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Summary:

Kno, a device maker, wants to reinvent the college textbook experience by marrying books, services, micro-content and apps to a dual-screen networked device and an e-platform for higher education. In doing so, Kno is taking on Apple and Amazon. Good news: It has deep-pocketed backers.

You know how one thing leads to another? Well, that’s what happened with Osman Rashid, the co-founder and CEO of Kno, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup that’s publicly previewing its digital textbook platform and device (Kno) today. Rashid, who previously started Chegg, a Netflix-for-college-text-books service, was struck by the archaic nature of the whole college textbook experience. So he and lifelong friend Babur Habib started to wonder what it would be like if students could carry essentially their entire backpack in a single device, on which they could access textbooks, surf the web, scribble notes and even take exams. Better yet, what about turning this into a full-blown platform for education applications and at the same time, marry it to an e-book store? How about selling e-tuitions?

Crazy? Apparently not! Given the rise of connected e-readers, cheap displays, muscular mobile chips and open-source software (including browsers), it wasn’t impossible to build what seems to be the bouillabaisse of technology targeting the higher education sector. It didn’t take long for Rashid and Habib to line up investment dollars (about $10 million) from the likes of Ron Conway, Mike Maples, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz for the company, which at at the time was known as Kakai.

That was a year ago. Today, the company, now known as Kno, is showing the world its two-panel tablet. The device will launch as a student beta-test later this year. Kno has already signed deals with four higher education book publishers –- McGraw Hill, Pearson, Wiley and Cengage Learning. A handful of U.S. colleges and universities have also signed up to beta-test the device. From the company press release:

It replicates the true book experience by fully preserving the publishers’ carefully defined page structure. Complex charts and graphs are presented in the same manner as a physical textbook, which allow students to interact, take notes and highlight directly on the page.

Students can also access their email accounts and for example, send coursework to their professors. Kno supports Flash, HTML5, PDF and ePub content, the underlying technologies of most publishers.

The two-panel multitouch device looks pretty much like a regular notebook; both displays work independently of each other. It uses a stripped-down version of Linux, features the Chrome browser and is based on Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chip platform, which allows it to play back Flash videos. It has built-in connectivity — Wi-Fi and 3G — and comes with a handwriting interface, which from the images I’ve seen looks pretty attractive. (The actual device I will see sometime in the near future.)

What I find most amazing is the audaciousness of this device and the ecosystem planned around it. The rational part of me believes it’s the right device at the right time. iPhone, Android-based phones and lately the iPad have started shifting user behavior from what we think of computing. The emergence of e-readers has made it possible for us to think of books in a digital context. More importantly, the next generation of college-goers has grown up with new technologies and are very receptive to change.

And Rashid and Habib are smart enough to realize that Kno can’t just be a hardware company — it needs to build a services business on top of this device in order to become the proverbial billion-dollar business. Kno is essentially taking a page out of Amazon and Apple’s playbook. And therein lies the trouble.

My inner cynic believes that the very adaptability of the iPad is going to be the single biggest challenge for Kno, which in my opinion is going to need a lot of money to realize its eventual ambitions. Just as the iPhone managed to disrupt many markets, the iPad is only starting to mutate. I wonder if students will carry two (or more) devices in the future or will the prefer the iPad and its app-based personalization. I really hope Kno takes off — after all, we need fat startups with fat ambitions. And who doesn’t love a David-vs.-Goliath story?

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By Om Malik

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  1. C’mon. its not Osama Rashid, its Osman Rashid. Please correct

    1. Sorry about that. Fixed.

  2. Kiran Bhanushali Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    What the courier could have been..

    1. Totally agree — of course Microsoft might realize that in a a year or so ;-) Ok that was mean, but you are right, Microsoft could be a player.

  3. focus focus and focus on education market. Give apple the taste of what it did with NeXT.
    Better yet….give the device for pittance but charge for the eco system – down loads, Cliff notes, problem solutions etc.

  4. This is exactly what online education needs. I am currently in an online MBA program through Penn State and every term, I receive a heavy box of printed textbooks. Silly and painful when I have to travel during the term. I have resorted to cutting out the chapters I need for travel. Online education needs electronic textbooks.

    1. I am glad to hear that an actual likely customer approves of the idea. I think from a logical standpoint it makes a lot of sense as your pain very well illustrates.

  5. no mention of price?

    1. It is going to be below $1000 though the company still doesn’t quite know the price

  6. I wonder how heavy this device is going to be? If it weighs more than two iPads, then that alone may kill the device?

    1. John

      It is 5.5 pounds and yes it is heavy compared to the iPad but the founders argue that it is less than 20 pounds or so in the backpack.

    2. Let’s keep in mind that textbooks are large, awkward, heavy and a waste of paper. Even if this device weighs upwards of 10 lbs it would still be an improvement simply based on the fact that it would (hopefully) replace the need to carry any textbooks at all.

  7. Also, as far as I know, it doesn’t have 3G. Of all the blogs I’ve read, only Gigaom mentions about 3G. I think its only wifi and Bluetooth.

  8. I wonder why they didn’t simply release a “Kno” app for iPad, future Android and Web OS based tablets? What are the benefits of going with their own hardware and take the risk to be swallowed by the big players in the game?

    1. IMHO – It is their big BET on the form factor. A book like device, one display showing the book, the other display with notes…Built in Evernote type functionality will just make this a KILLER DEVICE for the education market.

      1. And if it should fail right before a major assignment is due?

    2. Book like double screen.

  9. As a prospective designer/illustrator and all around knowledge nerd, I am really excited about this. I feel humans learn so much more with interactivity and visuals than any other medium and a widespread adoption of this sort of technology in the education system would be an amazing improvement over the absolute boredom instilled through reading a textbook.

    Sure, it’s ambitious to think about the future and would require a huge amount of organization of infrastructure to support mainstream adoption but it can be done. I know that many schools have already tried to implement the use of laptops within the education system but the problem with that approach is that there was no organized effort applied to developing a useful set of tools and content that can be specifically utilized within the education system. If a solid framework of content can be developed for this device that actually facilitates and improves the current system of teaching, then I cannot see how this would fail in overtaking the completely archaic and overpriced textbook industry.

    The hard part? Getting people to see past the status-quo instead of instantly condemning an idea to “it will never work”.

    1. i couldnt agree more. i am a student studying a bachelor of mechanical engineering. A course that in itself deals with moving parts, fluids in a 3d environment in almost all problems. it would be so amazing to see the problems come to life.
      i feel this is only just the beginning of the digital era for education. i cant wait!!

  10. As a prospective designer/illustrator and all around knowledge nerd, I am really excited about this. I feel humans learn so much more with interactivity and visuals than any other medium and a widespread adoption of this sort of technology in the education system would be an amazing improvement over the absolute boredom instilled through reading a textbook. I can’t wait for opportunities to develop new ways of learning that would actually foster an interest in learning.

    Sure, it’s ambitious to think about the future and would require a huge amount of organization of infrastructure to support mainstream adoption but it can be done. I know that many schools have already tried to implement the use of laptops within the education system but the problem with that approach is that there was no organized effort applied to developing a useful set of tools and content that can be specifically utilized within the education system. If a solid framework of content can be developed for this device that actually facilitates and improves the current system of teaching, then I cannot see how this would fail in overtaking the completely archaic and overpriced textbook industry.

    The hard part? Getting people to see past the status-quo instead of instantly condemning an idea to “it will never work”.

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