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Entelligence: What can Courier teach the market?

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

A few months ago, some videos leaked from Microsoft showed a book-like device with two touch screens and a stylus. The user is seen researching, creating and designing content in a manner that looks both intuitive and innovative. Called Courier, the product doesn't (yet) exist beyond the conceptual videos, but it shows Microsoft is thinking in some new ways. Ross Rubin discussed Courier's role for creative professionals last week but I think there's even more at stake here -- I think the concept shows computing models are evolving. Here's what Courier represents to the market:

The pen isn't dead. The pen's been searching for a place in computing for more than a decade. We've seen experiments in all different types of pen computing from the PC to the PDA and the phone. They've all pretty much failed, and today's hot commodity is capacitive touch. Microsoft's Courier video shows how the pen can play a prominent role in the evolution of computing interfaces. While fingers are great for many things, there are tasks better served by the ability to manipulate at the pixel level. Handwriting and the ability to take written notes is one of them. Content creation and painting is another. It's clear Microsoft knows all this -- in addition to Courier, there's the Deskterity project that melds pen and touch on Surface.

Microsoft can move beyond Windows. It wasn't that long ago that Microsoft thought the UI for other devices and platforms needed to mimic Windows. Windows CE devices all had tiny start menus and task bars which were totally unusable in a small form factor. The result were clunky devices trying to replicate a desktop experience designed for a large screen with input from a mouse and keyboard. One of the reasons that Windows 7 slate PCs look so un-interesting is that Windows 7 just wasn't designed with those devices in mind. The net result is that Microsoft appears to be designing and optimizing for the form factor. We've seen this before with Surface and the beginnings of a new design with Windows Phone 7. If Microsoft can make the Courier experience familiar enough that consumers can embrace it while optimizing for the dual displays and pen we could see a nice breakthrough in next generation UI.

Tablets aren't just about content consumption.
The Courier UI shows a lot of interaction between the user and the device for content creation. While designers are the example shown, Courier appears optimized for researching, note taking, journaling and other tasks that might require a combination of different media types interacting. As appliance computing becomes more common, users will need both the ability to consume as well as create and interact. Courier shows some new thought and how we might evolve beyond mouse and keyboard while still able to create and design.

The Courier video is impressive not only for technology it showcases but the thinking behind it. UI enhancements such as the "book spine" that holds content placed on the clipboard and the integration of connected content show some out-of-the-box thinking that's refreshing to see from Redmond -- it's cool that Microsoft is thinking about life beyond Windows and what it might look like. I'm personally hoping that there's more than just some conceptual animation and Microsoft is able to turn this set of ideas into a real product offering.

Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.