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Kurzweil’s Blio: A Singular Challenge to the Ebook Industry?
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Posted On January 19, 2010
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On Jan. 6, at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ray Kurzweil and his partners announced a remarkable new software system for ebooks called Blio (www.blioreader.com). Designed specifically for electronic versions of books, newspapers, and magazines, the platform-independent Blio clearly sets a new standard and model for the graphical display and navigation of electronic content. At its launch later this month, this full-color system will work on a variety of platforms: PCs, Mac, netbooks, tablet PCs, and various mobile devices.

Described as a "new touchstone for the presentation of electronic books, magazines, and digital content," Blio e-reader software, preserves "the image-rich format of books and magazines, including their layout, typesetting, images, color, and graphics, while also supporting full media functionally, including video, graphics, and web sites," allowing users to more "fully enjoy the subtlety of design originally intended by the publisher."

Blio's logo itself-"Blio, turn the page"-alludes to the enormous contribution that Kurzweil and his associates have tried to make. Blio is not another competitor in the ebook reader marketplace but an effort to create a platform-neutral software system that will work on Windows systems as well as for mobile devices, including ebook readers. Blio, as a system, counteracts many of the systemic problems in the ebook industry today. Counteracting proprietary products that offer only black-and-white screens, Blio was designed for full color, with enhanced navigational and content options, DRM compliance, and platform independence.

"Blio is without peer when it comes to the reader experience," Kurzweil explains. "Ebooks should be more than digital copies of a printed page. The e-readers on the market today have been stuck in neutral and don't offer the reader or the publisher what they want or need. So we moved the experience from the boring 16 shades of grey text to an exciting level. And we do it without adding another costly piece of hardware to lug around."

Accessing Blio

Once it's released (expected in late January), Blio can be easily downloaded from the Blio site (although registration is required). Immediately, users will be able to download recent titles or public domain texts to get a good feel for the intuitive interface and aesthetically pleasing design. More than 1.2 million titles from all genres-fiction, nonfiction, reference, textbooks, children's books, scientific, medical, professional, and educational books-will be immediately available. Loading public domain books from Google, Project Gutenberg, and Feedbooks will require just going to the file menu and clicking on the website from which you would like to download.

Downloading Blio allows users content access for up to five different devices-from cell phones to netbooks to computers to BlackBerries. If you move between devices, your personal library will sync between them. However, to be DRM compliant, you are not able to share copyrighted content with others. When you purchase an ebook from Blio partner Baker & Taylor (B&T) or others, it is registered and encrypted only to you and for up to that maximum of five devices.

The software is amazingly flexible, allowing you to add notes as well as insert photos, video, and websites. You can also extract your notes into a Word document. You can bookmark your pages, and the audio Text-to-Speech, which uses Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software, allows you to use Blio as an audio book. As the text is read aloud, Blio will highlight the words as they are read. This highlight feature can also be turned off.

Features

Special features of the Blio system include the following:

  • Clear screen presentation design that can enlarge text with no discernable distortion
  • Full-color, high-resolution display preserving the original material's printed format (typesetting, layout, fonts, pagination, photos, and graphics) in the original black and white or full color
  • 3D book view allows you to do realistic page turning of material
  • Standard View shows dual pages-or you can opt for all pages-for easier visual scanning of information
  • Text-only view for speed reading or for reading on smaller devices like the iPhone or mobile phones
  • Bookshelf Library provides a book-cover type of presentation of books that you purchased or downloaded from another source for easy title browsing
  • Read-aloud feature (Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation software) provides a natural voice reading the material aloud and can be synchronized with word highlighting so you can easily follow along as you listen-very useful for learning languages or for children or the visually impaired
  • Sticky Browser feature allows for internet connections that would allow webpages to be inserted into the text to enhance meaning or connect materials or concepts

Content

To initiate the product, a large virtual library, called the Blio Bookstore, has been created in partnership with B&T, the "world's largest distributor of literary content and value-added services." Instead of partnering with specific publishers or focusing on specific product areas, Blio is using existing book distribution channels, resulting in an initial catalog of titles from thousands of publishers, as well as access to more than 1.2 million public-domain books. Initial publishers with titles in the Blio Bookstore include publishers such as Elsevier, Hachette, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Wiley.

