Today’s must-read for anyone who follows Microsoft is Jay Greene’s “inside story of how Microsoft killed its Courier tablet” on CNet News.com. Of course, the Courier incubation project — an effort to create a dual-screen tablet for creative types — is long-since dead. But the story illuminates the inner workings of the company, and also the role of Bill Gates as an influential voice inside Microsoft, long after his retirement from day-to-day duties at the company.
As Greene tells the story, in early 2010 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer arranged for then-Microsoft executives Robbie Bach and J Allard and some of Allard’s Courier team members to meet with Gates to help evaluate the Courier project vs. Windows chief Steven Sinofsky’s competing vision for a tablet-friendly Windows version.
Gates was legendary for his performances in product reviews during his tenure at the company, and it sounds like he didn’t disappoint in this meeting — reacting negatively to the notion that the Courier wouldn’t allow for basic tasks such as reading and writing email.
Allard explained that the device wasn’t meant to replace a PC or smartphone, but to complement it. Whereas the iPad would be for content consumption, the Courier would be a specialized device for content creators.
Ultimately, of course, the Courier was killed, Allard soon left the company, and Microsoft is now previewing Windows 8 as its solution for tablets.
Clearly there were more people than Gates giving input on the project, and we don’t know how often this type of thing happens, but it’s an interesting insight into how Ballmer is still able to look to the Microsoft co-founder at key moments to help make strategic decisions.
Posting on Twitter this morning, Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s communications chief, referenced Greene and linked to the Wikipedia entry for the Rashomon effect, “by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts.” In response to someone saying the story added important context, Shaw tweeted that it did so “like an Oliver Stone film adds context to the past.”
Whether it’s Oliver Stone or Ken Burns, Part 2 of Greene’s piece is slated to run tomorrow.