Thursday, March 24, 2011


I'm at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show covering all things tech this week. I've seen dozens of awesome (and sometimes odd) gadgets. I've examined computers ranging from blisteringly fast desktop machines running state-of-the-art graphics cards and I've played with smartbooks that are only slightly larger than my phone. But one of the biggest generators of buzz on the showroom floor isn't a gadget or computer -- it's a piece of software called Blio.

We first heard about Blio during Steve Ballmer's keynote address for Microsoft back on Wednesday. It's e-reader software that can turn any Windows machine into a full-color e-reader. Rather than compete from a hardware standpoint with devices like the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook, Blio will allow people to access a library of books without a specialized device.

The software has some big names behind it. One of the key developers is Ray Kurzweil, a well-known futurist. And it has features that put it ahead of many devices on the market. There's an optional animation feature that creates a realistic page-turning effect. You'll also be able to listen to books through a text-to-speech option. The software itself is free (as will more than a million books once the software launches in February). Customers will be able to buy books from the Blio bookdstore -- books will be in a PDF scanned format that contains DRM to prevent piracy.

Despite all this, I don't see Blio as a true game changer. For one thing, it's incompatible with e-ink screens. That means Blio will run on devices that require power to display images, which means a limited reading time due to battery life. The Kindle and Nook can run for days (assuming you have Wi-Fi turned off). A laptop, smart phone or tablet may only have a few hours of life before needing a recharge.

The text-to-speech feature, which some people are saying really sets Blio apart, isn't new either. The Kindle has the same feature. What holds back a more widespread use of text-to-speech isn't the technology. Instead, it's legal battles with publishers and authors, some of whom argue that the feature hurts sales of audio books. I don't think any text-to-speech feature competes with a true audio book. I do think it's a useful feature for people who have a visual impairment. But I'll save that full argument for another blog post.

For another, customers have already shown that they are willing to buy a device dedicated to a single task. This surprised me more than anyone -- convergence is something I've said was a key feature in technology over the last decade. I think many people are willing to purchase a unique device if it means a superior experience. I'm not sure Blio provides that yet. And if we wanted to read books on our computers, wouldn't we be doing that already? It's not like the technology itself is particularly new.

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps Blio will render e-readers obsolete in a year. But from my perspective, I'd say that it's interesting software that might enhance the e-reader landscape without really changing it. Considering the number of e-reader devices I've seen this year (the Skiff, the EnTourage eDGe, etc.), I think there's too much steam in the e-reader engine for Blio to make a dent.

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