June 30, 2010

Dead for doing one thing well

I’ve been meaning to write about Microsoft’s aborted attempt at the sublime called Courier for awhile, but today’s post-launch termination of would-be socialphone Kin puts the former into relief. While the two products had very different origins as well as demises, they have a lot more in common than their status as apparently-rogue Microsoft projects.

The ideal

Courier was a later-stage concept that never made it to market. Kin was the product of an expensive acquisition and a high-profile launch, shot down minutes after takeoff. But the profound link between Courier and Kin is not one of investing lots of money into something only to can it. Their unifying theme is something more noble, even quixotic: The pursuit of an ideal.

This ideal is the quest to find one thing to focus solely upon doing better than anyone else, to the expense of other features, use cases, and markets. It’s something that some of the best products in history have done, and unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be something Microsoft encourages.

The platform of no platform

Courier would not have been an iPad competitor. The design philosophy of the iPad is to offer a 9.7″ window into anything its A4 CPU and App Store policies can handle; it is a blank slate ready to dedicate itself to whatever’s running. Courier was the exact opposite: a piece of hardware specifically crafted as a notebook for creatives. Its hardware was not built for versatility, and its software was, as far as anyone could tell, not built as a platform.

Courier was not intended to replace a netbook, tablet, UMPC, or anything else. I doubt it would have even run apps—it wouldn’t have fit its character. It was designed to fulfill its creative purpose better than any multi-purpose device could ever do with run-everything hardware and do-everything software.

Likewise, the potential of Kin was immense. In a market filled with phones where social networking is either an isolated smartphone app or a tacked-on J2ME disaster, the choice to build a platform upon a social core, with every piece of the user experience deriving from this priority, should have set Kin up for a shot at success in a niche market.

Doing everything or nothing

Microsoft’s history is obviously not one of perfectionistic products designed consummately to a single purpose. Broad, empire-building platforms such as Windows and suites like Microsoft Office are the company’s priorities, allowing only the occasional venture into the single-purpose territory when it’s already been proven by a competitor.

There was nothing proven about a high-tech mobile creative tool or a phone that existed only to socialize (although the latter is arguably a proven market). Perhaps, in a market where an iPad already supports a sufficient proportion of the uses a Courier could have plus many others, and a usable Facebook app for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, WebOS, and MeeGo fulfils enough of most socialites’ needs, the enhanced user experience of dedicated devices isn’t enough to justify the extra investment. Certainly the opportunity costs of buying such a focused phone today are numerous.

The simple wonder, though, of stashing a stylus-drawn sketch in Courier’s “binding” with your thumb or dragging a photo straight from the camera into Kin’s system-wide “sharing dot,” is still something you can’t quite get with platforms.