Courier is dead, long live Courier?

Ah, Courier, we hardly knew you. "We have no plans" Microsoft say "to build such a device at this time." Now, perhaps it's my tablet-addled, ever-hopeful mind, but that doesn't sound quite the same thing as "you won't see a Courier-style device." In fact, you could easily interpret it as a carefully worded workaround: we're not going to build a Microsoft Courier, the company says, but other firms might. After all, they've already mention that "its technologies will be evaluated for use in future Microsoft offerings."

Wishful thinking? You're probably right, but I'm remembering MSI's dual-display prototype that's been wheeled out at a few trade shows now, and recent talk of a Toshiba Tegra 2 based "dual-screen model running Windows." Both have been anecdotally compared with what we've seen of the Courier project.

Of course, that dual-display MSI notebook is facing problems of its own, the biggest being battery life. According to a recent Engadget report, MSI's Andy Tung has said that "the two screens are a major drain on the battery, and even with a higher density battery and the Menlow CPU we are only getting three hours [of runtime]." The prediction is that the device won't arrive until Q4 2010 at the earliest.

That's a similar timescale as attached to the Toshiba tablet, which was fingered for late 2010 with Compal doing OEM duty. Toshiba themselves have confirmed that it's on the cards, though is set to be more expensive than a single-screen Android version they're also apparently looking into.

To be honest, such a move – providing a software solution, rather than taking the helm in hardware – would be a better fit with Microsoft's general approach: giving OEMs the OS and letting them do their own thing with the physical product. That's certainly the way they've played it in the past with the Tablet PC functionality integrated into various iterations of Windows, whether as a standalone version (like Windows XP Tablet Edition) or, as in Windows 7, baked into certain feature builds of the platform. There's also the much-underrated OneNote digital journal app to consider, software which – while it will work perfectly well on a regular computer – really comes alive when used with pen input, with handwriting recognition, the ability to search through inked notes, OCR from pasted in photos and just the sort of life-recording that Courier seemed to promise.

Microsoft have been pushing pen and touchscreen input more and more with each OS release, and OneNote has been gradually making moves from the distant cousin of Office to an inclusive part of the Office Home and Student package. If it were me in charge, I'd avoid dipping my toe into competitive hardware waters – risking defining the niche to the detriment of manufacturers coming up with their own alternatives – and instead focus on pulling the technology in OneNote into a custom Windows build (multitouch and gestures included), and linking it up with the existing online tools like Windows Live Spaces blogs.

NVIDIA have been telling us for months that their latest Tegra chipsets can deliver not only 1080p HD performance but extreme power frugality, and it's not unusual to find Tablet PCs with dual-mode displays that can automatically flick between finger-touch and stylus input. Alternatively we've seen plenty of rival chipset manufacturers with products capable of driving multiple simultaneous displays.

You'd need to solve three key issues for it to work: price, battery life and market positioning. The first is always going to be tricky, matching not one but two touchscreen panels with wireless-enabled components small enough (and sturdy enough) to make for a pocket- or bag-friendly device. Battery life is, as MSI have discovered, a make-or-break factor; however, when you ditch Intel's CPUs and look to ARM-based platforms, far more interesting things are possible. Look at the 10+ hours of runtime Apple's iPad is capable of for evidence of that.

Hardest still, though, is giving would-be buyers a reason to welcome a Courier-style device into their lives. Apple have a head-start in a way, what with the almost devotional levels of appeal the brand has to many people; the iPad was guaranteed a strong debut for that reason alone. For all that the "it's just a big iPod touch" criticism must have rankled over at Cupertino, in the end it at least drew connections between the iPad and a paradigm consumers were familiar with. The growth of blogging, sharing-focused microblogs like Tumblr and social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter are all strong examples of spontaneous – and personalised – content manipulation and distribution that Microsoft could, if they're clever, use to illustrate their new idea. Yes, perhaps it's unlikely, but several months ago we were ready to write off Project Pink over talk of internal collapse, and Microsoft still brought Kin out to play. Time will still tell whether that particular project succeeds, but at least Microsoft showed they were willing to give it a chance.