Did you know Microsoft still sold ebooks? I didn’t, until I learned today that Microsoft is removing the ebook category from its Microsoft Store, and will be deleting customers’ libraries in July. Microsoft will refund the money customers spent buying ebooks, and will offer an extra $25 credit to anyone who annotated or highlighted in the ebooks, but all the ebooks are going away—even ones customers downloaded for free.

Predictably, Cory Doctorow is once again waving the bloody rag about the evils of DRM. I can’t say I disagree with him, but it’s not as if this is exactly anything new. I’d probably need more than two hands to count all the different DRM-bearing book, music, game, and movie enterprises that have gone under since digital media became a thing. And that even includes a couple of times Microsoft previously poked its own nose into ebooks.

LIT wasn’t “lit,” and neither was Nook Media

In the 2000s, Microsoft Reader’s .LIT format was one of the ebook formats in wide use—at least, insofar as any format could be said to be in “wide use” among the early-adopter crowd who were the only ones doing anything with ebooks at the time. It even spawned an early DRM-cracker, Convert-LIT, whose coder opted to name it with a profane acronym just for the sake of juvenile sniggering if it got mentioned by that name in a cease and desist letter or news article.

But after the Kindle came out and took the lion’s share of the consumer ebook market that it also created, LIT didn’t really have anywhere to go. It didn’t have any hardware readers associated with it that I can recall—it was created back when the expectation was you’d be doing your reading on computers, because nobody had come up with mobile devices that were worth anything yet. Without a hardware reader to shore it up, it got snowed right under by formats that did have them.

By the time Microsoft stopped selling LIT ebooks in 2011 and discontinued Microsoft Reader in 2012, the format had become so forgotten that it barely even merited a footnote on TeleRead at the time. (Barnes & Noble shutting down eReader and Fictionwise a little later got a lot more coverage.) Since ebooks at that point were being sold as downloadable files, rather than kept in a cloud library, Microsoft just told people to be sure and download their books and the reader before they shut everything down themselves, and that was that.

But Microsoft wasn’t quite done with ebooks yet. The same year it closed down Microsoft Reader, Microsoft invested $300 million in Barnes & Noble’s Nook Media division. It bought a 17% share as part of a settlement of a patent lawsuit in which Microsoft claimed Android was ripping off Windows IP. Though there were rumors Microsoft might pay $1 billion to buy Nook Media outright, and plans for a new “Microsoft Consumer Reader” Android app that never came to fruition, Microsoft only stuck with Nook Media for two years. They parted ways at the end of 2014.

Out of (strategic) focus

A quote commonly misattributed to W. C. Fields is “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” Microsoft apparently didn’t partake of this wisdom, because somewhere in the last few years it started selling ebooks yet again—I’m not sure exactly when, but Wikipedia suggests it was when the new version of the Microsoft Store app launched with Windows 10 in 2015. Up until today, it had ebooks on offer in that app, which also sells apps, games, devices, music, and video. Now the “books” category just leads to an error page, and I expect it will vanish altogether next time I update the app.

The only explanation Microsoft is offering for jettisoning ebooks is that it is “streamlining the strategic focus” of the store. But reading between the lines a little, my suspicion is that that not enough people were actually buying ebooks from Microsoft to make it worth continuing to pour money into keeping ebooks available on the store.

And, really, why would they? As far as I know, ebooks never really were a strategic focus of the store; they were just something Microsoft offered because everybody else did. But if you had to leave the books stuck in Microsoft’s cloud library, and could only read them on Microsoft hardware, why would you even want them? Kindle, Nook, and Kobo all have hardware readers, and reader apps available for just about every platform on offer—plus they actually let you download your ebook files. Apple is in a similar boat to Microsoft, but it sells so darned many Apple devices that it apparently sees iBooks as worth maintaining just for them alone. Google still has its own ebook store, but it’s no longer a required pack-in on new Android devices, and Google has a habit of sunsetting services it thinks have outlived their usefulness—so who knows how much longer that will last?

Whatever complaints you might have about Amazon’s corporate behavior, the Kindle was a legitimate innovation right out of the gate in terms of making ebooks easily accessible to ordinary people. It continued to innovate with its newer models, at the same time as it also dropped the prices. Barnes & Noble was less adept, but it was at least able to copy enough of what Amazon did to get by, and Kobo has done well by occupying a lot of the spaces where Amazon wasn’t. Those three companies have developed a lot of expertise and brand recognition in the ebook field—not to mention, locking their customers in via the DRM that most publishers still insist upon.

No business selling ebooks

When I was discussing the story with David Rothman, he suggested, “If Microsoft had been gutsy enough to experiment with no DRM or with watermarking, it could’ve differentiated itself from Amazon.” But even leaving aside that—as with all ebook stores—Microsoft’s DRM-using hands were tied by publishers who continue to insist on the crummy stuff, I don’t think that sort of experimentation is really in the cards for a company like Microsoft (or Apple, or Google).

To be honest, I don’t think these companies really care about ebooks, because ebooks aren’t their main line of business. The only reason to have them at all is to give people another reason to use their brand of operating systems or hardware. But if those people are just going to download Kindle or Nook instead, what’s the point?

Even if Microsoft was able to sell ebooks like hotcakes, any money it made from them would be a pittance next to the take from other, more lucrative things it does. Any man-hours it spent on improving ebooks would not return as much profit per hour as spending those same man-hours on improving the Windows operating system, or Surface hardware, or whatever. And that may be what Microsoft means by “streamlining [its] strategic focus.” Stop throwing good money after bad trying to sell ebooks itself, and focus on being a better platform on which people can read their Kindle, Nook, or Kobo ebooks instead.

It’s sad for the Microsoft Store ebook customers who are going to see their entire libraries go away—especially those who made a lot of annotations and will need to figure out how to preserve them before they all go away in July. But I find it hard to believe there could have been too many of those. And at least they’re going to get their money back—as cash if their payment method is still valid, or as Microsoft store credit otherwise.

And really, as many times as we’ve seen this same scenario play out over and over again, with DRM-laden services shutting down and depriving people of continued access to their purchases, are all that many people really going to go in for an ebook service where they can’t download, crack, and archive their purchases? The DMCA is a pretty toothless law when it comes to what people do in the privacy of their own homes, after all, and the formats used by all the major ebook stores have long since been cracked. Who’s going to use a service where you can’t make use of that? Even the consumers who don’t want to bother cracking DRM and backing things up would at least want to be sure they could access their DRM-locked books via any brand of device—not just Microsoft’s.

In the end, I guess I’m not surprised Microsoft is ditching ebooks. I suppose I’m more surprised that they ever sold them in the first place. In any case, this can stand as another lesson in the evils of DRM, and of cloud services that won’t let you own what you buy. I wonder how many more such lessons we’ll need before we can finally change things?