Ray Kurzweil’s ‘Blio’ e-reader: Is it really all that?

ray_kurzweil_01 Ashlee Vance at the New York Times “Bits” technology blog has a brief article about Ray Kurzweil’s new “Blio” e-book system. It apparently will consist of downloadable software for most desktop and handheld devices, that will enable them to read e-books sold through Kurzweil’s Blio store.

Mr. Kurzweil argued that the existing e-readers and tablets had limitations in the text formats they support and the way they handle the original images and layouts in printed texts. Blio preserves the original formatting, making it particularly attractive to publishers of things like cookbooks, how-to guides, schoolbooks, travel guides and children’s books.

“The publishers will not give things with complex formats to these e-reader makers,” Mr. Kurzweil said. “They destroy the format.”

The article notes Kurzweil has a long history of working with e-book technology, including creating the first scanning text-to-speech systems for the blind. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that he has come out with so many innovations that he is regarded as something of a technology visionary.

The Blio website presents Blio as the greatest thing since sliced bread, talking about staying “true to the book’s original form”, allowing books to be read aloud, scaling well to small screens, and so on. The FAQ says that “For 2010, Blio will run on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile and iPhone operating systems,” and it will support XPS, PDF, and EPUB formats.

Still, I’m a little skeptical. There are lots of competing e-book reader systems that can be read on a variety of devices. Just because Kurzweil has made it big in other technology fields doesn’t mean that he will necessarily be successful in this one—if he wants Blio to be able to compete, it had really better be something special.

Related: Previous TeleRead coverage of Blio.

8 Comments on Ray Kurzweil’s ‘Blio’ e-reader: Is it really all that?

  1. Jill O'Neill // June 21, 2010 at 9:58 am //

    More importantly, Kurzweil needs to be straightforward as to the timing of availability. Blio was supposed to be out in January of this year, then February. Then it was postponed to April, supposedly to be introduced the week following the availability of the iPad to users. It is now very nearly the end of June. The reader continues to be vaporware, even as announcements are made about publishers signing agreements to include Blio. Why is no one holding Kurzweil’s toes to the flame regarding a firm availability date? Why so many postponements?

  2. Looks like Quark is part of KNFB’s joint e-publishing venture. QuarkXPress will be used to generate XPS files for Blio (XPS is Microsoft’s PDF alternative, and it supports multimedia extensions such as embedded video).

    I would hazard a guess that support for interactive fixed layout material with embedded multimedia will be Blio’s main business focus, or at least its unique selling point. This would set is apart from reading devices that only support reflowable text and basic PDF layout.

    From a business perspective, typesetting is still very much relevant in the market place, especially for visually-rich publications like magazines.

    I just wonder how good/bad the Blio reading experience will be…I am a bit concerned about performance issues, like startup times and general memory bloat (Blio is a Microsoft-only WPF application that runs on .NET).

    See the announcement below:

    http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20100617005665&newsLang=en

  3. Jill, no need to use such an accusatory tone about Kurzweil & Blio. Being late is a normal & sometimes necessary part of product development. I say, let him work on it until he gets it right.

    Save your ire instead for journalists eager to write about vaporware before there is anything to see. Yes, even at Teleread, people suffer from that affliction :)

    I am not sure why we need a new ebook software platform, though of course I’d like to see Blio’s annotation functionality to become a standard feature.

    Having an XPS feature wouldn’t be a tragedy, especially if it continues to support PDF and epub. Basically that would allow people with copies of MS Office to publish ebooks easily. That can only be good. (I will still rely on Calibre though).

  4. Greg Schofield // June 21, 2010 at 6:36 pm //

    Basically I am waiting for a epub reader that can act as a standard and this looks like the best candidate. Layout control (read real CSS support) is critical for non-fiction, if Blio lives up to its promise this should be a treat.

    However, the most persuasive aspect is that from the premium PC/tablet version, less elaborate software versions for small devices strongly suggest a rational discarding of CSS features, which if achieved should produce predictable layout degradation — which again is essential for designing many forms of non-fiction works.

    The fact that the text-to-speech sounds way superior, especially as it promises speed control and text tracking for enhanced speed reading — well that should be standard.

