Ebook Industry: Where Is Microsoft?

As the ebook industry progresses and the major players compete, it seems we are headed in several directions at once. Self-publishing authors are confused where to start with all the various formats and devices and platforms to publish on.

The major players are bent on keeping control of their domain as they clash with each other for control of the industry. You have Amazon and Barnes and Noble in a struggle for control of the online distribution business and the sale of low end ereaders.

Then you have Apple and the ipad and ibooks positioned a notch-up in price.

Following is Google with their great exposure and Adobe with their brand in the PDF format. As these major players battle it out, one question begs to be asked. Where is Microsoft?

A lesson from the past

We have been through this same type of industry fragmentation. The PC industry in the early 1980’s was in just as much disarray as the ebook industry today with major companies fighting for control.

I know. I was at ground zero on this one. When the PC industry started, the Phoenix area was a hot bed of PC development. Motorola was building the 68000 processor for Apple/MAC and Microage was franchising computer stores across the country. DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) was entrenched in the minicomputer industry and had a large presence in the valley.

In 1980, I started a custom software development company in Phoenix to try to jump on the bandwagon. But like the ebook industry of today, the PC startup industry lacked standards. There were lots of different microcomputers. Each one had a different programming language and operating system. It wasn’t anything to be working on three custom projects with three different makes of microcomputers and three different programming languages.

At that time Digital Research was the leader in operating systems (CP/M) for the PC industry and Apple and Radio Shack (TRS-80) had begun their PC hardware adventure.

In 1980, IBM entered the PC industry and everything changed. They needed an operating system so they contacted the leader, Digital Research. They promptly refused because they wanted to control the process. Sound familiar.

Microsoft to the rescue. Microsoft agreed to IBM’s terms plus they added a Basic Programming language. Now software developers had something to hang their hat on. That one decision made Microsoft the leader in the software industry. MS-DOS made it a standard playing field for all the players.

IBMs next move was to try to control the startup of the PC industry. They licensed Computerland and Sears Computer Stores to sell the IBM PC exclusively. They put together MS-DO S(actually PC-DOS), Lotus 1-2-3, and their PC and sold them through the stores. The PC wars had begun. This is similar to the confusion in the ebook industry today.

The PC needed software to make it useful. Lotus 1-2-3 started the ball rolling with the first spreadsheet written especially for the IBM PC. Following right behind 1-2-3 was the WordStar word processor and the dBase database system. These were the “big three” as someone once said. These were indeed killer apps.

These were great tools but users wanted them to work together. The parts were greater than the total product in this case.

Lotus Symphony was the first attempt at combining the three functions together with mild success. Again users were accustomed to the killer apps and the Lotus database and the word processor fell way short. It was not really designed for joint tasks.

Again Microsoft to the rescue. In 1989 they introduced Microsoft Office. It combined Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint with Visual Basic for Applications scripting language. Later they added Microsoft Access. Now users had the interrelationship they were looking for. Ebook users are looking for the same interrelationship. They want to do more with the information than just read it once.

Back then, the marketing was done by computer store. Prospects could easily touch and feel the products and the sales soared.

I will only mention COMDEX briefly because of the major part it played and as a segue into my ‘needs’ takeaways on this blog. It was a computer trade show held in Las Vegas every November. It started in 1979 and continued for over twenty years. This is where major product announcements and releases were made. It had been a “must attend” event in the industry.

For the last few years of existence of COMDEX, Microsoft kept the show going taking up a considerable amount of the convention floor. It was a place where small companies could display their wares and hope to catch on with dealers across the country.

Microsoft and the eBook

Being entrenched in the digital conversation world since 1994, I started changing my focus to ebooks in 2003. One of my clients wanted to put together a system using a PDA. So off to the computer store I went to buy a Palm Pilot V with its syncing ability.  At the same time I purchased my first ebook reader, a RCA REB1100.

I thought I would put their technical manuals on one to help them with the information overload they had developed. Immediately a problem arose that still plagues the industry. The REB1100 had a proprietary format which did not allow documents to be created in-house. Calibre has solved this problem now.

Ebooks were not new. The Project Gutenberg had been going on for years and most computer technical manuals included a CD with text, html or PDF files but no one had tackled any main stream novels or anything like that.

