29 Comments

Summary:

Inkling, a startup that launched last week and also closed a Series A round of funding, says that the iPad is the future of the textbook. The company’s software turns the iPad into an interactive textbook with video and even 3-D images that can be rotated.

University students may all carry smartphones and netbooks now, but for the most part, their textbooks continue to be stubbornly old-fashioned: huge, expensive, hard-cover books printed on dead trees. Inkling, a startup founded by former Apple staffer Matt MacInnis that launched last week, wants to change all that. The company believes the iPad — for now, at least — is the future of the textbook. Inkling’s software turns textbooks into interactive content, with video, hyperlinks between text and images, notes that can be shared between students and teachers, and even 3-D molecules that can be viewed from any angle.

MacInnis — who worked at Apple for eight years, including a stint in the company’s educational division — says that the iPad is the perfect device for the kind of interactivity that Inkling provides because it has the ability to produce high-end graphics, such as the 3-D spinning molecule that is a feature of the company’s biology textbook. The company had been working on its software even before the iPad was announced, hoping it would become a reality, and when it finally arrived, it was obvious that it was the future, he says.

“I knew it was going to be a game-changer,” MacInnis said in an interview. “It just has so much flexibility and so much power.” Designing an interactive textbook is a little like designing a video game, the Inkling CEO says, in that it requires a device with enough graphic horsepower to display video and full-color moving images. The iPad is currently the only device that has what it takes, he says. “We’re excited about working with Google on a variety of Android devices, and we’re looking forward to working with Microsoft as well,” he said. “But they have a long way to go before they can even come close to offering what we can do with the iPad right now.”

Inkling, which has been working on its software for a little over a year, officially launched its textbook platform on Friday with the release of its iPad app, and announced partnerships with several major textbook publishers, including John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, Cengage Learning and Wolters Kluwer. The company’s interactive textbooks can be downloaded by the chapter for an introductory price of $2.99 each, or the entire book can be downloaded and installed at a price of $69.99 (those prices will later rise to $3.99 per chapter, or $84.99 for the entire book).

The company also announced that it has received an undisclosed amount of funding from Sequoia Capital, as well as Kapor Capital, Sherpalo Ventures and Felicis Ventures. The company has added a couple of heavy hitters to its board of directors: Sequoia partner Bryan Schreier and Peter Currie, the former chief financial officer of web-browsing pioneer Netscape Communications. Prior to the Series A closing, Inkling was funded by a group of angel investors including Google investor Ram Shriram and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor.

MacInnis said that while there are other digital textbook solutions, including Amazon’s Kindle DX and CourseSmart, none offer the kind of depth of interactivity that Inkling does. CourseSmart offers 14,000 textbooks, but the Inkling CEO says these are just “pictures of text” rather than fully interactive content, and the new note-sharing feature CourseSmart launched amounts to “sticking a Post-It note on the screen.” Inkling isn’t the only new entrant in the market, however; there’s also a startup called Kno — founded by Osman Rashid, who also founded textbook-rental company Chegg — that’s launching a two-screen tablet device into the educational market and also has trial arrangements with textbook publishers. According to some estimates, the market for digital textbooks will be worth more than $1 billion within the next five years.

Although it’s still early in the digital textbook game, Inkling’s iPad app looks like a pretty compelling alternative to the flat, dry textbooks that most students are used to. Many iPad users say the ability to touch and interact with content changes the nature of reading dramatically, and being able to download individual chapters as needed is also a big plus for cash-starved students and parents alike. To some extent, Inkling will be competing with Chegg and other textbook-rental services (as well as new entrants like Kno), but MacInnis says he believes users will opt for the true interactivity of a digital textbook over the old-fashioned version. “Chegg has a great business,” he says, “but they aren’t doing anything new or exciting with the content. They are just prolonging a dying approach to learning.”

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By Mathew Ingram

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  1. I really wish more governments and schools would mandate use of the iPad iBooks and immediately discontinue tree killer editions of textbooks. Apple has shown they know eBooks better than anyone. I feel very comfortable giving the keys to our children’s learning treasure to the folks and Apple because it just works. Sorry Android, Kindle, Nook and all the other wannabees will have to take a back seat here. We are talking about our future here and under no circumstance can we trust The Google in this space.
    Steve done good.
    Apple +1 :-)

  2. Are text books old-fashioned compared to an iPad? Sure. But there are a lot of problems with forcing the technology upon college students.

    TEXTBOOKS ARE EXPENSIVE. And although one may think “oh, buying the iPad version for $65-$85 is WAY cheaper than buying the textbook for $120!” that’s inaccurate. There’s a huge market on every campus for reselling books. For instance, I bought a used econ book for $80. I sold it back to Amazon for $75. I paid $5 to use the book. Did I have to drag it around? Yes. Was it worth spending only $5 to use it as opposed to $500 for an iPad and $80 for a book I can’t resell? Absolutely.

