Switched On: Courier courts the creative

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Call it Apple's populist paradox. The Macintosh's human-centered design inspired its being called the "computer for the rest of us," but the Mac also long been associated with exceptional creative individuals, a message Apple has driven home in campaigns ranging from "wheels from the mind" to "think different." In the early days of the Web, it was said that Web pages were created on Macs and viewed on PCs -- and served on Unix workstations.

Should the concepts in a video detailing a new Microsoft-developed device dubbed Courier come to fruition, though, Microsoft and Apple may find themselves on unfamiliar sides as an old rivalry turns to the new frontier of convergence tablets, with Apple providing the workaday access product and Microsoft providing a niche but empowering tool aimed at creative professionals.

In introducing the iPad, Apple presented it as an omnibus device for consuming all major forms of digital content. If the iPod touch was a television, the iPad is a movie theater. Yes, the content is more or less the same, but the experience is different. And while the iPad represents a new device category, Apple is counting on the familiarity of the iPhone and iPod touch to flatten its already narrow learning curve. The Courier videos, on the other hand, describe a device that is all about productivity, a pursuit in which Microsoft has a storied and profitable heritage. However, rather than the eye-glazing grids of text one might find in an Excel spreadsheet or Access table, Courier presents a digital reinvention of the scrapbook. Its "infinite journal" provides a pasteboard for collecting digital inspirations scavenged from the device's camera, and contributions from others on shared pages.

And it does this in high style. The Courier user interface is a showcase of gestures, pen input, and novel user interface conventions such as docking items in a virtual spine for visual copy and paste or drawing a rectangle around a list of items to turn them into a sticky "to do" note. The Courier concept is so captivating that it's easy to overlook the question as to who the product is for apart from artists and designers. Whereas previous Microsoft products have called upon IT to make it work, Courier may evoke those words from Tim Gunn. We've likely not seen all that that Courier can do, but one way to make the product more broadly relevant to those who must apply creativity to create some kind of mind-mapping or outlining capability.

The iPad's blank slate might make it possible to create something like Courier as an app. But Courier's folding screens could provide it with a portability advantage. From the video highlighting the device, that would appear to be about six or seven inches diagonally, but releasing the Courier in a screen size below five inches could enable it to fit in a pocket while keeping it safe from smartphone assimilation.

Of course, Courier at this point is merely a concept and may never become a product. But it offers the tantalizing prospect of reviving the stillborn art of personal digital workflow that the Newton pioneered but which the industry quickly abandoned in its demise. These days, advanced smartphone operating systems and netbooks enable us to "catch up" on the same kinds of tasks we 'd ideally like to do on the PC that has the best keyboard, largest screen and fastest Internet connection. But Courier is a right brain productivity device, something that allows one to play with ideas, to brainstorm, iterate and collaborate before the raw materials of a concept gets composited in Photoshop, analyzed in Excel, or bulleted in PowerPoint.

Alas, Microsoft has shown tantalizing hardware before that has fallen far short of its promise. Apple is on the verge of delivering a functional sleek slate at the $500 price point that Microsoft once envisioned for Ultra Mobile PCs. But this time it appears that Microsoft has integrated hardware and software and is riding a wave of the best user interface designs in its history. Let's hope this Courier delivers.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.