I saw a cavalcade of new e-book devices and platforms demonstrated during a session called “Hardware and Platforms and Software, Oh My!” at last week’s AAP Professional and Scholarly Publishing conference in Washington, DC. (By the way, can someone please tell me where the “Oh My!” cliché originated?) Among these was the Blio eReader software platform, which was demonstrated by an executive from the major book distributor Baker and Taylor. It’s a product of K-NFB Technologies, a joint venture of Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind.
The Blio eReader is a software platform that intends to be interoperable across multiple devices and operating systems including Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and iPhone. Currently only Windows is supported. Baker & Taylor is supplying the e-books to the Blio’s online store. Despite the name and the affiliation, this software does not appear to have any application for visually impaired people.
The DRM for the Blio platform is Microsoft’s PlayReady. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer demoed the Blio briefly during his CES keynote last month. In other words, this is the closest thing there is to a new Microsoft e-book platform. Microsoft abandoned its previous Microsoft Reader platform several years ago, a fact noted by the product’s former chief Dick Brass in a New York Times op-ed piece from last week that laments Microsoft’s lack of innovation.
Apart from the fact that the Blio accepts the open standard ePub format (as well as PDF and XPS, Microsoft’s XML-based PDF competitor), this is yet another proprietary e-book platform. It’s not even the only purportedly device-agnostic one either: Zinio presented something similar at the Mark Logic Publishing Summit in New York last November. In fact, the feature set of the Blio Reader resembles so-called digital edition platforms like Zinio more than it does e-readers like the Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader.
I’m sorry; I don’t get it. What is the point here? Does Baker & Taylor want to get into digital publishing niches that its arch-rival Ingram doesn’t already dominate? Does K-NFB want to reach a wider market than the roughly 15 million visually impaired people in the United States (perhaps in order to subsidize NFB’s important work for the visually impaired)? Does Microsoft want to dip a toe into the e-book water without the expense and exposure of a Zune-like foray? Or is someone’s market timing just off?
Or, does the world need yet another incompatible e-book reading platform? The answer to that one is definitely no.
This e-book platform proliferation situation is analogous to the overcaffeinated digital music platform scene of the early 2000s before the market consolidated around Apple’s iTunes/FairPlay and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player/DRM.
Note to e-reader platform vendors: look up RealNetworks’ Helix, Liquid Audio, and Sony’s ATRAC/Open Magic Gate, just to name three.
Note to publishers: if you want to hold onto DRM and grow e-book sales, you need to put a stop to this mess and insist on interoperability. Otherwise you will fail to do one, the other, or both.
P.S. another new device demonstrated at the AAP PSP conference was the spiffy Skiff Reader, backed by the consumer publishing giant Hearst and LG Electronics. No word on its DRM; stay tuned.