Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Inkling and Kno: Two very different takes on how college eTextbooks should work

Earlier today, Kno, a Silicon Valley-based startup, announced that it has raised $46 million in its most recent round of funding, to add to the $10 million it previously raised. Kno and San Francisco-based Inkling, which recently announced its eTextbook application for the iPad, compete directly with each other, but the two companies have dramatically different approaches to how eTextbooks should look and work.

Kno began with the concept of reproducing print textbooks as closely as possible in an electronic form. For the Kno team, that meant preserving the look and feel of individual pages, right down to the page numbers. A professor who tells students to read "Chapter 6, pages 137 through 149" in a textbook can be confident that the chapters and page numbers will be identical in the print and Kno eTextbook versions. To make the Kno approach work, the company designed its own eTextbook reader (Kno refers to it as a "tablet", but it's really two tablets stitched together.) The Kno reader's dual displays are designed to show 99% of all college textbooks in use today at 100% magnification. In other words, no panning, scrolling or zooming are needed. It's just like reading a paper textbook. In addition, the Kno displays can be controlled by touch or with a stylus, so students can write notes in the margins of their eTextbooks and highlight text, just as they can with print textbooks.

The downside of the Kno approach is that the Kno reader that's needed to make everything work is heavy (the weight of two average textbooks), big (the size of a large notebook computer, except turned vertically) and expensive (the company says that it will be "under $1,000.") If the reader isn't accepted by students, the rest of the Kno approach will fall by the wayside. Kno took the "path of least resistance" approach: Make the eTextbooks just like print books so that students won't have to relearn how to use them. Use the same page format as existing print so that publishers don't have to pay to reformat their books for Kno.

Inkling, on the other hand, started with the content of textbooks and went from there. Inkling recognized that tablets like the iPad would likely become the preferred devices for reading eBooks (even though the iPad didn't exist when Inkling began development.) Since they didn't know what screen sizes their eTextbooks would have to work on, they designed Inkling to support a variety of screen sizes. Their system starts with Adobe InDesign (and possibly Quark) files, integrates audio, video, animations and hyperlinks, and outputs eTextbooks that dynamically reflow to fit the screen size of whatever device is used to read them.

There are a number of downsides to the Inkling approach: For example, page number references are no longer valid between print books and eTextbooks, so professors will have to refer to chapters and sections, not page numbers. (Update: A commenter says that Inkling maps the print version's original page numbers to the eTextbook version and allows users to navigate using the print page numbers.) Disiplay of eTextbooks on devices with screens smaller than 7" will be marginal at best. Inkling requires much more redesign and reformatting of content than does Kno, so it costs more and takes more time to create Inkling eTextbooks, and publishers have to be much more involved in the conversion process. On the other hand, Inkling eTextbooks work with the iPad, and will likely work on Android tablets in the future. Inkling doesn't have to build, sell and support its own tablets, and it's already supporting a wildly popular platform.

Kno's approach may be the path of least resistance in the short run, but it's hard to believe that we'll see millions of college students carrying heavy, bulky, expensive Kno eTextbook readers instead of cheaper, lightweight iOS and Android tablets that can do much more. Inkling's approach is better suited to where the industry is going. Making eTextbooks that look and work like their paper counterparts is an interim strategy at best. The value of a textbook is the information it contains, not its packaging, and that's why my money's on Inkling for the long run.
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