    That kiddies books and magazines follow some other format seems a good compromise until epub fully matures (real CSS 3).

    What actually happens is speculative — but at least we have the promise of what, in my books, we should expect by way of a new standard for software.

  5. Whether Blio makes it in time or not, you gotta give the team credit for their multi-device approach. Delivering to online platforms these days is a complex matter with so many OSs, screen sizes and functionality layers to look out for.

    At Zmags we have a similar approach and we just released a mobile viewer to address the multi-device approach. On top of 98% of all desktop browsers the new mobile enhancement support app. 80% of the mobile data traffic.
    The key thing in order to stay competitive as an ePublishing software provider is to build software that supports content creators in expanding reach.

  6. Felix Torres // June 27, 2010 at 9:17 am //

    Well, now we know how their business model will run:
    Looks like they’re going to license it as an iBooks alternative to hardware vendors. Toshiba (they of the dual-LCD netbook) are setting up *their* ebookstore, Tobshiba Book Place, based on Blio.
    http://toshibabookplace.com/

    Promo video is up and viewable.
    It is clearly luddite-friendly. 😉
    A little too faux paper for my tastes but if you can ditch the training wheels of flipping 3d pages for a content-centric display it might be useful. At a minimum it should give the Amazon and the ePub backers a kick in the pants to get them looking at the need to *cleanly* support rich content.

    Also, their iPhone/iPad app has been spoted in the wild:
    http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2010/06/26/blio-iphone-app-video/

    Looking quite real.
    Still questionable but quite real.

  7. E. Vlietinck // July 19, 2010 at 6:43 am //

    There’s an interview with Blio’s Sr. Product Marketing Manager here:

    http://it-enquirer.com/2010/06/28/blio-ebook-reader-platform/

    The same site has a load of information on Blio and Quark, and we shouldn’t forget about the partnership between Quark and K-NFB on the one side and Baker & Taylor on the other. Baker & Taylor are worldwide the largest book distributors.

  8. As always the end product will need to live up to its promises (and no internal flaws that require you to “hold” it a certain way to make-up for design issues–aka new iPhone (no slam intended).

    When users are limited by specific and sometimes rigid platforms or proprietary equipment unless these are so ubiquitous as to not be an issue (a current web browser, HDTV, digital radio) adoption and integration drags and lags. Current eBook readers with proprietary designs like the Kindle and similar single-purpose hardware devices are great for single-purpose clear font/e-ink books like novels. These fall very short of the *expectations* the multimedia public wants and needs.

    The iPad is a good example of many plans for rapid adoption of this device–in spite of being brand new, in a 1.0 version cycle because it delivers what the multimedia public has grown accustomed to with the web, multimedia & multi-format data and functionality given by PDAs and iPhone-like hand held devices.
    It is moving so quickly for adoption (such as universities setting up or currently in trials as a means to augment or replace their ink and paper books as well as an education resource medium). Not because of the current number of units sold so far but the paradigm shift that they realize is unstoppable.

    It is one of the few places that true divergence and convergence are happening almost at once.

    In 1993 my experience with the Internet in a UNIX menu and textual environment was as dry and uninviting as eating sand. When Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark went on to develop and market an enhanced version of NCSA Mosaic and begin by giving the software away free it did two things: It gave the PC & Television viewing public something they were already used to full-color graphic media and it was exceptionally easy to adopt and use with their current PCs (with a modem and ISP) because it was free. It also was not fixed-formatted and it didn’t take long before not only easily readable text and font, but it allowed for pictures even action…the hyper-link! Who knew where that link might take you? (unless, it was a server error 404!). And 10 years of Microsoft Windows, Graphical Print and Media had already conditioned the public for the next step or shift.

    (Of course, one of the better opportunist of this model was Bill Gates was pretty smart when he released as graphical GUI to get around that DOS-based PC with a Free copy of Windows 3.0 for this new start-up company Micro Soft).

    Is giving away free software that fits most all platforms the answer for Blio? We’ll see…but it’s always first-mover’s advantage. It’s Blio’s ball to score or drop but *someone* will take this ball forward.

    SkyScan

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