I started working with Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader (now called Adobe Digital Editions) and the Microsoft eBook Reader. I had been using the Adobe’s PDF files for a while but the free Microsoft ebook software seemed to be the best choose.

Most ereaders had screen problems, especially in bright light, but Microsoft’s Cleartype display technology solved the on-screen reading problem. Also, they had an add-in program that let you take a document in MS-Word and create an ebook automatically. (LIT format) A very simple process.

Their software included bookmarks, notes, a library function, online ordering and the ability to create free-form drawings or margin notes. You could zoom in on pictures and highlight text. It ran on any Windows platform including Windows Mobile.

I seemed like the best choice because Microsoft was entrenched in the computer industry. It seemed to be where the expansion was going in the new ebook industry. Wrong. Microsoft dropped the ball for some reason.

Now the ebook industry is fragmented with numerous formats and proprietary ereader operating systems with no path upward to the next level of devices. For example, you cannot insert notes and highlights on an ereader and do anything with that information on a PC without a lot of work.

What do we need?

  1. We need standardization. Not necessarily one format but devices that can read the most popular formats. A tablet like the ipad can read the popular formats but the cost rules out many readers from ever going digital.
  2. We need a place for a hands on experience like a computer store or a bookstore. Recently I visited an Apple store and I could not believe the activity the store was experiencing. Of course they are limited to the Apple offerings. Bookstores are positioned to push this concept forward because they are not tied to one solution.
  3. The ebook industry needs a ‘SHOW’ presence. You know. A must attend show for readers and authors and device manufacturers with product displays and workshops. Maybe the computer electronics show held in Las Vegas every January would be a good start. At the CES show this year, ereaders were ‘the thing’ at the show but ereaders were a small fraction of the total activity.
  4. We need a device with an upward capability to be able to do more than just read the ebook but use its content in other meaningful ways. Tablets will be the key here but the need for the low-cost device that just allows a good read will not go away.
  5. We need an even lower cost color device to appear that is aimed at the children’s market. You know the kind that is made out of hard plastic that can be dropped and the content can be controlled by the parents. No need for WIFI or 3G here. A USB or Simm card will work just fine.

So where is Microsoft?

We know they are up in the clouds. Will this be our answer? In the future, will all ebooks be up in the clouds, ready for us to snag, read and go on our way? Maybe we are talking about paying a small charge to view an ebook but not necessarily downloading it to a device like the Netflix model.

We need a company to smooth out the process. It is going to be fun watching how all this shakes out. At the end of the day, new software and digital devices will lead the way.

To read a related article, ‘Lessons For the eBook Industry – Study the E-Forms Industry Beginning’, click here.

Another blog came across my desk, forwarded by Dominique Raccah via Linkedin,  about Booki.sh, a cloud eBook distributor, that is good reading on the cloud distribution topic.

Let me know what you think about where the ebook industry is going? What else do we need to do to push the process forward? Who out there wants to start an ebook only oriented convention?

View my website: HBSystems Publications

Or EMAIL at: jrm@hbspub.com

Or goto my blog: The eBook Author’s Corner

Author: Call Off The Dogs, a rendered ebook

  • let me be the first one to comment on my own blog. today another blog came across my desk which discusses Netflix mirgrating to the Amazon Cloud. Amazon already has their ebooks in a cloud waiting for distribution. it doesn’t take to much immigination to see Microsoft creating ebooks as apps and putting them into their own cloud.


  • I’m sure Microsoft will standardize and innovate in the eBook arena, just like they have in the mobile phone, tablet computing, and music player industries.

  • Jon: thanks for your comment. i think microsoft banked on windows mobile being the mobile os of choice. they still have the cloud which can change the way all companies do business. instead of your ipad being filled with apps, the user just snatches the app out of the sky, works with it and then lets it go.

  • Microsoft’s biggest contribution to the world of cloud computing was a consumer ad campaign so confusing, it threw a billion-dollar account with their ad agency into review. While Microsoft is playing musical chairs with how they will get Azure to work, Amazon’s EC2 has completely dominated the market. I’m sure Microsoft will throw more money at the problem, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on any world-changing innovations from that group.

