The Web's been buzzing since Gizmodo leaked Microsoft's Courier tablet PC, and rightly so--it looks amazing. However, what we've seen of Courier is a mere concept rendering. Apple, of course, has been playing that game too. For 22 years.
Check out this utterly fabulous video made by Apple in 1987 to demonstrate what the company imagined for the future of touchscreen computing--the Knowledge Navigator. It was dug out by Arik Hesseldahl over at Businessweek.
Fold-out book format? Check. Integrated camera? Check. Touchscreen? Check. Wireless connection? Check. Journal functionality? Check. These are all Courier-like features--but Apple wows with the voice recognition, artificial intelligence and "personality" aspects of its idea. The Knowledge Navigator is a fully interactive PDA--in smartness way beyond what Microsoft's envisaging, and capable of many of the tasks a real personal assistant offers.
Perhaps this is no surprise--Knowledge Navigator was conceived during the reign of John Sculley as Apple's CEO, and he's credited by some as the inventor of the phrase "Personal Digital Assistant." This could also explain why Apple's concept video is astonishingly boring despite introducing a technology that's pretty damn clever even now, let alone in 1987. No Steve Jobs special, the video lacks Jobs' characteristic "boom," positivity, and dynamism. In fact Navigator seems a little closer to the ideas behind the Microsoft Codex (pictured)--a serious tool for serious business collaboration and planning.
Microsoft has actually used the codename Courier for a product before--and it too seems to be for a dry and fusty product: a smartphone-based workplace document sharing system. Check out this document--it's a PDF of a project developed in early 2008 within Microsoft's own research division. We're glad Courier has evolved, or the name has just been repurposed, into something much more groovy.
But here's the thing. Everyone's excited by Courier, but Apple's been working on the concepts behind the iTablet (or whatever it's going to be named) for more than 20 years, and has the experience of the famous Newton and iPhone to draw on. We have no insight into how the iTablet might work--some might say thanks to Apple's super-secrecy policy, while others will say it's because the project is vaporware. But with Apple's track record we've got to imagine that when the tablet does surface, it's going to blow Courier out of the water. Let's just hope that if Apple includes a smart virtual avatar for the gizmo it'll be less bow tie-wearing, and more Eddie The Shipboard Computer? (Check him out from about 2:55 in the clip.)