Kurzweil’s Blio Finally Launches – Here Is A First Look (FAIL)

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Blio - Stuck in the Past?

Today K-NFB Reading Technology, backed by futurist Ray Kurzweil, officially released its highly anticipated Blio e-book platform for download to the public.  Yet in a move that seems painfully behind the times, the platform is currently available for download on Windows PCs only.  Blio apps for ipads and other platforms are supposedly to follow, but no firm date for their release is available.  I just downloaded the Blio software to my desktop and gave it a spin.  The short verdict: Blio seems woefully behind in a crowded e-reader space and doesn't seem to "get" the e-reader market.  Read on for the details.

E-books can offer a superior experience to old fashioned paper books, but in order to do this they must succeed in two ways.  First, they must offer new and superior digital features and experiences that paper books cannot offer.  Second, e-books must offer the same mobility that we expect from paper books so that we can read comfortably on the airplane, the couch, or the bus.  In many ways the Kindle and the ipad succeed in these two objectives and they have been extremely successful platforms.  Blio, on the other hand, does not seem to meet either of these objectives.

Earlier today I went to the Blio website, downloaded the package and 5 minutes later the software was running on my computer.  The Blio software comes preinstalled with 2 children's books and an immensely fascinating book titled "Woodstock: Peace, Music, and Memories".  Suffice to say, Blio gives you a lousy set of three books from which to make that all important first impression.

Screenshot of Blio Software

Blio is a software program that allows you to download e-books and then read them on your PC.  Blio is supposed to enhance the reading experience by leveraging the abilities that only digital platforms can offer.  Sadly, the platform does not leverage its digital capabilities nearly enough.  With Blio you can take notes and link those notes to a particular passage, you can highlight words and passages, zoom in and out, and you can research a word or a phrase on Google, Bing, and other services directly within the Blio interface.   But where is the Facebook and Twitter integration?  Where is the ability to cut and paste words and passages from the book?  Where is the ability to bookmark a page for easy future reference.  Where is the option to search through the hundreds of pages in a book for a particular word or phrase?   With Blio my e-book and its metadata are confined to just one computer.  In today's cloud based world, metadata such as my reading history and the notes I take using Blio should be available on any computer or device in the world.  The lack of imagination and implementation of digital features is a big miss for Blio.

Worse than the lack of digital features, however, is Blio's misguided attempt to push e-books to the PC platform as its opening act.  PCs and laptops are not ideal platforms for e-books.  Reading a book is a personal experience that we prefer to perform on the bus, on the couch, or in our bed at night.  ipads and Kindles are great for this.  PCs and laptops...no so good.

PCs are not mobile at all, and laptops, although mobile, are heavy and unwieldy for extended reading.  Furthermore, PCs and laptops are confined to the old school keyboard and mouse model.  Without the touchscreen interface and specialized buttons that we have grown to appreciate on the Kindle and ipad platforms, Blio on PC just seems clunky.

One of the key differentiating features of the Blio software is supposed to be its ability to automatically take the text of a book and read it aloud to you.  I thought this was going to be a killer feature on Blio that could make a real change in the e-reading market and I was excited to try it out.  Alas, my hopes were dashed as soon as I gave this feature a try.  Listening to Blio read you a story is an excruciating experience.  The voice is about as monotonous and annoying as can be.  The sound is choppy as the AI speaks each word with abrupt pauses as it moves from one word to the next.  Check out the video I recorded to see what I mean:

I admit that the AI behind Blio that allows it to take text and convert it to speech is admirable.  Yet for general use this feature simply is not practical until they can get the speech part to sound more natural.  Of course for those with disabilities and for other special cases the text to speech technology could be quite useful, and for this reason the text to speech feature is notable.

Overall the Blio platform seems behind the times and out of place in today's mobile, connected, social world.  The future of e-books is on mobile devices with touch screens and specialized buttons.  E-books should offer rich digital features for sharing with anyone, anywhere, and they should be tightly integrated with the cloud.  Blio does not seem to "get" this future.  K-NFB plans to push its Blio platform to ipads and other devices eventually, and they will surely add more digital capabilities over time.  But these days the industry moves super fast - thanks to exponentially accelerating technologies.  Blio's competitors, including Kindle, ipad, and Barnes and Noble's Nook are innovating quickly and expanding their reach every day.  By the time Blio finally delivers all that it should, it may be too little too late.

