Friday, October 29, 2010

Blio Reader: Bliss, Blah, or Somewhere Between?

There's been a tremendous amount of anticipation and speculation over the past year about Blio, a reading technology that promised to be a great new way to read books on computers and portable devices, especially titles with graphics. So when Blio finally launched about a month ago, I immediately wanted to check it out.

The first thing one discovers is that the initial release is for Windows based PCs only. Not Mac, not iPad, not Android, and not for any smartphone, though their official press release states it will be available for those platforms soon. As someone who enjoys reading on the iPad, this was pretty disappointing, for I was certain Blio would cover all bases at launch. And yet I was eager to give this new software a try, so I downloaded it to my desktop and promptly created an account, all of which was quick and easy.

When I first began using Blio I was quite underwhelmed. That's because the reading layout is pretty similar to Zinio's and the virtual bookshelf that organizes your collection is reminiscent of Kobo's. However, the more I continued playing with the program it became apparent there were some nice aspects to the general functionality. For example: Browsing the store and downloading free public domain titles such as Moby Dick was a snap and within 30 seconds I was reading Melville's classic. Turning pages, zooming in and out, and looking up definitions of words also performed smoothly.

But it's the other enhancements, like reading titles in multiple views (including 3D), watching video, and adding notations that can be exported for future reference that makes Blio different from other electronic reading experiences. These features could potentially be even better when executed on a tablet device like an iPad or the soon-to-be-released Samsung Galaxy Tab, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Unfortunately the folks at Blio described the capabilities of their software as "revolutionary," which only set them up for ridicule, especially since Zinio, iBooks, Kindle, Nook Color, and Kobo offer reading options, like text-to-speech, that are pretty similar (in way or another), if not exactly the same. Granted the way Blio integrates video, audio, and the option to search using Google and other engines without having to leave the page provides a convenience competitors currently lack. But describing the 3D page turns as "realistic" is off the mark when compared to reading an iBook, for example. Blio's approach to 3D page turning reminded me a little of an older technology from the 90s called RealRead - (Remember them?). They were one of the first to introduce three-dimensional reading but it just never caught on.

Another reason expectations were high is because Blio was developed by K-NFB, a company founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil, a man with an esteemed reputation for inventing incredible technologies. Here's a video of Kurzweil explaining Blio at the Tools of Change conference earlier this year. Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind (K-NFB) has a long history of assisting those with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD, so it seems logical they expect to continue working with educational communities. Plus the partnership with Baker & Taylor, a global media distribution company, will certainly help reach a variety of channels, including libraries where there's likely to be wide adoption.

But to my mind things start to get tricky for Blio on the consumer level. As a first attempt, they've arranged for the software to come pre-loaded on all Toshiba laptops. This certainly might gain some new users, but it will take a much more aggressive marketing and publicity campaign to have any measurable impact.

Overall, it's easy to discount many of Blio's innovations when using the software on a PC because in that form it seems like old hat. But if the iPad version fully takes advantage of the swipe and touch capabilities, then I think Blio just might win over the critics.

Have you tried Blio yet? If so, what do you think of it so far?

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