  • Microsoft is exactly that, soft. They work very hard and then rest on their not unconsiderable laurels forgetting about staying up to date. You have only to look at the mess they’ve made with the IE browser for verification on that score.

    Considering they are only just now showing interest in heavy online interest [read that as buying Skype], it comes across as too little, too late in my opinion.

    Allison Duncan
    The Nerd Connection

  • Allison:

    Thanks for your comment. It is like the lion crouching in the bushes just waiting for the opportunity to strike. You know the king of the beasts. They have lost favor with Windows Mobile and I think they are doing an end run using the Cloud to surround the competition and then rain on their parade.

    While Android and Blackberry controls the mobile operating systems, what if the content in the Cloud was much easier to access and use with other applications in the Windows environment then its competition?

    Skype is an interesting move. Now you have data access and communications all under one roof.

  • James,

    Good lord. Just what exactly have you been smoking? You want the most incompetent company in tech to do something? The company that has never, ever, invented anything new, that has never, ever, designed something on their own, that has never successfully ever competed in an open market?


    Microsoft is too busy trying to avoid bankruptcy to worry about Ebooks. Yes, trying to avoid bankruptcy. My estimate is that they will file for Chapter 11 sometime around the fall of 2014. I’m serious about that time frame, and it’s based on Microsoft’s own numbers, from their own regulatory filings (which are available for everyone to read at SEC.GOV – you should go read them, they are fascinating). Go to Google, and search for the term ‘Microsoft Death Watch’, you should come up with my articles on the subject, or just go to madhatter.ca and look at them there.

    FYI, I dropped in because I’ve got a couple of books that I’m planning to publish electronically, and was looking for information. I’ve gotten good stuff from Jon Konrath before, and was hoping you’d have something to add. I can see that you don’t. Anyone who intends to rely on Microsoft, is aiming to join them in bankruptcy.


  • Wayne:
    thanks for your comment. it sounds like you don’t like Microsoft.
    good luck with your electronic publication.

    • James,

      I was working on computers before Microsoft existed as a company. Their products have never been better than second rate. The only reason that they have the market share that they do in Desktop Operating Systems and Desktop Productivity Suites is that Microsoft has used a variety of underhanded methods to prevent competitors from gaining market share.

      In any market where they haven’t been able to do this, they are generally third or fourth place, unless their competition is more incompetent than they are. For an example of that, look at Sony and the PlayStation Network debacle.

      You may not like hearing that, but it’s nothing less than the truth. As a company, they aren’t a reliable supplier, and have never been one.


  • Good thing they’re nowhere around. When it comes to mobile, they completely dropped the ball. they could have been the market leader, ringing in a new era of mobile computing with the PocketPC back in the days, and they completely blew the opportunity.

    It’s a good thing, though, because nothing that Microsoft ever did had any value or quality. It is all broken and second-rate, outdated technology without focus.

  • Guido:
    Thanks for your comment. I thought his blog would bring the Microsoft opposition out.
    Like the other commentators, the dislike for Microsoft is apparent. It is too bad Apple has never shown a path upward to higher level equipment and all the developers in the business world have chosen not develop for their platform.

    • Simple James, it’s hard to develop for Apple because the money often isn’t there. And when it is, Apple has a nasty habit of moving in and taking over the market, just like Microsoft.

      So what do you do? Independent Software Vendors don’t like uncertainty. All that Microsoft & Apple give the ISVs is uncertainty.


  • Wayne:

    I think you have the keyword here. Certainty. I have been a software developer on the business side for over thirty years and for the last twenty years; every new client I have written for is in the Windows environment. I am not a Microsoft lover by far.
    There have been so many other programming languages and platforms that were better but if you want to make a living in the business software world today, you got to go with Windows.

    Ebooks just needs an upward path so we can do something with the information rather than just read it. Education is a great example. Students want to study the information, make notes, include in papers, prepare for tests, capture for background material on essays, etc.

    • All of the big money jobs now are online applications. Very few major applications are operating system dependent. The Browser has become for most people the operating system.


  • Long ago, Microsoft partnerd with Viacom’s Simon & Schuster, Barnesandnoble.com and Random House to offer books for its Pocket PC. After that, there was no big impact on e publishing or e learning.