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Bill Gates Killed Microsoft’s eReader in 1998

Bill Gates is known for an apocryphal saying about RAM, and he’s also known for having passed on an early chance to develop a web browser.  but did you know he also canceled one of the early ereaders?

A story is going to come out in Vanity Fair in the next few days with some inside dirt on Microsoft. According to a former employee, Microsoft was working on a prototype ereader in the late 1990s. The reason you haven’t heard of it before now is that this device never saw the light of day.  It had an unfortunate encounter with Bill Gates, who nixed the development.

“He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” says Vanity Fair's source, programmer involved in its development.

Another former MS geek indicated that it was the lack of a keyboard that did the device in; MS reportedly had a bias against touchscreens because all of their software products had been built to work with a keyboard, not a stylus or finger. Given that this is a couple years after the release of Windows CE, Microsoft’s touchscreen friendly mobile OS, that argument doesn’t make much sense.

But for whatever the reason this ereader died, I cannot say that the death was a bad thing.

As you probably know, Microsoft developed their own ebook format, which debuted in the year 2000 (and is scheduled to die this year). This ereader was likely intended to work with the MSReader format.

That ereader format depended on an app which required a fairly hefty set of mobile hardware (for y2k, that is). An ereader built to run the app would likely have been terribly expensive. It wouldn’t surprise me if it cost $500, and a thousand dollar device wouldn’t have been out of the question. What’s more, the market for ebooks simply wasn’t there in y2k, nor was the tech to make ebooks.

If this ereader had been released it would likely have been doomed to a lingering death. It would at best be a minor footnote like the Rocketbook, and at worst it might have doomed the entire industry before it got started ("if MS cannot pull it off then it can’t be done").

And its death probably let MS focus attention on Windows CE (which BTW did look like Windows). Several reading apps were released for this mobile OS, including MS Reader, Mobipocket, and eReader. Windows CE ended up running on quite a few mobile devices and it spawned a number of different versions.

The open nature of Windows CE (and other mobile OSes) probably enabled ebooks to sputter along for the next decade until Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007 (when the ebook market finally took of).

So I can’t say that I regret never seeing the Microsoft ereader.

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Jon Jermey July 3, 2012 um 8:12 pm

When the Franklin eBookman went on sale, one of the promises made was that it would be able to display eBooks in the Microsoft Reader format when this was finalised. Since it had a maximum of 16Mb of memory, this was a forlorn hope, and they reneged soon afterwards. I imagine a phone conversation that went something like this:

Microsoft: "We’ve got your Reader software ready, guys! And it fits easily into four gigabytes of memory, like we agreed!"

Franklin: "Er…"

fjtorres July 3, 2012 um 8:49 pm

MS Reader fine ran on 16MB Pocket PCs. (Though most came with 32-64MB.)
The reason Franklin coudn’t run it was that the DRM scheme relied on WindowsCE features the eBookman OS couldn’t provide.
Apocryphal "fact" humor can be amusing, though. 🙂

Nate Hoffelder July 3, 2012 um 9:10 pm

Here’s what I was thinking of when i said the MS ereader might cost $1k:

That device has only 32MB of RAM, and it cost a thousand bucks when new. I don’t think my estimate of $500 is too high, not based on the few devices that I could find prices on this late.

fjtorres July 4, 2012 um 6:57 am

No, not high at all.
It would have been quite competitive:

The Rocket Reader launched at $500 and the Softbook launched at $600.

Karl July 4, 2012 um 7:23 am

Yeah, I’d say Bill Gates called this one right, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Dedicated eReaders were a dumb idea until the Kindle 2 came along.

Which is not to say that eBooks were a dumb idea, but they worked just fine on a Palm PDA. (Who here remembers Peanut Press?)

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