A brief history of Microsoft’s e-reader efforts

Although Microsoft invested $300 million in a Barnes & Noble spin-off on Monday, this isn’t the first time Microsoft(s msft) played the e-book game. Typical for the company, it often has great ideas, but it errs on the timing. In fact, when Microsoft debuted its Windows Pocket PC platform for mobile devices — a precursor to today’s smartphones –back on April 19, 2000, Microsoft Reader was embedded in the platform, allowing you to read e-books on the go.

I owned several Pocket PC devices, as well as the later Windows Mobile ones that followed, and I recall reading hundreds of titles on my handhelds long before modern e-book readers arrived. Microsoft developed its own format called .LIT, which was a HTML-based format similar to that used for Microsoft Windows Help files. And like most of the e-books sold today, Microsoft allowed for DRM, or Digital Rights Management, for device registration — sometimes problematic — and content protection.

Microsoft eventually offered its Microsoft Reader application for its desktop operating systems, starting with Windows 95 support later in 2000. Eventually, all Windows versions save Windows 7 gained the e-reader application. Another fond memory of my Microsoft e-reader experience comes from the Windows Tablet Edition platform: Using a convertible notebook with digital pen support, I could read on a larger screen and take notes. Sound familiar?

Microsoft eventually got out of the Reader business in August of last year, with the decision to shutter its Reader efforts. And why not when the software was then losing to dedicated e-Ink devices and smaller tablets from Amazon(s amzn), Barnes & Noble(s bks) and others?

Clearly, the PC route as an e-book strategy has limited upside compared to more pocketable devices such as Kindles, Nooks and smartphones. Just as books are meant to be carried and read, reading on a portable screen is the e-book recipe for success today. One legacy feature of Reader, however, still remains as part of Windows: ClearType. The display function that can add clarity through software (via sub-pixel rendering) debuted in the Reader software and later migrated to Microsoft Windows.

The details on how Microsoft’s new partnership with Barnes & Noble may be sketchy just yet, but Microsoft has a clear history in this space, with a dozen years of experience. Again, the ideas Microsoft had with its Reader platform were solid, but the market for e-books didn’t arrive for mainstream consumers until much later. Perhaps the company can take a page out of its history and gain back some of the e-book momentum it lost in the last decade.

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