Blind Bargains

Quick Take: Blio Disappoints on Many Levels, at Least for Now

A few short years ago, we became wowed, taken away, and otherwise enamored with a new product, a product which promised to transform the printed word and bring access to the next generation of reading devices. The KNFB Reader, launched by KNFB Reading Technology, allowed executives to read hand-outs in a conference room as soon as they were handed to them. Travelers could read boarding passes at the airport or the type of shampoo at their hotel room. Students could maintain the edge required to graduate. For many satisfied customers, the KNFB Reader in its various forms has met and exceeded these expectations for nearly half a decade.

So, you can imagine our excitement when it was announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show that a new barrier was about to be broken, this time in the world of electronic books. With Ray Kurzweil, the K in KNFB Reader's vision of ubiquitous access to electronic books for all including the blind, access to millions of publications was just around the corner. Or was it. I may suppose that even Dr. Kurzweil isn't totally pleased with the events which have transpired.

Since CES, the launch date has been pushed back several times. First February, then May, then dead silence until finally, a late September launch was promised. If it's any consolation, that's still only a third of the time it took for Oratio to finally be released.

So why the delay? One might suppose it was to build up the collection of available titles. But at launch, only a small handful of paid works are available. One might also conclude it was to release applications for a variety of platforms, but at launch only a Windows version is available with other platforms promised in the "near" future.

But what about accessibility? While the mainstream press was initially excited about Blio's capabilities of delivering full-color illustrations, bringing a new class of eBooks to the market, those in the access technology arena were excited about the probability of equal access to millions of books. With the incomplete inclusion of accessibility features in Amazon's Kindle 3 and the sparse selection of books available on Apple's publishing platform, Blio was supposed to be the savior.

Depressingly, on release day, only very limited and virtually unusable accessibility support was included, with an accessible version promised sometime in October. Many were ready to wait a few more weeks to try out this new beast, and I'm honestly not completely offended by the accessibility issues in this initial version. I was willing to give them a pass until I later heard a further announcement via Twitter that Jaws is the screen reader of Blio. Excuse me? How does support for only one of the major Windows screen readers constitute true accessibility? I might expect this behavior from a company which didn't know better, but KNFB Reading Technology has been producing accessible software for nearly five years now.

This is all because Blio is built on a display technology which is still not widely adopted by screen reader manufacturers called Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). System Access and NVDA have limited WPF support while other screen readers such as Window-Eyes may not include it until their next major release. Even still, KNFB has sacrificed their promise of universal access in exchange for the almighty dollar. The fact remains that including support for all screen readers wouldn't even be rocket science. In fact, many popular programs such as Qwitter or the Blind Adrenaline games make this a centerpiece of their software, and on either nonexistent or much lower budgets than KNFB.

It would be quite simple after all of this to suggest that KNFB Reading Technology should concentrate on what it does well, and leave the electronic book market to others. But this is not what I am advocating here. To put this in perspective, there weren't a lot of fans of the first version of Windows, or the first iPod, or the first web browsers either. We know that KNFB Reading Technology is capable of putting out a world-class product. Let's just hope that some of this class can be spread around the rest of the company and make Blio the eBook behemoth it was meant to be. Then Dr. Kurzweil would have something more to smile about.

Category: Articles
Displaying 4 comments.
darknexus Thursday, 30-Sep-2010 6:43 PM ET:

The heck with it then. I'm not buying jaws for Blio, I'll just get an iPod Touch. There aren't a huge amount of books in iBooks yet, but there are some that I want to read and at this point it's more likely to remain accessible than Blio. As far as NVDA goes btw, check out the 2010.2 beta 2 release. Its WPF support is quite nice. I can't actually fault them for using wpf, this is the way things are heading on Windows. The screen readers need to catch up or shut up (GW Micro, I'm looking at you as a Window-Eyes owner). However, if they've actually taken steps to tie Blio to jaws specifically, then they'll not have me as a customer under any circumstance.

techlynne Thursday, 30-Sep-2010 7:44 PM ET:

How horribly disappointing. how could KNFB launch a product that is only partly accessible to those who use System Access or NVDA? Why on earth didn't they simply wait to offer the product when the accessibility bugs were worked out? We've waited this long and now must wait even longer. I can only surmise KNFB decided to cast their line in the sighted eReader waters and see if anyone took a bite. If so, they would have more funds to work on aspects of accessibility. My colleague and I attempted to install the special PlayeReader software and were thwarted by the license agreement dialog box. We simply could not find that elusive checkbox. Thanks to a Tweet Buddy, we learned that it was necessary to route JAWS to PC in order to find it. how annoying! I don't even think we have the strength or desire to try again. We'll see. We wait on...

realman Wednesday, 06-Oct-2010 7:49 PM ET:

All of the comments have so far missed the main issue. By releasing an inaccessible version of BLIO, KNFB, and, by extension, the NFB, have failed to deliver on their commitment to offer an accessible book reading application for the blind. If I were a member of nFB, I'd be asking some hard questions of my leadeship, questions such as what are NFB's financial commitments and arrangements re the BLIO, and why was an inaccessible product released? I am not a member of NFb, but this fiasco says a lot to me about NFB's real comitment to do what it claims to do -- serve the interests of the blind. I certainly have no intention of ever using this product, and it will be a cold day in Hell before I join an organization that goes back on its fundamental commitments and promises, offering what we used to call vaporware instead.

DPinWI Sunday, 10-Oct-2010 10:31 AM ET:

I recently purchased an iPod Toucgh 4G. I'm happy with iBooks' and VoiceOver as a book reading solution. Once BookShare has an iOS app, it will be even a better. In the meantime I'm disappointed at KNFB and NFB for the whole Blio affair. Perhaps a year from now I'll have forgotten the initial missteps. I doubt it though.

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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.

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