The promise of the revolutionary rumored Microsoft Andromeda tablet

Will the rumored Andromeda tablet fulfill the promise of Microsoft's abandoned Courier project from a decade ago?

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[Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author]

Back in 2009, Microsoft showcased a skunk works project called the Courier tablet. What was kind of amazing to me at the time was that this tablet was generally positively received externally…but inside the company it was panned because it didn’t run Office. Of course, we eventually realized that was fixable, because Microsoft now has versions of Office running on iOS and Android. They even have ARM--based Windows machines in market again (under the Always Connected PC initiative). These were surprisingly good products and the Asus version sold out.

After they killed the Courier – apparently to make sure no other products were created that would look good outside but not inside – they killed the skunk works effort altogether. This was incredibly sad, because some of the greatest products I’ve ever touched came out of skunk works efforts (and some of the greatest fighter planes, too, for that matter).

Nearly a decade has gone by since the ill-fated Courier tablet, and a lot of things have changed. The iPad isn’t the world-killer anymore. PC sales seems to be stabilizing. And technology for both screens and processors has advanced substantially.  

What exactly is the potential for the Andromeda Tablet?

Twin-screen tablet

There have been several twin-screen PC efforts over the years and none have gone particularly well. A lot of the problem was that with two screens you get a lot of extra glass weight. And since screens demand a huge amount of power, you took a massive power hit as well. You had to use one of the screens as a keyboard, which, at the time, wasn’t acceptable to most consumers (though with screen keyboards on smartphones, the resistance to screen keyboards has been dropping sharply).

I think a lot of the problem with these were they were positioned as laptops rather than tablets – and the acceptable standard for both classes is very different.  With a dual-screen tablet, you start with touch as the primary interface, making a screen keyboard a more occasional thing and more acceptable as well. Now having the twin screens is an advantage because you can, if you want, dedicate one screen to a keyboard when you want to type anything long but generally live off touch for most navigation and app control.

Folded, the tablet will clearly be thicker than a similar tablet with similar screen size. Unfolded, you get a larger tablet more aligned with reading legal documents, books and especially electronic magazines. In fact, the strongest use case for this device may be for digital magazines, comic books and manuals. This could be a stunning product for shop manuals for cars, for instance.

For video, the question will be on how they handle the hinge. When the Courier was conceived, even though the twin screens did fit closely together, they weren’t seamless. They were framed, and the frame would have destroyed dual-screen video watching. But with foldable screens  starting to ramp to market (check out this coming Samsung phone) and zero-bezel screens now commonplace, there’s a good chance one of these will find its way onto this device. This would be a big win for those that wanted it to be a movie viewer (it’ll be interesting to see what Microsoft does to create some kind of desktop kickstand for it, so you don’t have to hold the thing while watching video).  

I’d expect the price of this tablet to be in iPad range, or at or below $500 when it comes to market. It could have a ready-made audience, particularly for those that need a digital manual reader or for schools wanting to use eBook text books.

Wrapping up

The Courier tablet was a great idea but, given the timing and Microsoft’s inability to execute at the time, it was probably wise they killed it. Satya Nadella has retuned the firm to a company that can again execute and, given the idea was compelling, I’m excited they are revisiting this even though nearly a decade has gone by.  

Given Apple hasn’t been promoting the iPad much and many consumers have aging iPads, if Microsoft can fix the Amazon Kindle and Prime applications on Windows, use the latest Snapdragon 1000 processor [Disclosure: Qualcomm is a client of the author] and come up with a compelling Surface-like design (which seems very likely), then the next tablet hit could come from Redmond.

If so, this will make an interesting counterpoint to the Zune and Microsoft Phone failures which I still maintain had more to do with execution than concept (I really liked my Windows phone and hated to give it up, but app support sucked).  

In short, the Andromeda tablet could become a showcase product for the new Microsoft and do a lot to reinvigorate the tablet market (which could allow Apple to slipstream Microsoft for once). We’ll see…  

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