Microsoft’s Courier conundrum: Xbox approach vs. Windows vs. innovating

Microsoft’s Courier project was killed due to infighting and two visions of computing—Windows and

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non-Windows based—that didn’t quite add up in an integrated technology behemoth.

Welcome to big technology’s ongoing dilemma over innovation.

Jay Greene walks us through the inside view of the Courier project and why it was killed. Courier was this dual-screen tablet gizmo that could have hit the market about the same time as the iPad.

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Xbox chief J Allard wanted Courier running a modified version of Windows. Steven Sinofsky, chief of the Microsoft Windows division, wanted Windows. Today, it’s obvious who won. Windows 8 is the PC-tablet OS. Allard has left the building.

The hang-up with Allard’s approach is that Courier wasn’t focused on email, but more entertaining sort of things. Needless to say Allard’s approach at a company that sells Exchange and Outlook was an issue.

What would you do?

Answering that question highlights the quintessential innovation problem with large companies. The choices can be stark. Protect the cash cow and fall behind. Or go for it. A startup doesn’t have these issues. A young company can just go for it. When you have billions and billions of dollars in revenue the equation changes.

Now Microsoft has navigated this balancing act with mixed results. It allowed Xbox to thrive without Windows, cooked up Kinect and has delivered a few hits. Then again Microsoft also lagged in mobile and is playing catch up with Windows Phone. Microsoft still lacks a compelling rival to Apple’s iPad.

These product innovation questions face all large companies. In fact, Apple will likely face a similar scenario in the future now that it has an ecosystem to protect as well as more process-based decision-making without Steve Jobs.

For Microsoft, the math and logic dictated that there should be one Windows for multiple screens. The logic and gut feeling that you need to storm a new market don’t match sometimes.

Only in hindsight is there a right answer. Maybe Courier would have been huge. Then again Courier could have been like RIM’s PlayBook—a tablet that has potential but demands native email.

We’ll never know.

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