The Web is abuzz over Gizmodo’s report that Microsoft is working on a dual screen tablet PC called the Courier:
Courier is a real device, and we’ve heard that it’s in the "late prototype" stage of development. It’s not a tablet, it’s a booklet. The dual 7-inch (or so) screens are multitouch, and designed for writing, flicking and drawing with a stylus, in addition to fingers. They’re connected by a hinge that holds a single iPhone-esque home button. Statuses, like wireless signal and battery life, are displayed along the rim of one of the screens. On the back cover is a camera, and it might charge through an inductive pad, like the Palm Touchstone charging dock for Pre.
Until recently, it was a skunkworks project deep inside Microsoft, only known to the few engineers and executives working on it—Microsoft’s brightest, like Entertainment & Devices tech chief and user-experience wizard J. Allard, who’s spearheading the project. Currently, Courier appears to be at a stage where Microsoft is developing the user experience and showing design concepts to outside agencies.
I would be more excited if Microsoft didn’t have a long history of dabbling in PC hardware prototypes, all the better to spur on their OEM partners. It would be very surprising if Microsoft did more than show the Courier off as a "concept" PC at various trade shows and run it around to all their partners hoping to get a bite.
Moreover, pen computing has been around since the early 90′s and has never taken off because it has never been particularly usable. Putting two small displays in a binder is less interesting than some pen software that is really convenient and natural to use. That would truly be buzzworthy. As for touch sensitive screens, maybe the Courier would be a neat two person game machine.
A How-To kit for the ideal PC has been making the rounds of leading design shops. It calls for “accelerated curves” and “purposeful contrast.” The preferred colors include a shade of black called Obsidian and a translucent white dubbed Ice. “We want people to fall in love with their PCs, not to simply use them to be productive and successful,” reads the enclosed booklet. “We want PCs to be objects of pure desire.”
Doesn’t sound much like Microsoft (MSFT), does it? But it is. BusinessWeek has learned that a team of 20 in-house designers has been working quietly for the past 18 months on an elegant new look for PCs that will run Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows Vista. It’s a major departure for the company, which historically has left design to the likes of Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Gateway (GTW). Persuading the hardware guys to embrace the toolkit won’t be easy. They’re already working overtime to build better-looking gear on their own.
Microsoft for years has pushed their functional specifications on OEMs via the Windows Hardware Engineering Conferences and other mechanisms, but style?
Microsoft is no newcomer to hardware design, of course. The company has made PC mice and keyboards for years. The Xbox game console has been a hit. Microsoft is working on a music player, Zune, that it hopes will rival the iPod.
Microsoft’s mice and keyboards are nicely done, but they’re a niche and the Xbox 360 was created with significant outside design help. I expect that the same is true for the Zune, so it’s not quite clear exactly what Microsoft brings to the table. More to the point, the PC business has some tough cost strictures:
But trying to transform the PC ecosystem—even peripherals makers such as Logitech received the kit—takes things to a whole new level. It reflects the fact that the economics of the computer business is changing. The PC world used to be divided into two camps: those who made lucrative software and the poor schlubs who built the low-margin hardware it ran on.
Apple has turned that model on its head. From the beginning it has managed to create a unified design for its products by building everything itself, first with the Mac and then later with the iPod. Although Apple sells one computer for every 20 PCs, the iPod’s success has proved how crucial it is to create a seamless experience for consumers, who are buying much of the gear these days. Says a top PC design executive: “You’re going to see more and more of this desire to integrate hardware and software.”
I’ll buy that, but it’s not clear to me how a color scheme will make the experience seamless – I would have thought the seamless part would start a little closer to Redmond. Besides, if you really want something snappier than a beige box, you don’t have to look too far (e.g.  if you like bright lights). It sounds more like Microsoft is worried that the OEMs aren’t following their functional “suggestions” in lockstep and the styling suggestions are just a bonus.
Hit the link for much more, but the big PC makers aren’t exactly jumping for joy at the chance to further commoditize their products. When all Windows PCs are the same except for the manufacturer’s logo, their margin inevitably goes to zero. I do wonder though if Microsoft has any thoughts of ditching their pesky partners on PCs, just like they did on personal media players with the Zune? It would make the Apple emulation complete.