While the Apple-loving press holds its collective breath for what is expected to be an early 2010 announcement of an iPod touch-based tablet computer, the real deal is coming from a company with almost of a decade of tablet PC experience. Microsoft is now in the final stages of developing a book-like tablet device (code-named Courier) that completely rethinks the concept of personal computing.
Microsoft's Courier device uses a so-called "booklet" form factor that provides two 7" color screens—similar to an open book. The screens are multi-touch (of course), support gestures and cross-screen copying, and work with either fingers or stylus-like pens. There's a hinge in the center, providing the look and feel of a book spine, and a camera on one of the booklet's "covers." According to reports at Gizmodo, ZDNet, and elsewhere, the project is being driven by Microsoft's "Chief Experience Officer" (seriously, his real title) J Allard, who previously oversaw Xbox and Zune development. (And they call me a blowhard.)
What's most interesting about Courier is that it dispenses with the traditional slate-like tablet design (a design that Apple uses with the iPhone and iPod touch and is expected to continue to its own tablet PC-like device). You can close the Courier, like a book, and carry it around—again, like a book. There is the possibility that Microsoft would actually sell this device itself instead of foisting it off on PC maker partners, as is typically the case. And it's possible that a smaller version with 4" screens (code-named Codex) could appear, as well.
Microsoft released the first version of its Tablet PC-based OS software back in 2002 and has been innovating in this space ever since. The company has shipped updated Tablet PC software at least three times since that initial release—in a second Windows XP Tablet PC Edition version, in Windows Vista, and in Windows 7—and has shipped several generations of touch-enabled software through its Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC) initiative, its Surface-branded touch tables, and, most recently, with Windows Touch in Windows 7. Its new Zune and Windows Mobile systems both sport multi-touch capabilities, as well. Put simply, this is not technology that Apple invented or even came to market with first. But you'd never know that from reading traditional news sources.
That said, although Microsoft did get there first, Apple is the only company with a truly successful touch-based interface. The Apple iPhone dominates the consumer smart phone market in the United States, and its iPod touch is one of the best-selling MP3 players ever created. But if Microsoft's Courier project looks as good in the real world as the prototypes do, expect it to send Apple racing back to the design labs.
I should note that although Gizmodo was the first blog to broadcast news about the Courier device specifically, ZD Net's Mary Jo Foley previously published information about a "Microsoft Tablet PC Take 2" that pretty clearly references the same device.