The Surface Duo is quite possibly the most radical device that Microsoft has released in years, offering a folding design with two separate screens. Sure, it’s not as crazy as typical foldables with flexible screens, but Microsoft thinks this could be a paradigm shift in how we interact with our apps.
As weird as a dual-screen foldable sounds, this isn’t actually the first time the Redmond company worked on the concept. In fact, a similar design reached the advanced stages of development before its eventual cancellation as long ago as 2009. That device was called the Microsoft Courier.
What was the Microsoft Courier?
The Courier was Microsoft’s first bid to make a dual-screen foldable. The device had a book-style form factor, featuring two 7-inch screens with support for multi-touch and pen inputs as well.
If that all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the blueprint for the Surface Duo and its now indefinitely delayed, Windows-powered sister device, the Surface Neo.
A leaked video (seen above) at the time showed off just how users would have interacted with the device. It was designed to be a predominantly pen-driven experience as you would have never had to deal with a virtual keyboard (imagine that in 2020), with touch gestures used for scrolling and other interactions.
The Microsoft Courier reportedly clashed with a competing vision for tablet-driven Windows.
Some of the feature concepts seen on the Surface Duo were also present here, such as running a different app on each screen and dragging and dropping content from one screen to the other. The video even showed the mooted ability to drag and drop a contact from one screen to a journal app on the other to give them access to said journal.
It’s also interesting to note the intended use of the Courier’s hinge. Although the video didn’t show it, it was reported at the time that the hinge was a “pocket” for apps that you could move from one page to the other. Meanwhile, the Surface Duo — released 11 years later — also makes use of the hinge area, letting you drag apps to this area to span them across both screens.
According to a comprehensive story by CNET, the dual-screen prototype ran a modified version of Windows with the traditional interface removed entirely. This was said to conflict with then-Windows head Steven Sinofsky’s vision of a tablet-friendly version of Windows. Sinofsky’s vision ostensibly became Windows 8 and the first Microsoft Surface tablets.
The outlet reported that a meeting between Bill Gates and Courier lead (and Xbox pioneer) J Allard may have been a pivotal moment in the dual-screen device’s cancellation. Sources told CNET that Gates asked Allard how users would get email on the device, with the Courier lead saying people could get it via the web. Furthermore, Allard allegedly asserted that people who bought the Courier would use their smartphone or PC for email anyway. The Courier team also argued that the device was meant for content creation rather than being a PC replacement.
The outlet’s sources noted that the project was canceled a few weeks after the meeting as it “didn’t align with the company’s Windows and Office franchises.”
Microsoft Surface Duo: The Courier successor?
Microsoft and its Courier team faced a number of obstacles during development compared to the Surface Duo, with Microsoft itself being one of these hurdles. The company felt the need to slap Windows on everything in the late 90s to the late 2000s. From Windows Mobile and its Tablet PCs and even to its last ever games console, the Sega Dreamcast. While the Courier used a modified version of Windows as well, the aforementioned CNET story strongly suggests Microsoft preferred a more traditional experience.
This obsession with Windows on everything only changed somewhat in the last four or five years, as the company abandoned its smartphone platform in favor of embracing Android and iOS. Thus, the door was opened for Microsoft hardware running on Android, which brings us to the Surface Duo.
The Courier’s development also came prior to the first iPad’s launch, although its cancellation came after the Apple product’s release. Nevertheless, the Microsoft device was conceived at a time before the tablet boom in the early-to-mid 2010s.
Meanwhile, the Surface Duo comes at a time when foldable phones that can turn into tablets are gaining momentum, while the tablet industry is well established, but trending downwards. While the Surface Duo, like the Courier before it, is still a unique prospect, the idea of a folding, tablet-sized experience might seem a little less crazy to the average consumer after seeing the Samsung Galaxy Fold.
It certainly looks like the Surface Duo took a few pages out of the Courier playbook, ranging from the basic design to the hybrid touch/pen approach and drag-and-drop gestures. Does this refreshed concept actually work in execution though? We’ll let you know in our full Surface Duo review coming very soon.
This is the sixth post in our “Did you know” series, in which we dive into the Android history books to uncover important and interesting facts or events that have been forgotten over time. What do you want to see us cover next? Let us know in the comments.