Bill Gates rejected touchscreen e-reader prototype in 1998

Vanity Fair has an article on Microsoft’s corporate culture, and some ways in which that culture crippled innovation at the company. One of those ways is responsible for Microsoft—and Bill Gates in particular—rejecting a prototype for a touchscreen e-reader—in 1998.

According to [writer Kurt] Eichenwald, Microsoft had a prototype e-reader ready to go in 1998, but when the technology group presented it to Bill Gates he promptly gave it a thumbs-down, saying it wasn’t right for Microsoft. “He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” a programmer involved in the project recalls.

The biggest reason for rejection was that Gates didn’t like the touchscreen—he considered it un-Windows-like. So the group that came up with it was shuffled into other project groups and the prototype was shelved.

A lot of sites reporting the story seem to act as if it were the latest iteration of Gates’s famous line that “640 K is all the RAM anyone will ever need.” And the Telegraph even compares it to Decca’s decision to reject the Beatles. But let’s be fair—1998 was the era of the Rocketbook and other dedicated e-readers that fizzled. Even Microsoft’s Windows CE machines, which the article claims gave Microsoft “the lead” it “squandered,” were distinctly second fiddle to Palm and Handspring devices at the time as far as I can recall. There’s no reason to expect that a Microsoft touchscreen reader would have done any better than the Rocket.

3 Comments on Bill Gates rejected touchscreen e-reader prototype in 1998

  1. “There’s no reason to expect that a Microsoft touchscreen reader would have done any better than the Rocket.”

    Very true! The first Sony Reader was much sleeker looking hardware that the first Kindle but it didn’t have wireless delivery or a decent ebookstore. The Kindle took off because it covered both sides of the fence– lots of ebooks and a way to read them– and it was easy to use.

  2. The Rocket was doing quite well and building a nice buyer base, but the company needed capital to move forward with improvements and to build a bigger distributor base into brick and mortar stores so they sold it to a much larger company where it became the Gemstar Rocket.

    The new company gave it a much larger profile. It was even on OPRAH as one of her favorite new toys. The new company, however, screwed around with the technology and were slow to get it into stores. Since it wasn’t selling like their VCRS, like duh!, they stopped producing them.

    I was lucky enough to try all the different readers, and the Rocket’s technology and the shape and ease of changing pages, etc., was the very best offered at the time. Buying and moving books into them was simple, and the B&N Rocket bookstore was easy to navigate.

    I still have one of the original Rockets. It works, but its interface and its serial port don’t work with newer Macs so I rarely use it.

  3. I’m another Rocket lover, and IMO the reason the Rocket didn’t take off (ho ho) was the pricing and availability of books. When Amazon came up with the Kindle, they didn’t just put out an ereader and count on publishers to put out books for it. Amazon threw its own weight behind getting books put into Kindle format and did that thing that has caused so much aggravation – kept prices down for Kindle books.

    Having been burned by loving the Rocket and finding few books available and those that were hideously overpriced, I sat back after the Kindle came out and waited to see if books really would be available for it and if they’d have decent prices. Not until I was convinced that Amazon really was going to support the device,did I jump, and I couldn’t be happier.

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