Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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-DOS(really 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.

It 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, 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
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Or goto my blog: The eBook Author Corner
Author: Call Off The Dogs, a rendered ebook


  1. Microsoft has chosen to lag behind for the last few rounds of consumer market innovation. "Chosen to" being the important phrase.

    With the Zune, Microsoft was playing catch-up when the iPad achieved Xerox levels of brand name power. The iOS and Android mobile platforms dominate the Windows Phone do to availability and clever marketing. Internet Explorer is hated by every web developer and engineer for all the trouble it caused them in the past, regardless of what they try now. Even Windows 7 was just a quick and late reaction to the buggy Vista which was just a late reaction to the OSX. They may control market share, but they're losing the dominant brand identity. Go on any college campus in the US - it's Apple town. And those kids are the next market.

    You call to action is correct. The key demo, future and current consumers, don't think it's cool. The Kindle's cool, cheap and easy to use. The iPad is cool because everyone on TV has one and it can play Angry Birds. Microsoft is out trying to tag up when there's already three outs.

    I use a multitude of devices and brands for my work, and it honestly irritates me when I see Microsoft continually lagging behind. They need new blood willing to set the curve, not just to sit back and try to improve on it.

  2. Hi James,
    Thanks for this clear view and insight. I've been a blogger for a long time in other industries, now working on a couple shorts and a novel. Being active in social media I hear and see a lot of what's going on with publishing and authors who write books and you make several points that I agree with. If only YOU were writing general policy for publishing as a whole! The idea of formatting in multiple formats is daunting, particularly if one is not that tech oriented, which many authors are not yet we know if we are going to self publish that we need to. Many authors cannot afford to have a co. do the work for them, though I myself am one who hopes to do just that. This reminds me of the general state, in some ways, of the cell phone industry, the fragmentation that is, and I wonder if it will ever be standardized in any way. From book cover art, to multiple formats, to promotion in many areas, the work to be done is a tough day at the office. But, Thanks so much for this perspective, I will be sharing this post with the crew on Twitter and FB. I'm @danielaudet and @thewritersroad on Twitter, for your info. D

  3. p.s. - the eBook convention idea is awesome. I would like to see writers represented somewhere in it. Let me know if something happens there, I will be happy to blitzkrieg it in social media for you. D

  4. Gold Coast Writer Group:
    thanks for your comments. sorry for the delay. it has been sort of hectic. microsoft has now released a Windows 8 beta for tablets and slates. we need to see what this is but it does sound like an upward path to the pc and larger.