Is Blio the Wave of the Future?

In January of this year, I posted a piece on various new e-readers and accompanying software.  One new piece of software I reported on, Blio, was not yet ready but did have a demo-site up and running.  Today, that site is not only running, but could quite possibly run away with the competition, or so the company hopes.

The site opened late September this year, and some changes have even been made since then.  Blio ( catchword for ‘bibliography’ and meant surely to appeal to both librarians and scholars) is the brainchild of futurist Ray Kurzweil with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).  Kurzweil’s books are mainly bestsellers, and that is certainly true of his last few scribblings, Singularity and Transcend.  While most of us shy away from making predictions about the future, Kurzweil is known for his famous (and not so famous) scrying.  In any event, Blio has the possibility of having an enormous impact, especially in colleges and universities.  Blio attempts to make the reading of ebooks on PCs the best it can possibly be.  The question remains whether doing that is worthwhile.  PC-base e-book reading may be as antiquated to some digital natives as the once-famous Selectric typewriters are to digital immigrants.

Before getting to those questions, however, what are some noteworthy Blio features?  Two things make Blio stand out.  First, the software is not only user-friendly but astonishingly powerful.  Virtually all the drawbacks of current e-reader technology have been addressed.  Users can highlight passages in various colors, annotate with notes, photos, or audioclips, add multimedia links, and so on.  The virtual e-book experience is also available through Blio, meaning that  a user can read a certain text and by clicking on various terms or events, people and places, be linked to other expanded renderings on them.  Furthermore, almost all the texts are either audio, or a voice-synthesized voice has been added.

Readers will recall that NFB launched a court case against Kindle for not providing the same for all texts, so it stands to reason Blio would have this feature.   As the site itself has it, “eBooks should do more – they should leverage everything that the machine you’re reading on is capable of. Blio does just that. Now your books can read aloud to you, with Blio highlighting each word as it goes, so you can follow along. You can look up words you might not be familiar with or get more information on a topic by searching Google, Bing, and more without ever leaving your book.”

Additionally, the software comes in color, so no longer are readers “stuck” in “grayscale” but are treated to a veritable rainbow of colors that can make for a better reading experience.  It basically presents text in the font and format that the publisher intended for them, as if you were reading the text in print.  The books are easy to download, taking only seconds.  Right now, the software is available on the Blio site for Windows and Macs PCs; by December, users will be able  to download software for the iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices.

But there’s more.  Secondly, Blio makes available one million titles for downloading.  These titles come from Google Books mass digitization project and are mainly of the type and kind that are  scholarly based.  Furthermore, many of these books could substitute as textbooks, and the class and reading experience would be all the better for it.  While the search interface for looking up books leaves something to be desired (a search by subject, for example, leads to books with that word used in the title, not books about that subject), many classic texts are there for the using.

But if all of this were not enough, perhaps this will rivet attention:  ALL OF IT IS FREE.  Yes, that is right: both the software AND the one million titles are free.  As mentioned above, the one million titles are heavy in classics, like Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Whitehead’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles, of Natural Knowledge,Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams, Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Einstein’s Relativity, Spenser’s Principles of Sociology, Mach’s Science of Mechanics, and tens of thousands of others.

With all of this to tout, what could possibly be wrong?  More than a little, and so not everyone is Blio-pleased.  Earlier I mentioned that Blio had missed the boat on the PC reading experience.  Some posts suggest they have.  Some early users complained that  the interface was not to their liking, while others opined that the voice synthesizer for those texts without an audiobook component sounded like Darth Vader with a very bad head cold. Blio refers to the voice modulation as ReadLogic, but many of the Google books do not yet have it.  Quite ironic when you consider that NFB had been on the warpath about how other e-readers should have this feature already.   Another post about Blio simply hated everything about it.  The #Blio and #fail hashtags on Twitter  the last week of September and the first week of October were unfailingly harsh and complaining.  So, is Blio worth the effort, or should one simply not bother?

As I said at the outset, since the opening release day (28 September) some changes have been made.  To be fair, Blio did respond to many of the complaints, and Publishers Weekly carried the Blio response.  In short, first day jitters, according to Blio, caused many a-hiccup.  Some countered that Blio really debuted in January but only became available this month, and that any long first day jitters are simply unacceptable.  If you make a product and take nearly a year to perfect it, when you do release it, it ought to be ready.  Tell that to Steve Jobs and the new iPhone!  Finally, others complained that the download took too long.

I downloaded the software without a hitch, downloaded books in seconds and perused them immediately. (Perhaps a ” long time” is relative.  I think it took 60 seconds.) I cannot help but be amused that KNFB produced texts that, had they been produced by another company offering them to colleges and universities, all would have received  a nasty letter (threatening retaliation) from NFB complaining that they are not “Braille-friendly.”

Once Blio becomes available on mobile devices, it will be interesting to see how it fares.  I found the PC-based e-reader easy to use and the software quite powerful.  Then again, I never read any e-book on my PC.  Doubtless the mobile apps will make or break Blio.  Content for new titles is through Baker & Taylor with fewer than 15,000 new titles now available.  Blio contends that it inputs between 700-800 new titles daily, focusing on the most popular.  Whether this will be enough to satisfy twentysomethings who want to do everything on their mobiles remains to be seen.

The real advantage appears to be in textbook cost-reduction, should Blio want to go that way.  Like the Kno’ e-reader (discussed in an earlier post), Blio could offer college and university students a real price break in what is a major cost for most of them, and by doing so, acquire an instant and happy following.  By now, most college and universities should be piloting e-textbook programs in an effort to ascertain which ones work best for their cash-strapped students.

In any event, take a tour of Blio and download its software.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

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