Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Blio bets against e-reader devices

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

book covers
The Blio bookstore launches in February

Software originally designed to help blind people read electronic books could turn the emerging e-reader industry on its head, according to its inventor.

Futurist and artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil, famed for inventions like speech-recognition software, is the man behind Blio.

His vision is to use free software to turn any device into an e-reader, from a PC to a smartphone and from netbooks to tablet computers.

"We will run on all platforms," said Mr Kurzweil

"People don't want an extra piece of hardware. They want to take one device and do everything with it and they want colour screens," said Mr Kurzweil.

Blio is a joint venture between Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind, which set up a company called knfbReading Technology to create products for people with disabilities.

'Future gazing'

Currently, the biggest player in the e-reader marketplace is the Kindle. Online retailer Amazon, the firm behind the device, said that throughout 2009 it was the most popular present in its history.

While Amazon does not provide specific figures, Forrester Research estimated that it accounted for 60% of all e-readers sold in the US last year. Sony, which offers a competing Reader device, accounts for 35%.

Blio Peter Chapman with Blio on computer screen
Blio's Peter Chapman says right now e-books are poor copies of paper books

In the coming year, some analysts have estimated that as many as 10m such devices will be sold in North America.

Blio has its sights set on claiming a chunk of those sales and also disrupting the sector as a whole.

"As a futurist, Ray is pretty good at predicting technology trends and Blio is about re-writing the paradigm," Peter Chapman, executive of knfb told BBC News.

While many industry watchers agree that having one device that does everything is key, a lot of credit for any future shift is already being meted out to Apple and its expected announcement on Wednesday of a tablet computer.

Amazon's recent move to open up the Kindle to third party developers to develop applications for its device is being seen as a reaction of Apple's much touted product, rather than what Blio promises it can do.

"Not only is Apple taking aim at their hot product, Apple is taking aim at other offerings like games, music and books," JMP Securities analyst Sameet Sinha told the Dow Jones.

"They (Amazon) should be extremely worried."

Disruption

One of Blio's main advantages over competitors, say analysts, is that the software can offer a full colour experience. Most e-readers use E-Ink technology, which is a black and white display.

Blio can also preserves the original layout of a book, with typography and illustrations copied across, as well as fonts and pagination.

Kindle 2
The Kindle offers 400,000 books and 100+ papers and magazines

It also supports video and animation. There is text-to-speech and the ability to write notes, highlight sections, and skip back to where you left off across a number of devices.

Purchased books will be stored in a personal virtual library.

"The first generation of e-readers were really about straight text," explained Mr Chapman.

"The second generation are just getting there - showing the entire page with all its layout. The third generation is going to be beyond the paper into the digital realm.

"Our aim is to disrupt the e-reader business model and bring the best of the web and bring the best of print together in one model," said Mr Chapman.

However, analysts believe the rest of the industry will soon catch up.

"We expect Amazon and other vendors will be looking for a viable display technology to support colour content and perhaps video," said Susan Kevorkian, programme director at technology researcher IDC.

'Quantum leap'

Industry watchers are generally impressed by the Blio software but say its success will rest on the store that is tied to it.

"Their ability to scale with major publishers is going to be the issue going forward," said Alan Weiner, research vice president of Gartner.

text book page of anatomy journal
Blio offers textbooks, travel guides, art books magazines and best sellers

"The business model is also interesting. They get a piece of revenue for the content that is sold, which is a good model but requires a lot of volume to work."

Blio is backed by Baker and Taylor, the world's largest distributor of both physical and digitised books.

At the moment the software offers more than 1 million free books and counting and 200,000 paid books.

"Blio opens up the world of rich, graphic and full colour books that before had no device that they could be read on," Bob Nelson executive vice president of global business development for Baker and Taylor told BBC News.

"There are millions of those titles out there waiting to be converted to digital media."

It is this opportunity that that Mr Kurzweil hopes to build upon.

"We have the key to transform the book industry," he said.

Blio will be offered free and is expected to be available from February.



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