The difference between Blio and existing e-readers, which are based on E-Ink technology, is that E-Ink screens only display black and white text while Blio offers full color plus graphics. But in addition to these technical advantages, the business model may well change the e-reader market altogether: First of all, Blio will be free. And users will eventually be able to download the software to cellphones, smart phones, and computers of all types. Baker & Taylor, a distributor of paper and digital books, will make 50,000 e-books available at launch with plans to convert as many as 180,000 titles this year (by comparison, however, Amazon’s Kindle currently boasts a selection of nearly 400,000 titles). Baker & Taylor only require that publishers provide a PDF of a book, which has two further advantages. First it makes it easier for publishers to make their titles available than having to create XML files, which they must do for the hardware-based e-readers. Secondly, the files are easier to distribute, since XML files are three—or more— times the size of PDFs.
Another major breakthrough that Blio offers is text-to-speech, which means one can listen to an audio version of a book while driving, exercising, etc. Blio also gives users the ability to synchronize features such as bookmarks, highlights, and last page read across multiple devices so that one may start reading on an iPhone and move to a netbook (or soon to Apple’s much-hyped tablet).
The market for e-books has grown at a remarkable rate—Amazon sold more e-books than printed titles this past Christmas season. About five million e-readers were sold last year. The fact that Blio is free may well put a dent in the market for the Kindle, Nook, Sony, and other hardware contenders, who are asking $200 and up for the hardware. Still, the big drawback for Blio will be readability. Many observers are already complaining that reading books on backlit LCDs is a real turnoff but I have to admit that free is a compelling advantage—as are the color, animation, and text-to-speech features. We’ll have to check back in a few months to see what the marketplace as a whole thinks.