Other Things

(a blog)

Introducing Blio, with Eucalyptus Inside

Recently I (Jamie) - through Things Made Out Of Other Things - have been working very closely with the folks at K-NFB Reading Technology on bringing their ebook reading platform, Blio, to iOS. I'm delighted to be able to say that the Blio app is now available, for free, in the App Store. It runs on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad (iOS 3.2 or above), and I think it's great. Blio library view on iPad 2 and iPhone 4 The reading interface is based on a greatly enhanced version of Eucalyptus' book display 'engine' I call libEucalyptus. I'm really excited that it's now available. Just like Eucalyptus, I think libEucalyptus, and Blio that's built on it, has the easiest to use, easiest to read interface or any book app. Blio book view in iPhones In the app, you can read books you buy from the Blio web store at mobile.blioreader.com, and books you've already bought 'inside' Blio on other platforms [Book purchase available in North America only]. Blio will also display non-DRM-protected ePub, PDF and (if you have any) XPS files. Below, I'm going to talk a bit about Blio, how it uses libEucalyptus, and, unashamedly, what I think is great about it. Please bear in mind while reading that only the book display technology is 'by' me; the app and its interface design are fully K-NFB's. Also, I'm speaking for myself and Things Made Out Of Other Things, I'm not in any way an official spokesperson for Blio or K-NFB.

Blio on the iPhone 4A great interface, with a focus on reading.

When I was building Eucalyptus, one of the things I tried to do was focus on the reading experience. In my view, it doesn't matter how great the rest of the app is; if it doesn't make books easy and enjoyable to read, there's no way it can be a good app. iOS Blio contains this philosophy too. It uses the very same fonts, custom justification and hyphenation algorithms as Eucalyptus - similar to those used by paper book publishers. I still think they produce the easiest to read text on any mobile platform, and I am pleased I can say that lots of Eucalyptus users agree, because I get their email telling me so. I've worked hard to build on this, supporting ePub features that make books look great. Pictures, lists, drop caps and the like - things that look great in paper books - will also look great in your ebooks. You can also still pinch to resize. The page will reflow with text resized to match your pinch. Even images will get bigger or smaller, with text reflowing around them to match the new size.

A natural, useful page turn.

Blio turning a page on the iPad Of course, there's also Euclyptus' acclaimed page simulation, making the book feel like a paper book, but also not getting 'in the way'. Unlike other page turning interfaces, in the libEucalyptus one, you can still read the text as you turn the page. This means that you can begin to turn as you near the bottom of the page, just like many people do when reading paper books, without obscuring the text you're reading. When Euclayptus launched, I said that "turning the pages feels so real and natural, you won't even notice it" - and I think that's still true in Blio. If this isn't how you'd like to use things though, never fear - as well as swiping or flicking to turn the page, you can also tap the edge of the screen to quickly flip to the next page.

Fixed-format books.

Blio features a 'fixed' reading mode that, instead of re-flowing the text to fit on the screen of the device, renders the full page as the author and designer of the book intended. For most novels, you'll want to use the 'flowed' mode, but for some textbooks and recipe books, and especially kids' picture books, this is a wonderful thing to be able to do. LibEucalyptus provides supports for the great pinch-zooming and scrolling, and two-page spreads you see in this mode. Check out the free "Peter Rabbit" book that comes with Blio to see this in action. Flip to landscape, pinch to zoom and flick to pan around!

Highlights and notes.

LibEucalyptus now has the ability to select and highlight text, and Blio has a nice interface built on this that allows you to highlight and attach notes to text in a book. Notes also appear in the Table Of Contents interface, so you can use them as annotated bookmarks - very convenient.

Audio books.

Also utilizing libEucaptus' highlighting feature, Blio has audio books that read along with you, highlighting the text that's being read as you go. It feels great - and, again, kids' picture books especially benefit from this. Many books that are not audio books allow reading with automated 'text to speech' (I believe that publishers and/or authors decide whether this is allowed) that works through the same interface as audio books. You can sample various voices from within the app, and purchase voices with an in-app purchase. They're a little robotic, as these things always are, but it's natural enough that I do use it sometimes to read while I work on other things. I imagine it would work great on a plane or in the car, too. Lastly, books (along with the rest of the interface, of course!) can be read with Apple's VoiceOver. It's not quite as nice an experience as the dedicated audio books or Blio's text to speech, but it's still a great way to read a book. As an aside, it was an interesting, and in the end rewarding, experience building VoiceOver support into libEucalytptus - if you're an app developer, you really should look into it.

An innovative 'night mode'.

Blio in Neutral vs. Black Mode I'm perhaps overly-enthusiastic about this - it's one of the things I excitedly show people, and they give a head-nodding "huh, yeah" response. I still think it's great though, so I'm going to take time to write about it anyway. Most reading software that has a 'night mode' simply 'inverts' the text color, and will either still show pictures in their regular day-glow glory, or will 'invert' the images too, making them look like a photographic negative. I put a lot of thought into how to improve this, and I think that the new libEucalyptus code, as used in Blio, does things better. First, it doesn't invert the page. It renders the book onto a properly simulated book with black paper pages, lighting the black pages as normal. Second, it doesn't invert color. Blue things are still blue, yellow things are still yellow. This is especially important in text- or other non-fiction books where textual references to color - for example "the red line on the chart" - need to match the image, but it's also nice to have in lots of other situations. It's kind of hard to explain, so there are two comparison shots from Peter Rabbit above. You can see that Peter's coat is still blue. If you turned the page, you'd notice that the lighting still looked 'real' Yes, it's still a little bit 'weird' (I'm sure you'd agree, it's not possible to entirely switch black to white and avoid this), but I think it's the most natural 'white on black' you're ever going to see. In Blio, switch to it by selecting 'black' as the page color.