Despite its shortcomings, however, Blio still might see success.  After all, there are hundreds of millions of PCs and laptops out there for Blio to tap into.  Furthermore, not everyone can afford or even wants to own a Kindle, ipad, or similar device.  In other words, although the Blio doesn't seem to mesh well with the future, it might be just what is needed for the majority of people that live in the present.  Still, with substantial backing from futurist Ray Kurzweil, it is surprising that the Blio platform is stuck in the present, while other platforms are the ones blazing a path towards the future.

Discussion — 21 Responses

  • Lomar September 29, 2010 on 7:27 am

    This is why you don’t review a program that doesn’t even have all the features yet.

    • panda_puffs Lomar September 29, 2010 on 5:00 pm

      They released it, so it’s open to review. Not the reviewer’s fault they released a half-baked product.

  • Sascha Heim September 29, 2010 on 7:52 am


  • kindle user September 29, 2010 on 9:09 am

    Of course, something like the kindle has all these features already and is available on every platform under the sun, although the text-to-speech seems only available on the hardware kindle.

  • Teabreak September 29, 2010 on 11:41 am

    Have you tried Kindle for pc? It’s horrible. I’ve bought a couple of books legally on it and have been reduced to trying to find the same books in pdf form on torrent sites so I can read them comfortably.

    Blio seems ok to me. Better than kindle pc or epub and possible pdf.

    And you say people don’t read on laptops – I sit and read the paper etc on my laptop in starbucks every day. I see a lot of other laptops. I’ve never seen a kindle in starbucks. People bring in their ipads – shiny shiny – and then find they are a pain because you can’t adjust the screen angle without hold the damn thing or balancing it on you knee or similar. I think they then give up and leave the ipads at home for the kids to play with.

    Laptops may be boring from the news point of view – mine looks and functions much like the one I bought 15 years ago – but work quite well really. I think there are about 500m laptops out there compared with about 10m ipads and maybe 5m kindles. Long live the functional if slightly boring laptop!

    • Keith Kleiner Teabreak September 29, 2010 on 4:08 pm

      Yes, I have tried kindle for PC. It doesn’t have the flashy graphics that Blio offers, but in pretty much every other way Kindle for PC offers everything Blio offers and more. Kindle offers bookmarks (Blio does not), note taking, highlighting, and the ability to adjust font features such as color, size, brightness (Blio does not). The metadata associated with your Kindle book as you read it follows you as you move from one PC or Kindle or iPad to another. Kindle for PC offers instant and efficient ability to search for words or phrases throughout an entire book. Blio does not offer this at the moment. Both ipad and Kindle allow you to see a summary of all of the notes that you have taken about a book through an easy summary interface. AFAICT with Blio, in a 600 page book there is no easy way to find or remember that you attached a note to page 342. Kindle keeps track of where you have been in the book and offers a useful “sync to furthest page read” feature. Blio does not offer this. The list goes on and on – Blio at the moment just does not compete favorably, even on the PC.

  • EreaderUser September 29, 2010 on 1:22 pm

    “This is why you don’t review a program that doesn’t even have all the features yet.” – Lomar
    Couldn’t Have Said it Any Better!!…Blio JUST Came out, and its features are a lot more advanced than the kindle, i would know, i used both of them..Start talking and giving reviews once Blio is out on Every Platform! and is loaded with all the features. This review is gonna look like it was written by an ignorant fool, already does in fact because as far as I’m concerned this is the most advanced e-reader out.

    • Kenneth B EreaderUser September 29, 2010 on 6:55 pm

      This is 2010 for goodness sake. As a software developer myself, we try to be cross platform. In fact we try to develop once and compile for various different platforms. That is why it is inexcusable for this to be Windows only. If you make the bold claims Blio made, that they will “revolutionize e-reading” they should back it up and give us something revolutionary like cross-platform out of the box.

  • John123 September 29, 2010 on 2:36 pm

    Releasing to the public on windows isnt a walk in the park. “There are hundreds of millions of PCs” yea there are, thats why it will be on every toshiba computer.

  • Cybermancer September 29, 2010 on 3:22 pm

    Obviously the Keith Kleiner had too high expectations. Hence the “somewhat” biased/unbalanced review.

    The quote “Blio seems woefully behind in a crowded e-reader space” isn’t backed up by any suggestion of a software alternative that offers all of Blio’s features. Comparing the iPad or Kindle hardware platform to a software is like comparing apples to oranges, imo.

  • Steve September 29, 2010 on 8:02 pm

    Wow, the talking voice on the Blio really is far from cutting-edge! I’m on a mac that is at least 1 year older than the Blio, and a much much higher quality talking voice is incorporated with my OS. You can probably post some comparisons that have been put on youtube.

