Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is This the Future of the Book?

The Doctor is IN, and back from a refreshing holiday hiatus. As we look forward to 2010, it seems appropriate to look at an intriguing invention from one of our leading futurists. 

2009 has been the year of reading about the Kindle, the Nook, and various other kinds of e-book readers. But the latest invention for electronic reading technology is not a gadget, it's a software application called Blio. The creation of tech genius and futurist Ray Kurzweil, Blio is a tool, or platform, that can run (as of now) on PCs, iPhones or iPod Touches. Unlike "e-ink" based readers like Kindle or Nook, Blio can display illustrations at high resolution and in full color. It can also include video and animation.

On one hand, Blio offers the advantage that it can preserve the typography, design, and illustration you find in a printed book. Much as I like my Kindle, I dislike the way it presents every work in the same generic typeface with none of the individual design touches that you find in a well-made print volume. On the the other hand, Blio has the possibility of providing a much richer package to the reader, adding soundtracks, video clips, 3D maps, animated diagrams, and so on to plain-vanilla text. 

I think Blio's biggest plus right now is something simpler: the fact that it can work on multiple devices. Kurzweil argues, and I'd agree, that most people don't want to carry several gadgets around with them. If there's a tool that allows them to read a book on their laptops or their iPhones just as pleasantly as on their Kindles, the Kindles may wind up gathering dust in the cupboard. I believe that in a few years the e-book landscape is going to look quite different from the way it appears now, with Amazon far less dominant in the future than its current market share suggests. But that's maybe something to discuss in more depth at anothe time.

Meanwhile, Wired's Gadget Lab sees Blio as something much grander than a new way to read e-books. It declares "Blio looks solid, but it signifies something much bigger: the end of the paper book. Right now, e-books are poor copies of paper books, with a single advantage: convenience. A book is just a container for text, not its natural home." 

Are paper books obsolete? I have my doubts, for reasons I'll discuss in my next post. Meanwhile I'll welcome comments from you. 


Erin said...

This program is genius, and will certainly inspire new ways of creating a text—it won't just be about writing anymore.

I don't think paper books will go away either; paper books and any electronic texts are completely different animals. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive at all.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Now this looks promising. Even I could get into this one.

I'm not sure about the demise of paper books, as much as I love them. I look forward to your next post.

Thomas Taylor said...

As e-readers develop they're bound to converge with laptops to form a new generation of portable computers running things like Blio. The Kindle's going to look very quaint in a few years time, and I'm sure those who despise the idea of e-books now will end up reading them anyway as a byproduct of upgrading their PCs.

Long live paper though! But I think we'll be printing our own books before too long.

KatieGrrr said...

But you've ignored the benefits of e-ink: reduced eye-strain. That's why e-readers don't have computer type displays. So a combination would need both screens. Perhaps the 1st laptop/e-reader will be Kindle style, but with a screen on both the front and the back of the device. One e-ink screen, one standard computer screen. That would be interesting.

Gordon Jerome said...

Backlit screens are not the answer. You can do all sorts of things on a computer. What's the big deal about Blio in that case? What you can't do is read a book in bed with a computer, and I refuse to entertain the idea that anyone would actually read a book on their iPhone. OK, sure when you're stuck in a waiting room somewhere, but otherwise, you're going to want e-ink technology.

Eventually, there will be color e-ink screens. Hell, eventually our computer monitors may all be e-ink.

Right now, everyone's trying to catch up to Kindle. It can't be done. I tried out a Nook at my local Barnes and Noble--it's a joke. It's slow. I had to keep rebooting it because it would freeze. The stupid touch screen is too small for my finger tips. It's a joke.

Kindle is it. Just like IBM.

Peter Ginna said...

Thanks for all these comments. For more on Blio, take a look at Mike Shatzkin's post at He believes it's a definite improvement over other display platforms.

If you're one of those people, who apparently include KatieGrrr and Gordon Jerome, who don't like reading on backlit screens, you'll have to wait for e-ink technology to catch up for things like color or moving picture display. As I've said before, I don't mind--in fact I prefer--reading on the backlit screen of my iPhone, which I think has crisper and more readable type than my Kindle.

I haven't talked about the much-rumored Apple tablet here, but if that really arrives in 2010, I think it could quickly leapfrog Kindle as a preferred e-reading device. Not only will it be able to display type as sharp as the iPhone on a page closer to book size, it will of course do many other things and thus free you from the need to carry a separate gizmo for reading. You'll be able to order Kindle books on it--or use Blio on it, which already works on the iPhone.

Anonymous said...

I think reading on the computer is fine for forums, blogs, and short articles. I would not want to read a book on a backlit screen.

While project Gutenberg has been available for years, I all ways found myself just printing out the books.

As for the Kindle, it's the leader right now. The Nook is not as good. But color will be in the future. It's just too costly to sell now.

The big question is: what will the next generation Kindle look like? And the other big question: how will consumers react to the 3 month delay in books for their Kindle?

My girlfriend tells me that if the book is not available for her Kindle, then she will just buy something else. The only time she reads hardcovers is when someone lends her one. If the book is not available for her Kindle, then the book does not really exist for her.

I also heard somewhere that people generally only read one book a year. If that is the case, then a Kindle owner could get by on free books.

Gordon Jerome said...

@ Anon 9:00

I basically echo everything you just said. If publishers go through with holding e-books for 3 months before release, I'll read some other book. Publishers cannot win that way.

Backlit screens are not suitable for reading and with the exception of Peter, almost everyone I know prints out long material, like from Google Books or Guttenberg.

And another thing, I realize a lot of young people are stuck to their phones, but I perfer my stuff to be separated. I see the phone as work, so I don't want to read for leisure on my phone.

I think it's a mistake to see a lot of people texting and phoning and then thinking that's how they want to read a novel. Most of those young people probably don't read novels for pleasure, and if they do, I'm not so sure they'd do it on their phones. After all, phones are for texting, right?

Peter Ginna said...

Anon and Gordon, I don't (yet) have an opinion on the "three-month delay" you're referring to, but it doesn't seem wholly unreasonable to me. I hardly ever get the chance to read a book in its first three months on sale, unless I edited it! And I assume many other readers come to books that long after their first on-sale date. So the delay doesn't seem too great an imposition to me. I'll try to discuss this whole question in a future post.

Anon, I doubt a person who wants to read one book a year wants to invest in a Kindle. Her "free" book would have cost $259...

Gordon, I carry a Blackberry for work and would certainly not want to read a book on its fugly little display. I still think nothing beats paper and ink as a way to present text. But we may be dinosaurs. In Japan the practice of reading novels on cellphones is well established and a sizable market. I'm not ready to predict that won't happen in Western markets.