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Microsoft closes Courier creator Pioneer Studios

Any hopes that still remained of an official Courier tablet from Microsoft have been dashed with the news that the company has closed the development house behind the creation, Pioneer Studios.

Founded by Microsoft's J Allard, Pioneer Studios was designed to create innovative products that were vastly different from the mainstream stuff on which the rest of the company was focusing. While much of the work carried out at Pioneer was secret, one product leaked out ahead of schedule - and captured the world's imagination: Courier.

A tablet design from before Apple's iPad was but a twinkle in a designer's eye, the Courier was a 'clamshell' system that used two touch-sensitive display screens rather than the more traditional one. The tablet was designed to be used in a variety of ways: partially opened, the lower surface could be used as a keyboard and the upper surface as a screen, as with a traditional laptop; fully open, windows could span both screens for a portrait display perfect for web browsing and document reading; rotated, the two displays formed a large widescreen surface perfect for playing games or watching films.

It was a clever design, and one that stirred up a storm of interest - but when it came to the crunch, Microsoft decided the market for tablets was too small, and declined to produce a commercial version of the Courier. While the design would influence the creation of Acer's dual-screen Iconia tablet - which runs Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system - the Courier itself was shelved for a time, before being officially cancelled.

Pioneer Studios wasn't just responsible for a high-profile failure, however: the group's work would go on to influence the creation of Windows Phone 7 and the Xbox 360. Sadly, it would also come up with the ill-fated Zune media player - which failed to make an impact on a market all but dominated by Apple's iPod line - and the Kin, a teen-friendly smartphone line that lasted a whole two months as a commercial endeavour before being cancelled outright.

According to CNET, these failures have proven too much for Microsoft to continue bankrolling the group, and Pioneer is no more. The group's dedicated offices in Seattle have been emptied, and its staff either given alternative jobs within the Microsoft empire or a hearty handshake and their marching orders.

The closure of Pioneer marks the end of an era for Microsoft: the group was founded with the express intention of chasing ideas that Microsoft as a whole saw as being too small or 'out there' to be worth investigating. While it's true that many of Pioneer's projects failed to lead to commercial success, as an innovator it was certainly prolific - and its closure is unlikely to help Microsoft push forward against rivals like Apple in the future.