Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kurzweil Rethinks eBooks with Blio

It is interesting that someone has realized that digital books are not so much about the device but about the reading platform. The other difference in thinking that they also realize that the book has got to break free of its current straight-jacket and not just be another straight rendition copy.

We have been bombarded all year with ‘lookie likie’ after ‘lookie likie’ eInk readers and some devices have even been upgraded, but at the end of the day they remain just black and white single application devices that have a predictable short life expectancy. Amazon have cleverly created a kindle offer that covers PCs, kindles and iPhones but just got stick from the market for not joining the epub party.

Now Ray Kurzweil, a prolific inventor who has worked extensively in areas such as optical character recognition, speech recognition and text-to-speech synthesis, has now announced new e-reader software, called Blio. The new software is set to debut this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and will be free and available to run on PCs, iPod Touch and iPhone. Kurzweil Technologies has a joint venture with the US National Federation of the Blind aimed at creating reading products such as Blio for people with disabilities.

Blio supports full colour, lays out the “pages” as on paper, supports video and animation, enables text-to-speech and can synchronize bookmarks, highlights and last page read across platforms.

“We can take a PDF and an audio book and merge the two to get a combination such that you can hear the audio book and see the words highlighted on the PDF at the same time,” says Peter Chapman, an executive at Kurzweil Technologies.

The big challenge for Blio is fighting the epub and tin makers of the eInk devices who have a momentum. However if tablets arrive and meet the current hype and streaming service start to change the model then Blio could start to make headway.

Blio creators believe they can work with major publishers to convert Adobe text searchable PDF format to the Blio format for free and also that they can partner with Google to make its library available in Blio.

An interesting chart from Blio and published in Wired, shows how they believe they match up to their rivals. The question now is whether they can create sufficient consumer awareness and demand, actually line up some powerful partnerships and finally introduce another format beit free or not.

1 comment:

Inkling said...

Hopefully, this will prove to be good news. I've spent years developing a knack for attractively formatting books. It frustrates me that all that effort comes to naught when I release an ebook edition that looks like something created by a clanking 1950s-era teletype. Thanks to organizations such as Smashwords, ebook distribution is getting rationalized. Ebooks that look as good as printed books is the next need. If the claims pan out, this answers that need better than anything else I have seen including ePub.

The Wired article did leave me a bit confused though. It seems to confound a standard for writing Blio books, which could be free, with specific applications running on different platforms along with schemes for marketing, distributing books and tracking a reader's activities across various platforms, all of which have associated costs and may threaten various interests.

The article also makes no mention of applications that can create ebooks in this format. Surely, something more is needed than PDF-to-Blio conversion. That sort of thing can toss up odd glitches and has no provision for the sort of linking (to endnotes, other parts of the book, and outside sources) that any effective ebook standard requires.

The description also seems to try to make a vice into a virtue. Preserving "the original book’s format, including typsetting, layout, fonts and pagination" makes little sense. An ebook edition almost certainly needs to be something other than a literal copy of the original. The page sizes of the original may not fit well on many modern devices and the type may be ill-adapted, too small or too large to look anything but ugly. If Blio ebooks look just like the PDF original they were made from, I might as well use the many, full-featured PDF readers that are already available.

Perhaps most important of all, there is no mention of the need to get InDesign and Quark (and even Word) to support this new format, so publishing new print and ebook editions doesn't require this weird print-to-PDF-to-ebook-look-alike conversion scheme.

Also, while I'm delighted that there'll apparently be an app I can use on my iPod touch out soon, for other platforms, only Windows 7 is mentioned. There's nothing about Mac OS X or the still very common Windows XP. That's not good.

In short, this scheme will only make sense if it runs on all the major platforms, and if new books can easily be published in Blio editions using industry-standard applications. You cannot establish an ebook platform using ugly PDF-like versions of old, badly OCRed texts from Google. We need a new platform for new books much more than we need yet-another reading platform for old books.