    I have papers to type and files to save. I need a laptop as it is. I’m not going to buy a laptop AND an iPad. That’s just ridiculous.

    @Johnny A why should the government mandate the use of iPads? Who’s going to pay for all these iPads? You would have to get each kid in a school his or her own iPad, while textbooks can be used by 8-10 kids over the years depending on the subject. So per kid you want to spend $500 plus the cost of using the textbook on the iPad as opposed to $10? You want to increase all school budgets nationwide by over 5000%? The economic burden is just WAY too much.

    1. I think your prices are too high. Mr. Jobs would certainly give the states a HUGE discount if they would guarantee yearly orders in the millions. I would suspect they could get the iPad for $250 or le$$ !

      The most important thing is to lock the smarter states into long-term iPad agreements. Our kids future is at stake here. Do this before the evil empire in Mountain View starts luring unsuspecting youth towards the dark side.

      TIME IS RUNNING OUT….ACT NOW !

  3. What they should really do is make these textbooks readable on any device, not just iPads. It’d be much better — and a larger target audience for Inkling — to aim for the netbook market instead. Plus netbooks cost half as much as iPads but are twice as functional.

    1. Which is what will happen if they want to stay in business.

      The iPad is a trailblazer but it won’t be the only game in town for long.

  4. Most students own netbooks these days, so why is Inkling targeting the iPad? An iPad costs $600 and the last thing students need is yet another big ticket expense, especially since the iPad isn’t even a standalone device (even Apple admits you need a Mac or PC to support the iPad).

    1. I disagree with Violet, the expense is worth it for the sake of convenience. I keep my Ipad with me throughout the day to catch up on my reading and personal projects whenever I have a moment, regardless of which laptop or desktop I’m working on. If I had to go back to school I’d hugely appreciate the ability to keep all those heavy books in handy, compact format rather than breaking my back hauling paper.

  5. good article over at Read Write Web: “eTextbooks: iPad & eReaders Lag Behind, PCs Still Dominant” According Isabella Hinds, director of digital content at the Follett Higher Education Group, which also owns a digital textbook program called CaféScribe, the iPad has pricing issues- students can’t afford them. It’s not iPad and eReaders that are driving the eTextbook market – but PCs and netbooks.

  6. Several problems here:

    $84.99 for a text is still terribly expensive especially for something that will be out of date in a few years. Does the price include free upgrades to newer versions?
    As stated above, what about selling back used books? Most of my classmates never bought a new textbook over their entire collegiate career. Not only that, they would sell them back to the bookstore, or off-campus bookstore if the on-campus store wouldn’t take them, at the end of the semester. Those contemplating a move into digital textbooks need to undercut what students actually pay, not what publishers claim the retail prices should be.
    How are the kickbacks universities and State purchasing agencies receive to select a particular textbook going to be handled? It their current revenue streams are diminished by a move to digital textbooks, they may demand a bigger cut from the publishers, offsetting any economic advantages of the technology.

    But the biggest question I have, why even continue the textbook paradigm? Even before a student reaches high school, any teacher or professor worth their salt and having taught a subject for a few years has a detailed course plane rich in up-to-date details, backed by an extensive reference list and supplemental materials.

    Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the old and static idea of a textbook altogether and instead focus on tools that allow teachers to harness their own experience along with up-to-date references and resources to provide a meaningful experience to their students.

    1. @ray “But the biggest question I have, why even continue the textbook paradigm?”

      You’re spot on right there. I think that your point is especially relevant at the university level where supposed experts are teaching the courses. They have the opportunity to make the leap away from textbooks/e-books/whathaveyou. Yet, many continue to persist in old traditions.

    2. Good points here. Inkling is a closed platform and, it appears, is just digitizing the cozy relationship that universities and publishers have, charging outlandish fees for required books. The FAQ states that only Inkling partners can publish. That means that profs can’t create their own materials sets that could save students a lot of money and provide much more tailored content.

      Not to worry. There will soon be lots of open and semi-open (like Adobe’s Digital Publishing Platform) that will allow people to create cross-platform interactive multi-media documents, something I’m truly excited about. I expect the panic that academic publishing currently finds itself in will be greatly enhanced in the coming years.

    3. Excellent points! Especially about why we aren’t revisiting the textbook paradigm.

      PS I bought used textbooks in my student days whenever possible. Even if all I could get a hold of was an older edition; when that happened, I’d go to the library to look at the latest edition — there were usually several copies on reserve for students to look at in library — and make note of the changes. When I sold my books, I usually didn’t lose more than $10 or so, and I’d include my notes if the edition was out-of-date.

