Fast Company

Screw Microsoft's Courier: Apple Had Better Ideas 22 Years Ago

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.)

[via BusinessWeek]

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12 Comments

  • Guy Iaccarino

    Kit once again swooning over Apple and taking shots at Microsoft - is anyone really surprised by this?

  • Paul Fountaine

    Brian - spot on. No one stays on top always, and with the bank Microsoft has available, innovation is simply one good idea away.

    Jason - you're funny - you dismiss millions of your fellow citizens with one uneducated comment - if only all of this was so simple.

  • Brian Shunk

    Kevin, I use a Mac at home...so I won't be yelling that anytime soon. I love electronics and I'm not a fanboy. I use the best device that suits my needs.
    I'm coming from the perspective of giving credit where it is due. I'm sure that there are hundreds of really interesting/viable concepts from other companies. My point is that we should not dismiss Microsoft for getting one to market, even if someone at Apple though about a tablet 22 years ago. We do not know how long this concept was around at Microsoft or Sony etc.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Kevin. Interesting thinking. I guess we've only got a few months to find out the truth, if the rumors are true. And maybe MS's leak will spur the folks at Cupertino into a bit of action?

  • Kevin Lenard

    Ha! What's a global technology and design innovation and sales leader gotta do to get some respect around here, Jason?!? Apple bashers are too much...

    Kit, thanks for this. I'd suggest that we apply Occam's Razor here. The simplest explanation is the most plausible:

    • Apple has successfully kept it's new devices secret for decades.
    • They do NOT release until the new device is fully functional.
    • Jobs had nothing big to announce this year, yet we know they're always 'pushing the envelope' to stay out front.
    • A multi-functional touchscreen tablet/reader device is the next thing we're all waiting for.
    • Apple already led in this area with the Newton and the iTouch/Phone.
    • Apple announced their intention to develop this device back in 1987, and they ALWAYS deliver on leading edge devices.

    Ergo, Apple is hard at work on this project and we'll see it when they're sure they've got a category-killer, regardless of who's first in (how's Blackberry doing in smartphone domination amongst average consumers these days?).

    Sorry, Brian and Jason, but don't give in! Keep shouting "Macs SUCK!" at the top of your lungs!

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  • Kit Eaton

    @Jason. Excellent criticism of the two different technologies in Microsoft's and Apple's tablet concepts there!

  • Jason Fiske

    This article is to the innovation technology discussion what tea party protesters are to the health care debate.

    Sometimes Apple fanatics are too much.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Michael. I think the Tablet's day really is about to dawn--tech developed until now hasn't really been up to scratch in terms of hardware or UI.
    @Brian. Um... the Courier info is a "fantasy" too, remember? At least until we see one in the flesh. MS has been working on tablets for years, but no-one's bought them...possibly because MS just hasn't got the mix right. That may be something Courier could fix. But not Codex--it's just too pedestrian.
    @Andres. Strange isn't it!

  • Brian Shunk

    Microsoft creates a fantastic device and right away people are bashing it. I would give Apple the kudos for this idea of "The Knowledge Navigator" if the video wasn't a fantasy, and the device wasn't vaporware. The device is not real. Microsoft and its partners have been making tablet PCs for several years now. It is fine to come up with an idea, but the company that actually comes to market first gets the real credit.

    Right now I'm imagining a PDA style phone that can be plugged into a flat screen monitor. The monitor will have a touch screen and will allow people to use the PDA as a desktop PC. When Apple or any other company actually creates this, remember that it is hogwash because you read it here first. I thought of it so I get full credit from now on. Silly right? I'm confident that if one were to dig around enough they could find out that another company (like Xerox) came up with this idea long before Apple created the fantasy video.

  • Michael Gautier

    A great retrospective on the ideas we seen expressed recently. In many ways, it illustrates the difficulties that have existed in bringing about this level of technology. Back in 1987, we lacked a number of the underlying ingredients to make such concepts successful. Or perhaps our priorities were focused on the burgeoning desktop (IBM compatible PCs they were then called). Today, we have pervasive networks of content, video streaming, open technology, mature standards, and a vibrant technology industry with the wherewithal to achieve such ideas.

    The new devices that eventually emerge from Apple, Microsoft, IBEX and others are sure to be a benefit to society. Useful devices, will contain the power of today's PCs in a form factor with the right mix of “convenience, practical mobility, and productivity” not limited to just entertainment. Part of what seems to moderate progress is caution over a failed product introduction. Without Apple, I think the idea of a useful tablet might have diminished. Microsoft is now taking the concept further as to its practical definition. Definitely, such oscillation gets us to the right set of solutions.

    Thank you for presenting this background on the initial forays in such devices. Theirs was truly an impressive concept. Hopefully, this will inspire product designers and engineers to take advantage of today's rich technical assets to create a truly valuable digital assistant. The iPhone was a good step in the right direction. Now, these companies have the opportunity to think bigger and move further. With such a device, I can see new avenues of commerce opening up. Perhaps combined with Motorola's heads up display, we may yet achieve the creative economy (among others) spoken of by Daniel Pink.