Microsoft Courier: Take two tablets and call me when it's real

The Web is agog with news of a new Tablet PC concept from, of all companies, Microsoft. So far, though, it's all manure and no pony

The Web is suddenly raging with Tablet PC fever, and it doesn't seem to matter who's allegedly making the damned things. First Apple, then HP, and now Microsoft.

[ Back in the realm of real products, Cringely asks: Where oh where is that 8-hour laptop? | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

According to gadget blog Gizmodo, which either has very good friends inside Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices division or is totally blowing smoke up our collective skirts, Microsoft is planning a game-changing digital Day Planner-like device called "Courier":

Courier is a real device, and we've heard that it's in the "late prototype" stage of development. It's not a tablet, it's a booklet. The dual 7-inch (or so) screens are multi-touch, and designed for writing, flicking and drawing with a stylus, in addition to fingers. They're connected by a hinge that holds a single iPhone-esque home button. Statuses, like wireless signal and battery life, are displayed along the rim of one of the screens. On the back cover is a camera, and it might charge through an inductive pad, like the Palm Touchstone charging dock for Pre.

They have a wicked cool video of the Courier in action, so it must be true. Right? (Of course, the video is animated. So maybe this is a tablet that can only be used by Homer Simpson and Daffy Duck.) Never mind that Gizmodo doesn't even bother with the formalities of mentioning which little birdy told them about this stuff in the first place. There's no talk of sources at all.

No matter; the blogosphere is now giddy with speculation about the latest Jesus Device. Or since we're talking about twin tablets, maybe the Moses Device would be more accurate. Here's just a sampling:

The Next Web asks: Is Courier better than Apple's tablet? Answer: Absolutely, if one fictional device can be better than another fictional device.

Gearlog declares, "The Apple Tablet is Real -- Only it's Being Developed by Microsoft." I understand they're making the next iPhone too -- over Steve Jobs' lifeless corpse.

The Boy Genius Report exclaims, "Microsoft's Courier tablet concept: you'd leave your wife for it." May I suggest some marital counseling and/or a good divorce attorney?

However, as Mr. Technologizer/Harry McCracken points out, we've been down this road before with Microsoft.

I do remain skeptical about products based on the notion that people want to use styluses to input handwritten text that won’t be converted into accurate, editable ASCII into a computing device. That was the notion behind the Tablet PCs which Microsoft unveiled with absurd pomp and circumstance back in 2001–the company said that most notebooks would be tablets within a few years.

Gadgetell's JG Mason is already dissing the as-yet-invisible device, saying it has "a stylus problem." And John Paczkowski of AllThingsDigital calls it the Microsoft Newton. Ouch.

Wouldn't it be just wonderful if this were all just a really well-executed, extremely early April Fools Day gag? That would be the best thing Gizmodo has ever done.

What's interesting to me about all this is not the tablet per se. Hardware is hardware. If you think any combination of plastic, glass, and silicon is sexy, it may be time to bring your endocrine system into the shop for a flush and a lube (Boy Genius, this means you).

What's truly fascinating is watching the lemming effect at work. Gizmodo (or TechCrunch or fill in the blank) reports the vaguest rumors of a nifty new device and the rest of the blogosphere leaps on it like a pack of hyenas taking out the Domino's delivery guy.

The blogosphere is becoming exactly like the 24/7 cable news networks -- which the "mainstream media" bloggers so often claim to despise. If one of them reports a "breaking news story," they all have to tag along for the ride, no matter whether it deserves any coverage at all. There's always space to be filled.

Kind of like I'm doing now.

So here's my take on the mythical Courier tablet/booklet/uber-e-book PC: Microsoft is often good at the whizzy prototypes. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of engineering these things into a usable device, however, things tend to fall apart. Forcing you to say "OK" five times just to log onto a Wi-Fi connection isn't any more fun if you use your fingers or a stylus to do it, to pick just one out of a million examples.

So if the Courier ever comes to pass (an Oprah-sized "if"), it won't be worth a damn if it's saddled with the same old Microsoft Experience, which is to say, Windows. If it comes out looking closer to Microsoft Surface or the new Zune HD (which is now sitting on my desk and at first glance looks pretty darned slick), then maybe it has a shot.

But here's an idea: Let's wait until the thing actually shows up before we decide whether we love or hate it. I know, I know. That's so 2007. I guess I'm just old school.

If Microsoft made a tablet like the Courier, would you buy it? Weigh in below or e-mail me:

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.