Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Everyone, Including Microsoft, Missed About the Courier

Microsoft Courier from aswin indraprastha on Vimeo.

The Microsoft Courier was hinted at and cancelled with most people never noticing. Sadly I don't think even Microsoft knew what they had. To the casual observer it was a tablet prototype, but its true innovation was never about the dual screens, the camera, or the drag and drop environment, it was about the workflow. When I say workflow, I don't mean how you work at work, but how you work with your data.

The Past

For years we have been stuck in a files and folder workflow, where each piece of data is put into a folder, as if there is only one way to think about it. This was fine before all aspects of our lives were converted to data. Our data now is not a series of stand alone events, but a complex fabric of interrelated information that demands a new paradigm (that's right I said it) be entered. A new way of thinking that relates all aspects of our data to one another. The Microsoft Courier was the first attempt at that new way of thinking.

What they missed

In all of the videos demoing the Courier, you see a woman using the Courier for her freelance design job. What’s impressive about the video is how all of those items that she compiles for her project aren’t a series of files stored in a folder, but are items that live in their own space, and are linked to the project and presumably a thousand other projects in the future. Microsoft should have picked a more common scenario for their videos that everyone could relate to. For instance, let’s say you go on vacation and take pictures. You get back home and download your pictures to your computer. In the current file/folder model you have to put them in one place on your hard drive. What folder do you put them in? How do you know who’s in the pictures? What’s the name of the hotel you stayed at in the picture? You can find out this information, but you’ll need to check four or five different programs to do so. In the Courier model, you download the pictures to your computer, you associate those pictures with the events on your calendar, in the calendar events is your complete itinerary of your trip (e.g. who from your contacts list was on the trip, where you stayed, the dates you were there) and now all of that information is linked together and can easily be found from any number of ways. All of these relationships are built using the assets that are already on your computer. You don’t need to create a series of custom tags because they all exist as entries in other programs.

Why it was cancelled

No one knows why the Courier project was canceled. There was a theory that this was impossible to do. There are some crazy bells and whistles shown in the video, but at its heart this is just a relational database. Every blog, forum, Facebook post is just an entry into a relational database, and it's something that computers have been doing easily and for a long time. I’d rather think that it was canceled because they couldn't figure out how to translate the experience to another platform. A big part of the Courier was sharing your projects with other people and fostering an open collaborative process. If the other people are not on the Courier OS what does the experience look like to them? Is it a series of emails about project updates? Is it a Courier desktop emulator that you run on your XP/Linux/OS X desktop?

Hope for the future

This is what Windows mobile should be. I still have no answer for replicating the experience on other platforms, but maybe the shared component is less important in a phone. If you married the Courier OS with strong XBOX 360 integration, you could deliver a defining new experience for phone users. Right now Microsoft needs something bold to get anyone to care about a Microsoft phone.

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