Courier, Kin, and Microsoft’s relentless failure to innovate

Microsoft finally admitted to the existence of its fabled dual-screen Courier tablet. But unfortunately for us, that admission only came after Gizmodo reported the project was dead. Despite being one of the more intriguing and innovative products to bear the Microsoft name in recent memory, the company couldn’t, or wouldn’t, follow through with it.

It’s an old complaint, but I think it’s the perfect time to revisit Microsoft’s innovation issues. Along with the death of the Courier, it also recently announced details on its new Kin phones – which I find disappointing for multiple reasons.

Killing Courier was a bigger deal than Microsoft thought

It wasn’t until we learned that the Courier was dead that I realized just how much of a following it had gathered. Gizmodo broke the news on the tablet last September with leaked concept images and video, and further details continued to trickle out as recently as this past March. The initial response was very positive overall, particularly since the details were coming long before we even knew the iPad existed.

To me, and I’m sure many others, it demonstrated that Microsoft could create something totally original. Rumors at the time were circulating that Apple’s potential tablet was going to resemble a large iPhone, and many competitors like the Crunchpad were developing tablets with large screens that followed that same format (yes, I realize mockups of the Crunchpad preceded any accurate iPad rumors). The Courier – with its dual screens, booklet format, and a multitouch interface combined with a stylus for input – was dramatically different.

It showed us that Microsoft could take the lead with innovation, instead of following the crowd. Then Microsoft killed it.

On the comments for the Gizmodo post that announced the project’s cancellation, there’s a distinct sense of loss – which is all the more surprising because Gizmodo commenters aren’t exactly the crowd to champion a Microsoft product.

Clearly, there was a market for the Courier among tech-savvy users, and it wasn’t difficult to see how Microsoft could deliver it to students and office workers as a productivity device. It would have been difficult to release it at a competitive price to the iPad (although Microsoft could eat some of that initial cost, just like it did for the Xbox and Xbox 360), and the software was probably nowhere near as functional as the slick videos showed, but with some work I believe Microsoft could have positioned the Courier as a worthy competitor to the iPad by the end of this year.

But of course, the company didn’t even try. Microsoft issued a pithy response on its corporate blog regarding the speculation around its death, but that was the only public action it ever took towards Courier.

The death of the Courier shows us that Microsoft can’t deliver, even after convenient leaks (most likely made by the development team without the knowledge of higher ups) drummed up an excited fan base, and even though Microsoft desperately needs to have a tablet to call its own. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it also trains us to regard future innovative concepts with a heavy dose of salt. Why get excited for the next cool Microsoft concept, when it’s just going to die anyway?

Microsoft Kin: Too little, too late

Kin oneThe Kin phones are a more common example of Microsoft’s innovation trouble. The Kin One and Kin Two devices are aimed at the teenage market that the Sidekick used to own. Microsoft bought Danger, the company behind the Sidekick, in 2008, and proceeded to spend the next few years developing a new entry for the Sidekick demographic.

But while it was developing a Sidekick successor, the iPhone proceeded to lead the way for an entirely new wave of mobile devices. Google launched Android, Palm came back from the dead with the Pre and Web OS, and now smartphones are one of the hottest segments in the mobile industry. Microsoft itself unveiled the Windows Phone 7 platform earlier this year, which is due to launch in the fall.

Teenagers now have many other options to the Sidekick, so of course this is when Microsoft decides to launch its supposed Sidekick-killer. The Kin phones are focused on social networking, with some slick user interface flourishes for sharing media, and an even slicker online component in Kin Studio – which brings all of the media and communications from the phones to the cloud. But they don’t support apps, and Microsoft inexplicably left out certain key functionality like instant messaging (an odd omission for a “social” device aimed at “generation upload”), and games.

Kin twoMicrosoft’s one shot with making the Kin devices enticing to teenagers comes down to price, and it couldn’t even get that right. The stubby-looking Kin One will retail for $49.99, and the sleeker Kin Two will cost $99.99. That’s not a bad price for modern hardware, but Verizon is classifying the devices as smartphones, and therefore unlimited data plans will cost $29.99 a month on top of a voice plan. That’s the same monthly price you’d pay for the far more capable Droid, Droid Incredible, or Palm Pre (which has also seen somemassive price cuts, and the addition of free tethering).

The Kin devices are capable of moving large amounts of data over 3G, so it’s somewhat understandable why Verizon would consider them smartphones. But given how limited they are in functionality otherwise, Microsoft should have fought harder to get that data plan down much cheaper – perhaps somewhere in the $15 range.

As it stands, the Kin phones now have little going for them with their target market, and they are a great demonstration of how Microsoft is often too late to the party. Prepaid phones are better deals for cash-strapped teens, and for those who don’t need to worry about the cost as much there’s a wealth of other smartphones to choose from. Microsoft might have had a shot with Kin if it convinced Verizon to offer pricing lik Boost Mobile’s $50 monthly prepaid plan, which includes unlimited talk and data. But again, that requires actual creative effort on Microsoft’s part.

Wrapping up

Microsoft has proven itself capable of innovation on rare occasion. The Xbox 360 is a solid entry into the console gaming arena, and its accompanying Xbox Live service is far beyond anything competitors like Sony and Nintendo offer (though you pay for the privilege). It’s also done some great work with the Zune HD, elements of which it’s now bringing over to Windows Phone 7.

While those accomplishments aren’t insignificant, the problem with Microsoft is that they are few and far between. Instead of success stories, more often than not we see the company wimping out creatively like it did with Courier, or just releasing something far after it’s relevant, like the Kin phones.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s trouble is its failure to execute on innovation. The company is full of great ideas like Courier, and Kin, but it stumbles when it comes time to bring those ideas to the public. We can also see this in the company’s relentlessly terrible marketing (except for most Xbox 360 ads). Execution is one big advantage Apple has over it, and that’s something Microsoft needs to improve on so as not to be seen as a perpetual creative failure.

About the author:
Devindra Hardawar is a tech/film blogger and podcast host. You can find him writing at VentureBeat and Slashfilm, and podcasting at Slashfilm and the Symbiotek Podcast.

Courier pic from Engadget.


  1. The dearth of innovation-to-market is all the more shocking given MSFT’s huge R&D expenditures, that if memory serves have been between $5 and $10 BILLION a year. That’s possibly more than all of the angel and VC investment funds for hungry start-ups combined! Shocking.

    As a long-time MSFT customer, I’ve always said: I just wish they’d be doing more with all of the money we gave them. Clearly, they have very limited productive use for it. A monopoly is a money and talent sink…

  2. A very nice summation of a perplexing problem. Microsoft spends more than 14% of its revenue on R&D, has a good portion of the most talented and creative people on the planet, and yet consistently becomeless and less relevant to a consumer market they helped create.

  3. I think Microsoft has its ups and downs. Windows 7 was its up time, now I think its on the decline. The kin, just seems like a poor idea. Whats with the name? Kin? I mean, come on. The iPhone sounds more creative. I think they should stick with one thing. Making a good OS. It goes the same for Apple. Alas, its all about the money.

  4. Apple have better innovation than Microsoft. Apple company worth is more than Microsoft at present, but on the other hand Microsoft is catching up with great product like Windows 7 and Office 10 they both a great product, they really have a good performance and load really fast compared to previous version or apple. So in my Opinion Microsoft is more to good performance, for work and Apple is more innovative, for personal use. Thanks

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