Copyright and digital rights appear to have been addressed in the Blio system, as well. As users download their selected titles, the titles are permanently stored in a person's virtual library, which is designed to allow for "limitless access to your content" and the ability to seamlessly migrate titles from your library to "your favorite on-the-go device." However, you are prevented from sharing content with others or from downloading to more than the five allowed devices.

To attract publishers, Blio partners stress the following advantages:

  • A text-to-speech ability for read-aloud performances or to synchronize unabridged audio with digital text to create new types of products or repackage content for new markets
  • Ability to insert video or audio clips, or interactive webpages to appeal to textbook or other information-intensive markets
  • "Voice painting" to allow publishers to create computer-generated, multicharacter listening experiences of particular potential value to children's and visually handicapped markets
  • Social networking elements to more fully engage readers of all ages
  • The ability for publishers to individually brand the Blio reader software for a specific book, series, or imprint
  • Integration of research tools, such as dictionaries and web-based research destinations to customize products based on content or audience

B&T has created Baker & Taylor ecommerce services as a turnkey, customized ecommerce solution for publishers. "Your branded Digital Media Store is ready to serve existing and attract new customers from day one, with a seamless, user-friendly experience for buying and downloading digital content-beginning with the free Blio application," according to Blio's site.

2010-The Year of the Ebook?

 Recently, Amazon announced that it had sold more books in digital format than in paper form this past holiday season (http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1369429&highlight=). More devices and formats continue to be released to a growing marketplace. Reports continue to suggest that Apple will be releasing a tablet device later this year (http://theappleblog.com/2010/01/05/rumor-hast-it-apple-tablet-launching-first-shipping-later). Wired recently suggested that "2010 may finally be the year that the tablet PC evolves from being a niche device to becoming a mainstream portable computer" (www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/08/dell-intel-tablet).

As key as these developments might be, Kurzweil has sweetened the pot significantly with a new platform-independent system, with a flexible multidevice design, packaged with a distribution system that appears to meet publishers' needs for DRM and copyright protection. Kurzweil-who is releasing Blio through knfb Reading Technology, Inc. (www.knfbreader.com), his joint venture with the National Federation of the Blind-is a formidable force in technology. A prolific writer and futurist, he is also responsible for the first omni-font OCR (optical character recognition), the first CCD (charge-coupled device) flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, music synthesizers, and more.

"With our cutting-edge, 3D book technology, Baker & Taylor's market leadership, and the vast collection of online books that we have jointly collected from the world's leading publishers, we believe we have the key to transform the book industry," Kurzweil notes. And he may just be right.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Steve Richardson1/20/2010 11:04:02 AM

Yeah, this sounds good, but if the e-book industry really wants to get out of neutral developers are going to have to pay attention to the technology. Maybe they are doing this but they do not mention it. A dictionary is great but Blio is little or no improvement if there is not the ability to navigate throughout the book forward, backward, links to note, etc. You can actually turn a printed book from the page you are reading to the index.
Posted By Susan Murray-Smith1/19/2010 6:13:11 PM

Although this technology is potentially wonderful, I get increasingly annoyed at spokepeople suggesting that black and grey (e-Ink) reader devices are "boring". They have been designed for a purpose, long periods of immersive reading without causing eyestrain. Novels are mostly just text on paper, why would you need colour and backlight? Different devices will be developed for different purposes - I can't wait for double screens and the ability to interact with highlights and margin notes etc for research and educational books. But to dismiss competing technology which works well for its designed purpose as boring is just lazy marketing.

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