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B&N, Microsoft to Offer Free SF eBook Downloads – 12 Years Ago

The new partnership between Microsoft and Barnes & Noble is hot news right now,but it’s not the first time these 2 companies worked together. I just found a link on a Facebook group which led to an old, old, old story from the very first time that B&N offered ebooks.

I thought it would be interesting to take a historical look at what came of that partnership.  While lots of tech bloggers are talking about the glorious future these companies have before them, I think it useful to look at where they were.

Back in the year 2k, Microsoft was just releasing its new ebook format, MSReader. This format, which is scheduled to be killed off this year, was the most sophisticated ebook format on the market. It had fairly high hardware requirements for the time and when this partnership was announced MSReader could only be read on a few PDAs running Windows Mobile.

B&N comes in because they were selling the ebooks. This was their first ebookstore, and at the time the only format they sold was MSReader. To be fair, there weren’t many other formats in commercial use; eReader was just getting started and Mobipocket had just incorporated a mere 2 months before B&N opened the ebookstore.

I will admit that this story surprised me. I only knew of B&N’s first foray into ebooks. That was when they sold the RocketBook, their first ereader, in 1999. That didn’t amount to much, either, though I don’t have definite details on what happened.

To put things into perspective, in the year 2000 Sony had just gotten out of their previous ereader endeavor, the Sony Data Discman. And Amazon didn’t launch their first ebookstore until the end of the year before going on to sell ebooks in the 4 standard formats (MSReader, Mobipocket, eReader, and Adobe PDF), though they stopped selling ebooks once they settled on building the Kindle platform.

But B&N was selling MSReader ebooks in the year 2000, and as part of the launch Simon & Schuster was giving away a selection of Star Trek ebooks. They could only be had through Barnes & Noble and could only be read in the one format, so I’m not sure how many people got them.

There’s not much to this story, but if you read it you will likely recognize the parallels between then and now. That partnership didn’t go anywhere, yet everyone was lauding it as the wave of the future. Some of the statements are particularly amusing in retrospect.

"We are happy to be offering Pocket PC customers the opportunity to download these terrific eBooks," said Steve Riggio, vice chairman of Barnes & "The Pocket PC is a truly remarkable device that offers an unparalleled reading experience. It’s fast, it’s easy and, with Microsoft Reader software, it makes reading on-screen as pleasurable as reading on paper."

But this old story is more than simply amusing. It also mentions a couple historical details I didn’t know, including Michael Crichton’s 1983 book, Electronic Life, in which he predicts the idea of ebooks. That book is new to me; the only other SF book from that era which really discussed ebooks was Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks.

The story also mentions one of the very first of the major publishers' experiments in digital publishing. Time Warner Trade Publishing announced around that time that they were going to launch, which was going to "provide authors, publishers and consumers with an interactive Web site for creating and distributing eBooks and other electronically published documents". That sounds a lot like Amazon KDP, B&N PubIt, or Smashwords, doesn’t it?

Time Warner Trade Publishing both launched and killed the site in 2001. That made some sense; they were in a recession and it likely wouldn’t have broken even in 2002. But the guy who killed it is another fascinating historical footnote; the CEO of TWTP at that time was Larry Kirshbaum.

You should recognize that name; he’s now a VP at Amazon and the head of Amazon Publishing. Curious how that worked out, isn’t it?

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fjtorres May 7, 2012 um 8:18 am

I got the books.
STARFLEET CORPS OF ENGINEERS was among them, if I remember correctly.
They worked beautifully on my PDA and looked fabuous on MSREADER on my desktop.
(Might have had something to do with the 20in portrait-format monitor.) 😉

Nate Hoffelder May 7, 2012 um 8:37 am

I’d like to crack a joke about your geek cred (you’ve been into ebooks since the dawn of time) but TBH I’m jealous.

fjtorres May 7, 2012 um 9:03 am

Hey, it wasn’t *my* money. 🙂

(My money–at the time–went to Atari. 800XL, ST. Made it easy to distinguish between the corporate tools and my personal toys.)

My boss was *serious* about investing in tools.
(Our 30-person unit local area network at that time–we designed it ourselves–cost over $2million over 3 years–and yielded a *measured* 10x improvement in productivity. CRAY-class IBM Workstations will do that. :D)
My boss' peers hated him, the IT department put out a contract on me.
I just pointed out the toys, he payed for them.
And openly tweaked the PTB to show off.

One time I got called in from my sickbed to write up an order for a $15K Tektronix dye-diffusion network printer. First time the boss used it, he came back with a $2 million project. "The printer just paid for itself."

PDAs, tablet PCs, early mini-laptops, portable printers, micro-projectors; his presentation briefcase was always up to date. And the lightest in town. Of course, *his* boss routinely "borrowed" his gear so we often had to double up the orders.

It was a fun time.
But all good things come to an end…
(Whole 'nother story that.)

Mike Cane May 7, 2012 um 10:07 am

>>>That didn’t amount to much, either, though I don’t have definite details on what happened.

What happened was the PDA. I laughed at the B&N device and the other one while my Palm III was in my pocket.

Another notable partnership with MS was Franklin, who counted on having MS Reader in its eBookman (which was a very nice bit of hardware in its day). Apparently the DRM problems couldn’t be worked out. Another strike was that when you got the eBookman home, you had to DOWNLOAD THE OS separately!

I might have had some of those books at one time. But a hard drive disaster cost me some early stuff I had. I remember grabbing a whole bunch of MS Reader legit free books.

Peter May 7, 2012 um 12:38 pm

Looks like the link to the original article is gone. Here’s another article describing the venture.

The Dean Koontz ebook mentioned in the article "The Book of Counted Sorrows" was a book that he had long alluded to in all of his other works- in his novels, terrible tragedies quickly befell anyone who read the whole thing.

It certainly killed MSreader.

Also, they ended up publishing it on September 11, 2001.

You can’t make that up.

Ellen Hage May 7, 2012 um 7:37 pm

Time flies. I bought my Rocket ebook reader in 1999. I remember buying the ebookman only because MS reader was promised in the very near future. I think that was in 2001 , aboiut the same time I ordered the Hiebook. I remember those free scifi downloads and I wonder if they are still on one of old PDAs. I should look. I also remember getting a free CD with ereader on it a it also had some books included. Also, I remember buying SD cards for my Palm PDA that contained ebooks on them. Everyone at work looked at me as though I had three heads when ever I was using my ebook readers. I told them that it wouldn’t be long before they used them too. They laughed. I wonder if they are laughing now.

Roger Jones May 26, 2012 um 9:21 am

I remember in 1992 reading about how people would be reading books on their computers from signals bounced off satellites.

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