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.