Microsoft Courier Shaping Up as a Truly Novel iPad Competitor

It may be a little early to say this, but to me it seems like Microsoft (s msft) took all the disappointment and fear resulting from Apple’s (s aapl) dominance of the mobile devices category over its own products through the years and used that energy to create the Courier. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen another company’s product and thought “That seems like something Apple would’ve made.”

Engadget posted more details about the device late last week, including two lengthy HD interface videos. Microsoft isn’t yet officially saying anything about whether or not this will become a production device, but Engadget seems very confident in its sources, and I’d be inclined to believe them since it seems more than likely Redmond is taking a page out of Apple’s marketing playbook by keeping things somewhat hush-hush but using “leaks” to steal focus.
Microsoft gets a lot of flak for doing a tablet the wrong way, as demonstrated by the HP model it unveiled ahead of the iPad to grab some of the attention away from that spotlight hog. But the Courier doesn’t have the same shortcomings. For one, it’s not based on Windows 7, but on a version of Windows CE 6, which also provides the basis for the Zune HD’s interface and the upcoming Windows Mobile 7 OS. It also runs on the Tegra 2, an impressive mobile processor.

It also has some considerable advantages over its Apple rival, especially if the hype is actually representative of what a production version will look like. First, there’s the size. The clamshell design allows it to be smaller than the iPad, while providing more screen real estate. Closed, it’s said to measure five by seven inches, and still remain less than an inch thick. It should also weigh less than a pound. It should take up just a little less space than the Amazon (s amzn) Kindle, for reference, which goes a long way toward making it truly, conveniently portable.

The Courier’s big advantage over the iPad, for me, isn’t the dual-screen design (although that helps), but the combination of pen and touch input. If I had to choose one, I’d go with touch, as Apple’s done with the iPad, but the opportunity to have both is a major selling point. Viewing the UI videos emphasizes why, and if you’ve ever used a tablet with a computer, especially those with a built-in display, you’ll know why a pen is a much better option than trying to learn to write or draw with your clumsy finger.
Microsoft’s notebook tablet is also refreshing because of its emphasis on interactivity between components and hardware features of the device. The software seems designed from the start to work perfectly not only with the specific features of the device, but also with every other software component of the OS, and all through a brilliantly intuitive UI. Nor is it a closed system despite this sharp focus, since the sharing features appear to be rich and varied.
Apple, for its part, emphasizes the apps. Apps are great, and they provide some pretty useful functions and terrific distractions, but they don’t really seem to work as well or with the same degree of interconnection as the Courier’s software promises to. Even Apple’s own built-in apps don’t have anywhere near as much potential for communication between and across each other.
In my opinion, where Apple got lazy with the iPad, Microsoft is throwing its entire mobile future behind the Courier. Not only that, but these previews are emphasizing the Courier’s strengths over the iPad without addressing things like media playback. The impression I get isn’t that the Courier is bad at those things, just that they’re taken as given. Instead, Redmond’s project is all about what a tablet can do that a media player can’t, something I’ve yet to really see illustrated by Apple regarding the iPad.
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