product.

But in hindsight, the Courier was a novelty. However great it would’ve been at creating digital content, it wouldn’t appeal to the masses who now use their tablets to play games, watch movies and browse the Internet. A dual-screen, book-like tablet is ideal for none of those things.

If CNet’s report is accurate, Gates was right. The lack of e-mail is a dealbreaker. Just look at the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which has flopped in large part because it doesn’t have the basic ability to send an e-mail.

I’m not saying the Courier concept is bad. I’m sure some graphic designers, artists and writers would kill for a dual-screen digital sketchbook. It’s just not mainstream enough to take on Apple’s iPad. Windows 8 is.

PICTURES: The First Windows 8 Tablet