Why I’ll Never Buy Another MS Reader Ebook

Earlier this week I received in the mail my new Ipaq 111 PDA. I’ve had an Ipaq 1940 for probably the past five years—so long I’ve lost count—and before that an Ipaq 1910. They’re all pretty much the same sort of machine, just with progressively faster processors. That and the fact that the 1940 has bluetooth, which let me connect a StowAway keyboard, and the 111 adds WiFi besides. Happily I was able to connect the old keyboard to the new machine, so I’m good to go!

I carry my PDA in my front pants pocket (which is why I like these slim machines instead of the bigger, more powerful ones), where it’s readily available for voice recording, jotting down lines of poetry as they come to me, and reading ebooks. I read lots of ebooks. Many are older texts I’ve downloaded from Gutenberg.org, then run through MobiPocket publisher software. (Converting them from TXT or HTML to a real ebook means the reader can bookmark where you left off.) Some are things I’ve purchased from Mobipocket.com or Fictionwise.com.

Occasionally, at Fictionwise, I’ve been lured into buying a book in MS Reader format. Sometimes that’s been the only format available. Publishers of big-name authors like Stephen King don’t know from Mobipocket format or Plucker or whatever. Apparently they just know Microsoft. Or sometimes Adobe. Both of which are anal-retentive bloated giants with a DRM fixation and no real grasp of the future of ebooks.

Face it. These two companies have been dicking around in ebook publishing for 10 years now, with no real progress. All they’ve managed to do is keep publishers’ expectations for prices unreasonably high (Why should I pay virtually the same for an ebook I can’t resell or loan out as for a hardback?), their nervousness about rights protection feverish (Have they been paying no attention to the online music business?), and their satisfaction with sales numbers low (which wouldn’t be the case if they’d drop prices to let the ebook market grow—after all, it’s not like they’re paying to print in any materials but electrons). I’ll be the first to crow when the wedge Kindle has begun to make in the field of ebooks brings their petty empires to an end.

But I digress. My current rant is aimed at the MS Reader ebook experience itself. While installing the reader on your PDA isn’t much different than installing any other piece of software, “activating” it is an ice pick in the tush. The PDA must be synched with your desktop machine. You must use the Internet Explorer browser to visit the Reader activation page. You must log in with a Microsoft Passport account. Then at last you can activate the account.

But you can’t read any books yet. Oh, no. Before that can happen, you have to also install the reader on your desktop machine and activate it. Then you have to visit your online bookshelf with IE, because you can’t download an MS Reader-format book with any other browser.

Okay, so after all that high-tech hoop jumping, how do you get a book onto your PDA? No point and click option here. Instead you have to open My Documents on your desktop machine and open My Library, then “Explore” your PDA via ActiveSync, open My Documents there, and then drag and drop—yes, drag and drop—from one to the other.

Compare this to the Mobipocket experience: Install the software, look in its menu for a Personal ID. Use any browser to visit your online bookshelf and type in that ID. All books you download from the site are now readable on your device. If you want to install a desktop version too, you can, and every time you open a title in that reader it will offer to automatically install the book on your PDA, as well. What could be easier?

Add to this the fact that MS Reader is slow—a real memory hog on the PDA—while Mobipocket is fast. (The only time I’ve had any lag in Mobipocket was after adding about fifty bookmarks to War and Peace.)

But what really frosts me tonight is that I just logged onto Fictionwise to download onto my new PDA some MS Reader ebooks I bought a couple of years ago, and they’re no longer available. They’re still in my online bookshelf, but marked “Expired.” All my titles in Mobipocket format remain available, but the ones by the publishers of those big-name authors are all inaccessible.

Maybe that’s not directly Microsoft’s fault. But I’m absolutely positive that if Microsoft’s DRM weren’t so draconian, the titles would be hosted on the Fictionwise servers themselves instead of wherever it is they’ve been the past few years, and they’d still be available.

So screw Microsoft. I’ll never buy another title from their overpriced, overly protected, big publisher catalog again. There’s plenty of other stuff to be read out there, more than enough to keep me happy.

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