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Friday, November 4, 2011

The one word missing from Microsoft's product plans

CNet's Jay Greene offers an inside look at Microsoft's decision to kill its innovative Courier tablet, deferring instead to a more conventional tablet design. The Courier team was led by a season innovator named Jay Allard...

At one point during [a critical] meeting in early 2010 at Gates' waterfront offices in Kirkland, Wash., Gates asked Allard how users get e-mail. Allard, Microsoft's executive hipster charged with keeping tabs on computing trends, told Gates his team wasn't trying to build another e-mail experience. He reasoned that everyone who had a Courier would also have a smartphone for quick e-mail writing and retrieval and a PC for more detailed exchanges. Courier users could get e-mail from the Web, Allard said, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

But the device wasn't intended to be a computer replacement; it was meant to complement PCs. Courier users wouldn't want or need a feature-rich e-mail application such as Microsoft's Outlook that lets them switch to conversation views in their inbox or support offline e-mail reading and writing. The key to Courier, Allard's team argued, was its focus on content creation. Courier was for the creative set, a gadget on which architects might begin to sketch building plans, or writers might begin to draft documents.

"This is where Bill had an allergic reaction," said one Courier worker who talked with an attendee of the meeting. As is his style in product reviews, Gates pressed Allard, challenging the logic of the approach.

It's not hard to understand Gates' response. Microsoft makes billions of dollars every year on its Exchange e-mail server software and its Outlook e-mail application.

The Courier was killed off soon thereafter.

The entire article is well worth reading. It's instructive because nowhere do I sense that Microsoft's executives are asking "what's right for the consumer?" or "what's the right user experience?".

Instead, they seem to be asking, "What's right for the legacy business?"

My own philosophy is that a company can't focus on its legacy business because technology is moving too rapidly. The finance guys might talk about the risk of cannibalizing your own sales. But there really no such thing as cannibalizing your own sales any more -- because if you don't do it yourself, someone else will happily cannibalize your sales for you.

RIM's killer BlackBerry platform has been swallowed whole by Apple and Android, a sea-change that's occurred in only three scant years.

If Microsoft truly hopes to turn things around in consumer devices like smartphones and tablets, it had better focus on the user experience. Because, believe me, the consumer doesn't care about the accounting details: he or she is buying the experience, panache and attitude.

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