On Microsoft Reader

published: Thu, 20-Nov-2003   |   updated: Thu, 27-Oct-2005
Seagull on the Cobb

Let's be daring: Microsoft Reader sucks.

Since I work for Microsoft, there must be a reason I'm willing to risk reprimand. Let me explain by going back a bit.

At the beginning of summer, the Microsoft Reader team (let's call the Reader MSR from now on) released version 3.0 of their software and to entice people to start using it and to kick start the ebooks market again they decided to give away free ebooks, three per week "over the summer."

Deal, I thought, when I saw the internal broadcast email, let's try it out. At least if I don't like it I won't have wasted any money.

So, I dutifully downloaded and installed MSR and activated it. To activate it you needed a Passport account, which I already had. I downloaded my selection from the first set of three books. Running MSR gave me a slightly off-kilter display: no normal menu along the top, just a set of options down the side. The Library button showed me the Reader help file (as an ebook) and my just-downloaded ebooks. I played around with the settings, and read a page or two of my first ebook.

Later on I discovered that the settings page was in fact five pages. I hadn't realized that the options are spread out over several pages just like an ebook. The reason? I was looking at the first page of an ebook and then flipped over to the software's options page. The indicator saying "Page 1" still applied, I thought, to the ebook and not to the options screen. Wrong. Damn, I hate being made to look like an idiot.

Anyway, eventually I'd set it up the way I wanted, and I was reading an ebook. Right away, I discovered the problem about electronic reading: you're tied to your desk where your screen is. I read on a flight, in the waiting room, on the sofa, on the floor, in bed, on the loo. Admittedly, I do use a laptop exclusively, so I could read my ebook just about anywhere I wanted, battery power permitting. But it was so inconvenient compared with the equivalent: a real book (oh, for a Tablet PC!). OK, let's print off a chapter, I thought, double-sided, of course. Sorry, you can't do that with MSR. You can't even copy-and-paste. MSR forces you to read on the screen.

Another alternative, then? You can download the ebook to a PDA and read it from that screen. Brilliant! Except that I own a Sony Clie, which is a Palm-driven device. Sorry, MSR only supports Pocket PC.

Never mind, I continued downloading the free ebooks throughout the summer, even if I didn't actually read them. Until last week that is, the promotion came to an end last Friday.

Last month, I installed a new hard disk at home. As part of the massive install, I copied over my ebooks, and reinstalled MSR and reactivated it. No problems. About two weeks ago, I was messing around doing some research on Slaughterhouse Five before going to bed, and noticed that I couldn't load that ebook. "The digital software that protects this ebook has been updated. You must re-activate in order to open this title. Please go to <url> for additional information." Huh? I dutifully went there and re-activated. The ebooks opened fine. I shrugged it off.

Last night, I wanted to look at one of the non-fiction titles I'd downloaded. "The digital software that protects ..." Do what? Sod that for a game of soldiers, I thought, I'm not messing around with that tonight and went to bed.

This morning I was in Starbucks, using the T-mobile hot-spot, and I suddenly got the urge to open an ebook. It worked fine. It finally dawned on me what was happening, and this is the final straw that shows that MSR sucks.

I have updated my hard disk twice now. My Dell came with a 20GB disk, which I outgrew, so I bought and installed a 30GB disk. Over the summer I was outgrowing that, so I bought and installed a 60GB disk. I didn't throw away the old hard disks, of course; I bought USB disk enclosures and made them into USB disks. The enclosures are USB 2.0, so all is good. I use them for backups and to hold my MP3s (legally ripped from my own CD collection, Mr. RIAA Agent) and to store software downloads from the Internet. I use my MP3 disk at home to play music, whereas at work I use CDs or streaming radio.

Therein lies the rub. I was activating MSR at work. At home, I would put some music on, plugging in the USB drive, and try to open an ebook. No go. At Starbucks, when I just had the laptop, no problem. The MSR digital software was taking into account my USB drive or drives in determining whether this was the same machine it was activated on! Come on! This is dumb.

So, all in all, are MSR's ebooks worth it? No, they're not, in my opinion. The digital protection is lame beyond belief (weird since Windows XP's activation is not fooled by USB drives; same company, eh?). If I'd bought the ebooks, I wouldn't have the ability to look at them except through MSR (they're encrypted): I couldn't copy-and-paste parts for a review, say (legally acceptable in copyright law); I couldn't print a chapter in an ebook to read off-line, I'd be tied to the hardware.

A normal book? I buy it, it's mine. I can read it wherever I want, unless light levels are too low. I can't copy-and-paste, admittedly, but then again the book doesn't suddenly refuse to open because I'm listening to music. No contest.