What will be inside the secret Microsoft tablet?

29th Sep 2009 | 12:02

What will be inside the secret Microsoft tablet?

Courier isn't real, but Microsoft's tablet plans are

The Courier at concept stage

The Courier 'prototype' dual-screen tablet that's been making waves since Gizmodo released the video of it isn't an actual product.

What you see in the video is an animation, rather than a physical prototype.

It might be no closer to a finished product than the first 'Origami' UMPC Bill Gates showed off on stage at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in 2005; the reason it was so slim and light was that it was actually a slab of plastic with printouts of screenshots held behind a sheet of acetate to look like a screen.

Bill gates with origami

UNREAL:Bill Gates shows off the original Origami 'prototype': screenshots printed out and stuck to a stylish plastic mockup

If there is a physical prototype, that still wouldn't make Courier a product that Microsoft was ready to build itself (or more likely ask partners to build).

The team behind the video, Pioneer Studios (named for its downtown Seattle location close to Pioneer Square) is part of the entertainment and devices division but this is much more about research and user interaction design than finished products.

An executive producer at Pioneer describes their role as leading "design incubation and prototyping" to produce "a complete product experience concept".

Prototypes like Courier are concrete examples of what a product might look like and how users might interact with it, designed to inspire developers and manufacturers; the final products are often very different.

When Microsoft creates a new category of hardware products like the wireless monitors or the portable media devices that came out a few years ago, it often works with Flextronics (who also manufacture the Zune and Xbox) to create a reference design that OEMs can then manufacture cheaply.

For new PC designs, Microsoft will collaborate with a PC manufacturer like Acer (the first tablet PC) or HP (Windows Home Server).

It worked with Asus to develop secondary displays on the top or side of a laptop to show information from Windows Sideshow like the number of unread messages you have or where your next meeting is, and Asus has been showing off a prototype dual-screen notebook.

Like many PC manufacturers Asus is preparing to launch touchscreen PCs supporting the multi-touch gestures in Windows 7, but it's not likely that Courier would be based on a standard PC.

For one thing, although the interface has similarities to the InkSeine note-taking software for tablet PCs produced by a team at Microsoft Research, there's no sign of the Windows interface.

On the dual-screen Codex prototype that Ken Hinckley of the InkSeine team built using two OQO Model 2 tablet PCs, the taskbar may be hidden but you can clearly see the minimise, maximise and close window buttons.


PROTOTYPE:The Codex dual-screen prototype from the InkSeine team; two OQO Model 2 UMPCS plus custom software


FAMILIAR LOOK:The InkSeine software on Codex looks similar to the Courier video

Microsoft Courier processor and OS

If Courier is a dedicated note-taking device, Microsoft wouldn't want users accidentally closing the application, although one way round this would be to use the newly released embedded version of Windows 7 (which you can expect to see in ATMs and kiosks next year).

More importantly, even an Atom processor would struggle to deliver the battery life you'd need to make this kind of device useful, especially driving two screens. And even the tiny OQO 2+ is an inch thick and a pound heavy; two of those would be less like a Moleskine notebook and more like a hardback book. Plus the mobile phone integration is much slicker than anything that Windows currently delivers.

That makes it more likely that a real Courier would use processors designed for smartphones and MIDs, like Qualcomm's 1GHz Snapdragon or the new 2GHz ARM chip.

Could Courier be based on Windows Mobile 7? It's possible; the 1GHz Snapdragon is powerful enough to do basic video editing with on the Toshiba TG01, so it could do handwriting recognition.

Like Zune, Windows Mobile is built on top of Windows CE and Microsoft has just put Silverlight into Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R3, along with touch gestures and the same version of Internet Explorer as the Zune HD -which could enable the kind of impressive user interface shown in the Courier video.

It also uses Device Stage to connect to Windows 7, meaning you'd be able to sync notes to a PC.

Kevin Dallas, general manager of the Windows Embedded business unit, suggests that the new version is ideal for what he calls 'consumer Internet devices (CIDs)'; he describes them as falling "between smartphones and the full-featured, small Windows-based notebooks", which makes them sound like Intel's Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) and Qualcomm's Smartbook idea – or like Courier.

Systems integrator Adeneo used CE 6.0 R3 to build a slim tablet with a XAML-based touch interface from UI designers Infragistics that was shown off at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston last week; it's not a slick as the Courier video, and it only has one screen, but it's much closer to the size of the hypothetical Courier device.

Wince silverlight

TOUCH IT:The Adoneo Silverlight-enabled 'Consumer Internet Device' with a touch interface, on stage in Boston; it's not Courier but it's closer than anything else so far

On the other hand, Microsoft's many years of expertise with handwriting recognition and ink functionality is based on Windows – and the Windows kernel team is currently engaged on rewriting the Windows 7 kernel to scale down to processors like the ARM (as well as to scale up to supercomputers and cloud computing).

That means there's another alternative: there's going to be a version of Windows for smaller devices, but Microsoft might also create something more like the Xbox operating system for mobile devices.

Xbox uses a modified version of the Windows NT kernel that runs only one application at a time (either the Xbox dashboard or an app launched by the dashboard as it exits).

Create silverlight

NEW APPS:Developers will be able to create Silverlight apps for CIDs in the same tools they use to build Windows apps and Silverlight for the Web, which could mean lots of slick apps

A custom kernel and OS would make it more likely that Microsoft would sell a Courier tablet under its own brand, like Xbox; if it's more closely based on the PC or Windows Mobile platform, several manufacturers might launch devices.

There are many ways that Microsoft could create a platform that devices like Courier could be built on. Popular as the Courier video has proven, don't expect anything exactly like it any time soon.

That said, don't expect Microsoft, which has had touch computing and ink input since Windows for Pen Computing for Windows 3.11, to leave the tablet space to Apple and Intel, either.


Liked this? Then check out 7 mind-blowing projects from Microsoft Research

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