Microsoft's Office team pushes ahead with 'active reading' products, services

Microsoft's Office team pushes ahead with 'active reading' products, services

Summary: A new Microsoft job posting indicates the Office team is working on some kind of reading/publishing app/service which may be related to its Barnes & Noble partnership.


Microsoft and Barnes & Noble officials have said next-to-nothing about what's going on between the two companies since they announced their patent settlement and NewCo joint partnership in late April.


That hasn't stopped us Microsoft watchers from looking for clues. The latest I've found isn't huge, but it does indicate reading -- specifically "active reading" -- is of keen interest to the Redmondians.

A job posting for an Office unit program manager, dated August 22, calls for someone to work on "V1 (version 1) team" that is working on developing products and services for "active reading."

From that posting:

"Microsoft Office Division has big plans in this area and our team is creating innovative V1 products and services that delight active readers. The recent partnership we announced with Barnes & Noble is a strong indication of our commitment to the reading space."

Among the qualifications for this role are "a broad understanding of the digital content ecosystem for books and documents"; HTML/JavaScript proficiency; and ability to work with "partners," like the Windows 8 team.

(Microsoft researchers have been investigating the implications of active reading for several years. But it appears research has given way to planned commoditization.)

It's worth noting this isn't the first time there've been hints of some kind of souped-up authoring experience coming from Microsoft. Earlier this spring, William Lynch, the B&N CEO, mentioned something along these lines in a Q&A with Fortune:

Lynch: If you look at the content sort of flow from authoring tools, obviously, Microsoft is one of the leaders, if not the leader in authoring tools with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, their Office franchise, all the way through the transaction buying merchandising, sale or cloud management of the content. You can see us working across that.

So again we haven't announced anything specifically, but imagine an integration where an information worker, student, author, consumer, creates something in Office and has it immediately published for sale through the Nook book store. It starts to open a lot of exciting possibilities.

So what is this planned "active reading" app/service? Is it a self-publishing tool for those looking to participate in the digital-publishing space? An add-on for Nook e-readers/tablets, or the crux of a Wook (Windows- or Windows Phone-based Nook reader/tablet)?

Or maybe it's a modified take on "Moorea" -- the Microsoft-developed Courier-like note-taking app? Last I speculated, I thought Microsoft might have integrated Moorea into OneNote 2013. But one of my sources said Microsoft has delayed Moorea until post-Office 2013, looking to make it an authoring/curating experience for collections of digital "things" including Office documents. So maybe this "active reading" app/service will be a Metro-fied/modern-style Windows 8/9 app?

As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, Microsoft's NewCo deal with B&N is expected to close in late October or early November

Any other guesses, educated or not, about what this new active-reading app/service from the Office team might be?

Topics: Collaboration, E-Commerce, Microsoft, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Wook

    They should call it Wookiee.
  • Enhanced authoring into ebook markets?

    I wonder if this is going to mean something like Word publishing to a Smashwords like ebook service hosted by B&N. I doubt that MSFT is going to reinvent the authoring experience on the word processing side (a la Scrivener)
  • Reading Mode?

    there's the video-playing, text-reflowing new reading mode in Word 2013; it might just be shipping/improving that?
    • New reading mode in Word 2013

      Right: It could be just an update to the reading mode in Word 2013. Does MS consider that mode "active reading"? This is a term that's new to me, but seems to have a somewhat established meaning in the bigger digital publishing world... Thanks. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
  • Theory

    I'm still holding onto the thought (hope) that Microsoft's B&N agreement will be used to sell the Surface at B&N stores... maybe with a B&N app pre-installed. Would be a great distribution network and would be win-win for both companies.
  • Perhaps this is a prelude to something bigger?

    Looking beyond the job listing, maybe something bigger is going on?

    Barnes and Noble is in the same dangerous space that other physical book retailers were in and could easily be gone in a few years. Amazon is already beating them up with the Kindle Fire and their website. Apple, Google and many others are all heading into their e-space.

    B&N has a lot of great locations with plenty of space.
    B&N has plenty of experience in the book trade.
    B&N needs something to set itself apart from the competition and remain relevant.

    Microsoft is getting into the book trade.
    Microsoft is opening up a large number of microsoft stores.
    Microsoft became a minority holder without fighting take-over rumors driving stock prices up.

    Is there potential for MS-B&N stores sharing space or a takeover by Microsoft?
  • Make EPUB a native Word format

    It wouldn't take very much to make Office a complete self-publishing solution, especially for the EPUB format used by everything except the Kindle line. Currently, for someone doing e-book conversion work like me, it's easiest to target the EPUB format and then convert to MOBI for Kindle support. The main reason is that the tools on the EPUB side are hugely superior, primarily because they exist. A lot of stuff that claims to output to MOBI actually uses Amazon's KindleGen, which has some horrible drawbacks. The worst is that it produces files over twice the size they should be.

    Right now, the three critical items in my toolkit after I've gotten as far as I can in Word are the following:

    Atlantis Word Processor: Very similar to Word 2003 but with a tiny install file, very low resource requirements, and it outputs directly to EPUB. For $35 it's worth buying just to get from Word to EPUB effortlessly.

    Sigil: an open source project that is the closest thing out there to a native EPUB editor. Not what you'd want to use for your primary writing tool but fantastic for making adjustment and shaping up details in an EPUB file.

    Calibre: Until recently it had some serious bugs that made it unusable for professional purposes but today it is a better tool for creating Kindle MOBI files than Amazon's own KindleGen.

    If Microsoft added more native support for EPUB it would be a big attraction to upgrading to the latest Office. Being able to do almost everything in Word and other Office apps would be very helpful.
  • How I would love to see documents advance

    Reading on Windows 8 is currently fine. Though I must say, experiences on larger screens seem much, much better with higher resolutions. What I think would be neat, is the largely static reading experience becomes transformed into rich interactive experiences, made possible by embedded programmable objects and services in documents. Embedded objects such as maps could have two modes. A disconnected mode which allows for basic interactivity, such as zooming in and out of a specific area, viewing the area in aerial or bird's eye view, etc.. There could also a connected mode, which: allows exploration beyond the specific area; provides visual access to related areas; contains embedded multimedia oriented news and facts about these areas, etc. Tables could operate similarly, where a table in its disconnected state in a document could present data with some limited amount of functionality, in its connected state, could allow for things such as pivot analysis on the data, function operations on the data, access to related data, along with tools and charts to manipulate all this data and see their results. Ads could take a similar tack. A car ad in its disconnected state could display an ad for a car that allows the user to interact with a 3D image of the car, explore its interior to a limited extent, etc., while in its connected state, allow the user to explore all car models for the manufacturer, search for the best prices, see geographically where dealers are located, etc.

    Documents could also contain embedded services such as a dictionary service, which could lead to rich encyclopedia experiences in its connected state. Distributors of electronic publications (e.g. books, magazines and other periodicals) could make base paid and advertising revenue from publications in their disconnected states, but also additional revenue by supporting these publications' connected state. I believe the above would make documents come alive, and restructure publishing in the digital age, to make decent money.
    P. Douglas