When it comes to deciding who had the biggest impact in the earliest days of eReading, perhaps the only real answer is Microsoft. Long before the Kindle, or even the first Sony Reader, you could pick up many of your favorite titles and read them on whatever computer or PDA you happened to have handy. It wasn’t perfect, but it started something big.
Now, after over a decade of usefulness, both the MS Reader application and its associated file format (.lit) are being retired. According to a notice posted without fanfare on the Microsoft support page, the last day that .lit eBooks will be available anywhere will be November 8, 2011. The program itself will be usable through August 30, 2012, after which the whole project will be permanently retired. While it has been a fairly long time since Microsoft was anything resembling a big name in eReading, it’s still almost shocking to see them go.
Yes, you could get electronic books before the year 2000. I recall several public domain titles floating around my computers as far back as the early 90’s. The .lit format broke people away from the generic document format or the restrictive PDF and provided a way to just read books. Reflowable type, bookmarking, text searches, dictionary integration, and more made up a selection of features that improved the whole experience and went on to become the basis for everything that came after.
After the Kindle came around, the game changed significantly. Microsoft didn’t ever really get the kind of widespread adoption that they needed to compete with such a huge, centralized platform, nor did they offer anything in the way of dedicated reading devices. While the latter is certainly not essential for general reading, it makes a big difference for the most avid readers. Combine that with the vastly superior selection of Kindle Edition eBooks and there was no real way to keep up.
While it will be sad to see this old, reliable system fade away, I think it is safe to say that superior alternate options abound and people should not generally be terribly inconvenienced by the announcement. Should you have an existing library of purchased DRM-enabled .lit books laying around that you want to hold onto, you still have a couple options.
Obviously, you can just hang onto your copy of MS Reader. They aren’t going to show up and start deleting things from your computer, nor are the countless archived copies around the internet going to disappear. If you are interested in moving entirely to a new platform, however, there’s no point in cluttering up your system with multiple reading applications.
A simple internet search will find programs available to strip the DRM from your .lit files, provided you are indeed the legal owner (I recommend looking into “ConvertLIT). They are simple to use, tend to be quite fast, and the product will be simple to plug into Calibre for conversion into MOBI or EPUB format. Just because you jumped on the eReading trend early doesn’t mean you should be held back by the death of a format.