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Has Microsoft Courier come back to life?

Patent award revives talk of tablet computer

After the wildly successful launch of the Apple iPad tablet computer, many techies looked to Microsoft to see if it would introduce a competing product. Alas, Microsoft shelved development work on the so-called "Courier" tablet in April. But speculation about Courier has been revived this week with news that Microsoft has been awarded a patent for just such a device.

Patent number D618683 for a "dual display device" was awarded June 29 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The document describes a patent claim for the "ornamental design for a dual display device," which to me means what's patented is the shape and design of the product, specifically that it has two display panels side-by-side. Spy photos of the Courier on sites such as Gizmodo have depicted a similar form factor, with a hinge down the middle between the two screens so the computer opens like a book.

Courier was the subject of much speculation in the wake of the iPad introduction in January but Microsoft quashed that speculation in late April by saying the rough equivalent of "nothing to see here, move along."

“At any given time, across any of our business groups, there are new ideas being investigated, tested, and incubated. It’s in Microsoft’s DNA to continually develop and incubate new technologies to foster productivity and creativity,” said Frank Shaw, corporate vice president of communications at Microsoft, in a statement at the time. “The ‘Courier’ project is an example of this type of effort and its technologies will be evaluated for use in future Microsoft offerings.”

On Monday, a Microsoft customer queried CEO Steve Ballmer about Courier in an e-mail. The next day, Ballmer replied, "We are working on things. thanks."

Buzz about which companies will try to take on Apple in the tablet market also increased yesterday when Cisco Systems introduced the Google Android-powered Cius tablet due to go on sale sometime next year. While specifically targeted at business users as opposed to the consumer-centric iPad, the Cius nonetheless indicates that the tablet is the new new of tech gadgets. Other computer makers including Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung and others supposedly have tablets in development, but plans are sketchy.

The Microsoft patent document identifies two other "inventors" of the dual display device besides Microsoft: Scott Wilson and Stephen Christopher, both of Chicago. An Internet search traced the two to Coroflot, which is described as a job board for a wide variety of designers, but including industrial designers and product designers. Neither has yet replied to a request for comment. Microsoft again declined to comment today on the patent news.

UPDATE: Wilson replied to an e-mail late this afternoon, identifying himself as the founder of the Chicago-based product design studio Minimal. While he acknowledged having worked for Microsoft on Xbox and Kinect products, he wouldn't comment on Courier. "As you would expect we are not able to disclose our work for clients that is not public," Wilson wrote.

The Minimal Web site identifies Microsoft as a client but describes its work as "confidential" and on "future mobile devices, PC hardware and gaming systems."

Tease us, why dontcha!

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