    For the person above me who said that this article review is too early: by the time Blio delivers all the features that’ve been advertized to us, just think how much more advanced Apple’s product will be, and how much Blio will have fallen farther behind. So, in a way, I guess it was better for Blio to have it reviewed now than in the future.

  • Deltacdynamics September 29, 2010 on 8:29 pm

    I don’t have much experience with e-readers, but am really hoping Blio will have a good text to speech feature when they release the app for Android.

  • An September 29, 2010 on 8:39 pm

    Other point I’d like to indicate: Why not bl.io? Would be far better for advertising. Unless, of course, that’s registered, but I imagine someone such as Kurzweil could buy it off its previous owner easily.

  • Joey1058 September 29, 2010 on 9:58 pm

    I’m going on a limb here with some thoughts. I expect to get shot down big time on at least one of them, but I’m offering my own opinion, and totally know I’m in left field. Kurzweil is making what I think is a first step into an item for broad public consumption. Before, his tech has been aimed at smaller custom/specialty markets. So this is a hit or miss product to begin with. But what gets to me is, being a futurist, the man is shackled by the past. “Woodstock: Peace, Music, and Memories“? Please, give me a break. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and had the 50s pushed at me in popular media. In the 80s, the 60s were being pushed at me. In the 90s the 70s were all the rage.

    The Boomers need to let go. And I’m speaking as a Boomer. I feel that Ray is loosing his grip on the present day. Because the gen X’ers and gen Y’ers are not going to care one way or the other about “the good old days” of the millennium any more than I wanted to hear Elvis sing Blue Suede Shoes on the radio for the 12th time in a day.

    The Blio? I’m not going to use it just because it has a trendy robotic voice that can read to me. I’m the generation that used dead tree tech. Two or three generations from now, people will be reading stuff via some form of AR either on a pair of glasses or scanned on their retinas. These arguments about which reader is best is silly. It will be up to whoever is in charge of updating the software that will determine if Blio suceeds.

    Feel free to flame away.

  • Cesar September 29, 2010 on 11:30 pm

    Good review, intelligent and impartial. It strengthens the image of the SingularityHub as an independent and critique transhumanist blog (the best one).

  • marke September 30, 2010 on 12:11 am

    Anybody else think that the voice sounded like that of the Open Source, freely available text-to-speech system called festival? Possibly with a new voice recorded, but the behaviour described in the article (and the recording) sound just like what I’d get when I tried it last about 5 years ago.

  • Cesar October 1, 2010 on 1:23 am

    It is hard to me think of a book reader without bookmark… The synthetic voice is also very bad … looks the same as 15 years ago, with no exponential development… There are, today, voices much better (like TexAloud).

  • Ryan October 1, 2010 on 1:58 am

    I thought that this review sounded a little negative, but I wasn’t that surprised by it. I wanted to try it myself anyways. I read a large amount of eBooks already on my android phone using the Aldiko app so I kind of know what I’m looking for. The whole Windows PC only thing is a huge drawback, and I think it is absolutely fair to complain about an application lacking a feature, even if it is promised in a future version. I’ve been waiting over a year now for Stanza to come out with their Android version that they said was right around the corner.

    Anyways, trying it out I can’t even get it to work. I can see the books that are included, but I can’t access any of the other books I have already on my computer. I have several in epub format (which is what it says that all downloaded books are in), as well as a ton in pdf, lit, txt, rtf, mobi, html, and probably a few other extensions. So I would think I’m pretty familiar with the huge number of extensions an ebook can have. But when I go to the Open button it looks for XPS format, which I have never heard of before. I don’t see any other way to get a book into the reader. Even clicking and dragging it into the reader gives an Only XPS files can be opened error.

  • BrokenStar October 7, 2010 on 5:24 pm

    A lot of the features you reviewed are redundant and peripheal to the actual goal of literacy. While using Blio I was surprised to experience an ebook reader that was extremely readable with good organization.

    In my occupation I have many articles to read in pdf format. pdf is extremly difficult to focus. Reading a full length novel is impossible. With the proper updates to Blio, I think it may become possible to overcome these challenges.

  • Smoo October 7, 2010 on 9:43 pm


  • Alexis December 14, 2010 on 7:44 pm

    There’s nothing new about text-to-speech: every Mac comes with it built-in, for virtually any text (under edit/speech/start speaking) with much higher (actually listenable) quality.

    I thought the big thing about Blio was that it presented books looking like, uh, books: all the graphics, etc. in place, “looking like the printed version”. That’s the big difference from Kindle & iPad. And it’s one many people would appreciate, but was largely ignored in your review. Your other points are well taken, and Blio doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.

    Now, if they only had a Mac version I’d be happy to try it out and see for myself.