Is Blio the 800-pound Gorilla of the eBook Reader Market?

The proverbial 800-pound gorilla is the monster in the room that you just can’t ignore, although you might want to.  With this week’s debut of the long awaited Blio – Ray Kurzweil’s tablet-friendly eBook reader – the eBook reader market may have found just such a game changer.

eBook readers – like browsers in the 90s – have proliferated more like flies than apes… and that’s just in the past year. The market is ripe for a shakeout – or, at least, a preferred standard format.  Now along comes the long awaited Blio debut this week for Microsoft Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. (Yes, Mac OSX and iOS – iPhone and iPad – versions are shortly to follow.)  Released by K–NFB Reading Technology, a joint venture of Kurzweil and National Federation of the Blind, Blio mimics the experience of reading a real book.  It will also read the book to you if you’re lazy, tired, or your eyes aren’t so good.  Not surprising for the inventor of the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind.

No, Blio isn’t quite the revitalization of the traditional book envisioned by Pattie Maes’ Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT.  Maes’ reBook is a fusion of a real book with an eBook – its cover is embedded with a memory module, wireless microprocessor, paper-based keypad, and flexible display.  The Blio does not preserve the homey, sit by the fireside touch-and-feel of a paper book – what the reBook might offer if it is realized sometime in the future.
What the Blio software does offer, however, is an extremely compelling and easy-to-use book-like interface for the inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous netbooks used by students.  And for those with a few more dollars to spend on an iPad, a Windows 7 Nav 9 tablet, or a ThinkPad Edge 11, it may just make your digital reading experience – if engadget is to be believed – pretty darn enjoyable for a computer.
The Blio eBook store launched with about 11,000 for-pay titles. Publisher’s Weekly reports that K–NFB is uploading 700 to 800 new books every day. They’re being loaded by their sales ranking, with the most popular books being uploaded first.  Contrast this with the 700,000 titles available from the Kindle eBook store as of September 2010.  Unfortunately for K-NFB, the Blio rollout was mared by wildly varying prices (one user on Twitter complained of a Steig Larsson novel being offered for $27.95).  K-NFB spokesperson Peter Chapman blamed this on database input errors that have now been corrected.
Although the twittersphere was awash with #blio #fail hashtags – primarily for Windows XP installations – I found that I had no trouble downloading and installing Blio on a Windows XP desktop.
My desktop is not exactly the form factor I would choose for reading a book (I find that I increasingly like the small, but awesomely clear screen of my iPhone 4 for casual book reading at the barbershop or a bus stop – and all my free The New York Times reading is now done on this form factor), but I did find Blio on my desktop to be an enjoyable experience using my mouse and keyboard arrow keys to click forward and back arrows to navigate.
The Blio eBook store looks very much like the Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Borders eBook stores.  Set up an account, click on a book thumbnail, confirm the purchase, and download your book within minutes on a fast Internet connection.
I must say I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to download Blio onto my iPhone 4 along with my Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Borders eBook reader apps.   The Blio experience is closer to that of iBooks than Amazon’s Kindle software – it is designed to mimic the experience of reading a real book. As most eBook readers know, the reading experience is animated to feel like you’re actually turning a paper page.   With iPhone reader apps, it’s simply a flick of your forefinger.
Being old enough to remember Woodstock (of course, as Robin Williams famously said, if you remember Woodstock you weren’t at Woodstock…), I naturally downloaded the free copy of Woodstock: Peace, Music & Memories that was part of the Windows XP install.
The presentation was quite stunning on my aging desktop with its standard monitor and I was able to move quickly through the book using the innovative ReadLogic slider feature, looking at page thumbnails to select a page of interest, and view pages at various sizes.  Unlike my iPhone eBook readers, I was able to add sticky notes to pages.  By clicking an arrow at the bottom of the page, I could kick back at my desk and simply listen to book being read to me. The default 1970s “By Your Command” Cylon robotic voice probably would have put me to sleep fairly quickly if I’d listened to more than a few pages. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to choosing between a library of voices – say Patrick Stewart, George Cooney, Meryl Streep, or Tina Fey – to read me to sleep.  Ray, take note.
In spite of the product rollout hiccups noted by Publisher’s Weekly, the Windows version of Blio is a nicely constructed piece of software.  It remains to be seen if its list of titles will be cost-competitive with the growing Apple, Amazon, and Border’s libraries – and whether it becomes the application préférée of the rapidly expanding tablet market.
Me? I’m looking forward to downloading Blio onto my iPhone 4.
As the old joke goes: Where does an 800 lb gorilla sit? Anywhere it wants to.

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