You had to know this was coming.
Back in 2009, there was a rumor that Microsoft was working on a revolutionary yet off-the-wall hardware design under the name “Courier”. This was before Apple released the iPad, which if you remember everyone dinged as a very big iPhone, so there was no tablet paradigm to shatter. Even at the time, the Courier was unique in its design.
With two screens, a stylus, and a touch-enabled hinge that would allow users to work with two separate views at the same time, the Courier was rumored to be a device less for practical use and more for innovation. Regardless of its aim, I wanted the Courier so bad. I had always wanted a device that would allow me to Get Shit Done, even when the Shit I had to Get Done was only important in my own mind. I wanted that stylus so I could write freehand or maybe sketch, and a keyboard so I could maybe compose the Great American Novel(la or short story or just long blog post).
Steve Ballmer, the CEO at the time of the Courier’s development, found himself faced with a Solomon-level decision between two products. One was the Courier, and the other was still a good two years out, but a dedication of resources had to be made so Ballmer turned to ex-CEO Bill Gates for advice. When Gates met with former Xbox guru J Allard, now head of the Courier development team, to learn about the two-paneled tablet, he was apparently horrified that Allard categorized the Courier as a device for content creation, not as a business device. Microsoft had grown up as a company dedicated to productivity and aided by Gate’s reaction, Ballmer decided to side with the company’s historical purpose and ax the Courier in order to focus on the other product in development: the Surface. [Part 1][Part 2]
A Second Chance at Awesome
That’s why today is ironic in so many ways. During what we more or less expected to be a standard dog and pony show about the next upgrades to the Microsoft Surface product line, Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay deadpanned his way into an Apple-patented “Oh, one more thing” moment and mic-dropped what the press had been calling the “Surface Andromeda”, now officially known as the Surface Neo.
Grown from the Courier’s original DNA, the Neo features two tablet halves joined by a touch-sensitive hinge that allows for 180-degree foldability. It has a stylus that can magnetically stick to the outside of the case. It has a Bluetooth keyboard that can cover 3/4 of one of the screens and based on what was shown in the sizzle reel, converts that remaining 1/4 into either a touchscreen taskbar (if above the keyboard) or a touchscreen trackpad (if below the keyboard). The Neo runs a new branch of Windows (currently) called “Windows 10 X” which is designed, so they say, for dual-screen devices.
Then, Panay offered “one more one more thing” and announced the Surface Duo, an Android-powered foldable “phablet”. It operates very much like the Neo except that it’s a phone, and in a move that should elevate Microsoft a few notches on the Karmic scale, uses Google’s mobile OS. Obviously Microsoft’s attempt to roll their own mobile device failed spectacularly, and while there was absolutely no reason for the Duo to happen, a bridge between two tech giants in an era of walled gardens is gobsmacking. I think the partnership over this device is more surprising than the device itself.
Details are sparse because both devices aren’t scheduled for release until the end of 2020, which makes this reveal very, very ballsy, as a lot can happen in tech in a year. We know it’s powered by an 11th gen Intel Lakefield processor that Microsoft helped create, and which has integrated graphics. Each individual screen of the device in its prototype stage is only 5.6mm thick, and the whole thing weighs 655 grams. Naturally, there’s no price offered, and I have yet to see any rumors.
In the time since the demise of the Courier, I have continued to chase the Get Shit Done solution through several devices. I bought an original Surface which worked very well when the device was new, but as a first-generation product it was bulky and unsuitable for real portability. I tried an iPad mini to rectify that, but it had no support for a true stylus (as Steve Jobs commanded, remember). I am now using one of the late-model 9.7″ iPads which does support the Apple Pencil, and it does an excellent job of what I ask of it. I use it regularly with OneNote to take handwritten notes or to read notes I had typed out on the PC. The form-factor, though, is still designed for content consumption, which was both Gates’ and Jobs’ vision for such devices, and as such it’s always been just awkward enough that I use it only when more traditional notebooks are within arms reach (i.e. sitting down at a desk).
The idea of “one device to rule them all” is basically what the industry has been chasing since Apple put the bug in people’s ears that all they needed was an iPad (and an iPhone, natch). Consuming content has become the reason for technology, whether it’s streaming movies or listening to music or podcasts or even reading books or browsing websites. The iPad as a creative tool is lacking in so much, even at a bare-bones business level, unless there’s a specific app for a specific task (many of which Apple itself kindly provides). I have tried several different note-taking applications, some of which work well, many of which are confoundingly monetized, but there’s still something lacking in the iPad’s form that doesn’t really make such a use sing.
Don’t Screw This Up Again
I’m super excited for the Neo, and maybe the Duo, but realize that while Microsoft breaking bread with Google is a reason for a heartfelt round of applause, they are still in the same position they’ve always found themselves in: creating a device that addresses a need that people might be hard-pressed to decide they have. Who is the Neo aimed at? Me, obviously, because I was very angry — really, I was angry — at the Courier’s demise, but beyond me and a few others who might be ensorcelled by the uniqueness of the device right now, is the Neo a product that people will gravitate to, or will it become another Windows Phone, another Windows Mixed Reality? It sits beneath the Surface umbrella, which should allow it some latitude, but for it to work as a device, it has to do more than just present itself as “two screens as opposed to one” in an era where the standard has become Kindle or Android or iOS tablets. What can the Neo do that other tablets cannot aside from fold, and is that enough to warrant bringing another similar device into the house? I’m not even going to address the Duo, considering Samsung’s debacle with their folding phone may have wrecked the interest in such a device, no matter how more advanced the Duo might be.
I have decided that I am going to start saving money right now for the Neo’s release next year. I’ll eschew the temptation of many things between now and then, like the PS5, updated VR headsets, a new drone hobby, or buying some of that SFX software I had been hoping would go back on sale now that my daughter has a legitimate student email address. I’ll trade in my iPad and Pencil for this, and any other technology I can salvage that might have value. I have to put the money literally where the mouth is because I missed the Courier that wasn’t, and want to make sure that the Neo is the Courier that continues to be.