Since Microsoft acknowledged officially a couple of weeks ago that the powers-that-be there decided to nix the Courier Tablet, the question I've gotten most often is "So what's J Allard's next trick?"
According to my sources last fall, Allard was the champion of the Courier dual-screen tablet. Courier made it as far as an incubation before CEO Steve Ballmer & Co. decided not to pursue the project. (At Microsoft, incubations are more likely to turn into products than pure research projects, but they are still not yet on a guaranteed path to commercialization.)
Over the past mont or so, I've been asking around about Allard's whereabouts. One of my sources who has been a pretty reliable tipster in the past told me that Allard is on sabbatical and is unlikely to return to Microsoft. His name is still in the Global Address Book inside Microsoft, I hear, and his bio page is still unaltered on the Microsoft Corporate Web site, where he still is listed as Chief Experience Officer and Chief Technology Officer, Entertainment and Devices Division.
Word inside was Allard was none too happy about the killing off of Courier and has finally made good on his (what sounds like they may have been regular) threats about leaving the company all together. (Another person with whom I communicated claimed CEO Steve Ballmer showed Allard the door because of disagreements regarding the Courier's potential.)
I asked Microsoft for comment and was told: "We're not commenting on ‘rumor or speculation.’ (I asked as a follow-up whether Allard is on sabbatical and was told Microsoft "didn't have more to share.")
On May 18, someone else's bio page did change on the Microsoft Web site, however. Todd Holmdahl, who was previously listed as Corporate Vice President of the Gaming and Xbox Product Group, is now listed as Corporate Vice President, Interactive Entertainment Business, Incubation. Here's what Holmdahl's new job description includes:
"Holmdahl leads the Incubation team for the Interactive Entertainment Business responsible for continually exploring new technologies, new consumer experiences, and new business models. Holmdahl works with various internal and external partners on planning, scoping, and prototyping future interactive entertainment scenarios."
The new bio also lists Holmdahl as "one of the founding fathers of the Xbox brand," as well as one of the main recruiters for "the team currently developing 'Project Natal.'"
This change in bios may just be Microsoft getting its Natal ducks in a row before it showcases the gaming controller at the E3 conference in early June. But could it also be an attempt to position Holmdahl as the new stand-in for Allard?
I've asked a few of my contacts whether they've heard whether Microsoft is attempting to find a new E&D creative champion to fill Allard's shoes. No one seems to know for sure. One insider I know, who acknowledged he had no direct knowledge as to Allard's current whereabouts or plans, came back with this:
"Allard was a key guy on Xbox and organizationally he was set up to drive innovations like Courier. He was one of the few there that really was willing to think outside the box and has people working on top secret projects off the main campus....He was regarded as being a bit (Apple CEO Steve) Jobs like in that he understood the importance of design, not just function. Hence if he departs Microsoft would lose an important design advocate and innovator."
Allard has been out of the limelight for over a year, giving no interviews and appearing at no new launches since the Zune (I believe). The most recent sanctioned mention of him that I could find was on April 14, when Allard joined the board of Portland, Oreg.-based outdoor gear manufacturer The Clymb.
J, are you out there? What are you doing? Inquiring minds would love to know....