'Fast' Mode.

Blio Fast Mode A bit of a digression - it's nothing to do with libEucalyptus - but I mention it because it's a cool feature: on the iPhone Fast mode lets you 'speed read' a book by flashing words in succession on screen, which some people find much faster than 'normal' reading. It's got an intuitive UI for controlling the speed of the playback, and It's just generally a neat thing to play with and see in action - it might surprise you how much you like it.

A store!

Blio library view on iPad 2 and iPhone 4 For me, this is the big news. One of the most requested features for Eucalyptus is the ability to buy 'real books' (meaning current books, not just out of copyright classics). With Blio, you can (if you're from North America). There's a web store at mobile.blioreader.com that has been designed to look great on your iPhone, iPod or iPad - you can browse it on your desktop computer too though.

Import your own files.

Blio library view on iPad 2 and iPhone 4 If you have non-DRM-protected ePubs, PDFs or XPSes, just download them on your iOS device using Safari, and open them in Blio. You can also copy files into Blio using iTunes on your computer (plug in your iPhone, iPod or iPad, select it in the little panel on the left, then select the "Apps" tab in the main section, scroll down to the bottom of the main panel, select "Blio", and drag in the files to sync them over - phew!). I've been enjoying reading Hacker Monthly PDFs and Charles Petzod's wonderful book about computing, CODE in ePub. FeedBooks has a lot of great public domain classics available for free in ePub format (although watch out: only the free ones will work in Blio!). There's also always the old standby of Project Gutenberg although, unfortunately, a lot of its books are not as nicely formatted as the FeedBooks', or indeed, the Eucayptus app's presentation of them.

Personally speaking.

You might have got the impression already that I'm excited about this release. Although I love classic texts, it's great being able to read modern books in my favorite (sure, I'm biased) interface on my iPhone and iPad. It's been great working with K-NFB. They're a great company with idealistic goals, and it's been a pleasure to work with them (and continues to be so). As this project has evolved, I've also been pleased to see the attitudes of publishers and other parts of the book 'supply chain' focus on ease of reading. When I started working in the 'ebook world', and although this hasn't been true of anyone I've worked with personally, the attitude of publishers (and, alarmingly, often authors) seemed to be "Just get the text in there. Don't worry about the formatting, and don't spend too much time on it, we don't really want these to sell well, we just want to say we publish ebooks." That's decidedly not the case any more. As someone who loves books, it's pleasing to see the book industry embrace the future more fully.

What about Eucalyptus?

Eucalyptus is still available for iPhone and iPod Touch. I know that a huge number of you still love its ease of use, and the easy access it gives to English-language classic literature. I love those things too. Just personally, I would dearly like to produce a Eucalyptus 2, firstly because I know I'd use it, but also because I have some ideas I'd like to try that only writing my 'own' app would give me the freedom to pursue. To be honest though, I does also still need to make business sense, so it would need to sell too. I'll be thinking about that in the months ahead. In the meantime, be assured that Eucalytpus is still very much fully supported - I'm planning an update to ensure it will run perfectly on iOS 5 right now.

In conclusion.

So, that's Blio on iOS, using libEucalyptus. Why not download the app, browse through the mobile.blioreader.com store (only cursing Apple gently for not allowing stores to be in the apps themselves...), create an account, buy a book or two - or find some free samples - some books let you download a few chapters for free (beware though, free samples are addictive - it's hard not to want to buy the rest of the book to see how things turn out - I think I'm going to have to buy The Color Of Magic now that I sampled the first section when I was testing this feature out...), and try it out?

To get updates or ask questions about Blio - for iOS or other platforms - it's on Twitter as blioreader.

For future Eucalyptus-related updates, in addition to this blog of course, you can also follow eucalyptusapp. For inane personal updates, semi-informed tech punditry, and the occasional technical article, I have a personal blog, and I'm th_in_gs on Twitter.

I'd also love to see your comments posted below (give me some time to get back to you though, I'm on vacation, and I'm halfway through Infinite Jest - in Blio, of course).

[Updated 2011-07-15: Added further clarification on Things Made Out Of Other Things and libEucalyptus' contribution to Blio (added Please bear in mind while reading that only the book display technology is 'by' me; the app and its interface design are fully K-NFB's.); thanks to @velorg for comments on Twitter prompting this.]

[Updated 2011-07-16: Updated to clarify that the Blio Store is available in North America only. I could have sworn that I mentioned this already, but I guess I edited it out mistakenly - sorry! I myself live in Scotland, so I do know how frustrating it is for non-Americans when the audience is assumed to be American...]

  • Actually, as a blind user of Blio I find the VoiceOver feature in iOS devices to work very well, and the same is absolutely not true of other e-book readers on iOS devices with the single exception of Apple's iBooks. .

  • @James Oh, I completely agree! I intended my to imply that Blio's audio books and TTS were even better than VoiceOver for listening to a book, not that VoiceOver didn't work well - hope it didn't come across as a bash on VoiceOver.

  • Very nice! But I hope you/they will add the ability to optionally turn off full justification; Eucalyptus has this (hidden on the iPhone's "Settings" page), but Blio doesn't seem to.

  • Fantastic! I just came here to see if Eucalyptus, still my favourite Gutenberg reader on my iPhone, had been ported to iPad yet.

  • @Robert You'll be pleased to know that an update's just been released that puts justification options into the Readings Settings panel.

    @James I'm sure you'll love the improvements to VoiceOver in the update, enabled by APIs made available to third parties by Apple in iOS 5.

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