  7. Stephen Carey Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Wow, I love it when a prediction about a product that I make before the product even hits the stores seems to be coming true. Even as an early adopter, I kept my hands off this one.

    To me, I still think it is a product in search of a need. It will find one, no doubt, and I hope it does well. I feel we all do well when something like the iPad (later versions) do well.

  8. Zack Lee Wright Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Wake Up People !
    News Flash: The iPad IS eroding netbook sales !!!

    If you unbelievers cannot fathom this news please talk to the inventor of the Netbook (ASUStek) and their CEO who recently stated that their netbooks sales will DECLINE this year for the first time and he attributed the rapid decline to the mighty iPad !!!

    Yes people YOUR students do NOT need a netbook for school just get them what they really really want: the iPad of course.

    This slate computer is truly revolutionary and their can be no doubt that the revolution has begun. It is of utmost importance that schools adopt the Apple way of educating or they will just fall further behind and also the students will be brainwashed by cheap evil Android slates that will offer your precious child a wholly inferior learning expense while filling the coffers of the Google with loot to further erode the intelligence of the average American child. I strongly suggest the independent school districts adopt Steve’s wonderful philosophy to greatly enrich the learning experience of our future leaders in the Apple Way.

    1. I suspect you’re being sarcastic. But in case you’re not, consider the following points.

      For starters, you need a PC (which can be a netbook) or Mac to support an iPad because an iPad is not a computer. The iPad doesn’t have a keyboard (which is a problem when you’re a student and have to do a lot of typing), it doesn’t support memory cards (so you can’t just pop the card from your camera into the iPad to transfer photos), it doesn’t have a USB port (which is the industry standard interface to pretty much every peripheral out there, including one all students need — a printer), and it doesn’t support flash (something most popular websites use).

      In other words, the iPad is an expensive albeit gorgeous paperweight. It’s for people who have money to burn and most students have to go into debt just to afford tuition.

      1. Okay, I agree with you on the fact that you need a computer to fully use the iPad, but let’s evaluate on your other arguments:

        Keyboard: The iPad has an optional wireless keyboard provided by Apple or you can buy any wireless keyboard to use with the iPad. Most are small enough to carry around so portability is an advantage.

        Memory Cards: Once again, you can buy a camera connection kit from Apple to transfer photos and videos (I think) from a camera to the iPad. So that is also a possibility.

        USB Port: Although it is unofficial, one can use the camera connection kit to connect a USB to the iPad (though it has to be jailbroken) to access files and other necessary items.

        Printer: There are certain applications in the App Store that allow you to print wirelessly from the iPad to a nearby printer connected to the same network. Printing is not a major issue if you have these apps.

        Flash Support: Similarly, you can access Flash, however, you have to be jailbroken.

        My point is that there are solutions to the iPad’s problems whether they include buying an accessory or hacking the device, but at least you can do it and still retain the experience.

      2. @virus95

        Actually, what you’ve done is support my arguments ;-)

        I realize that workarounds exist that address most of the iPad’s shortcomings — with the glaring exception of the high price tag and the need for a supporting computer — but these workarounds are either expensive or cumbersome. Why jump through all these hoops and shell out all that extra money for accessories when you just get a netbook at half the price?

        I went out of my way to get some hands-on experience with the iPad to see what all the fuss is about, and I really don’t get it. Plus it’s too heavy to hold comfortably for any length of time, such as when reading ebooks or watching videos.

        So, I stick with my original point: Students don’t have money to fritter away and they get far more bang for the buck with a netbook.

      3. See, the problem here is conflicting philosophies. Some people like to use computers and get a certain task done. Others, like to experience the full “experience” of using a computer and essentially gain pleasure while doing certain jobs. So those who just want to get their job done in one device tend to favor netbooks or full-featured devices. The iPad is for the latter philosophy. It does what it does better than anyone else, whether it’s through design, simplicity, and/or fun.

        I lie in the middle of the two philosophies for I, myself, have a netbook, but I really want an iPad. Price is holding me back, but I would rather use an iPad over a netbook because I want to enjoy what I do, whereas on a netbook, I have been doing that for the majority of my life.

        Like people say, the iPad is about the experience and feel of using a capable device with such ease. Even Apple says you need a computer to fully use the iPad, so they even consider it as an extra-device, but it’s a device basically to prepare you for the future generation of computing, which is tablet computing.

  9. If these things won’t print and can’t work with a bluetooth keyboard (graphic notes can only go so far), what good are they? Plus there’s a lot of other good ideas being presented in other replies to this. Like what happens in two years when this company goes out of business. Software publishers have to really think things through before making pronoucements like this.

    1. Prints.
      Works with wireless bluetooth keyboard.

    2. Well it can’t print, but it CAN work with a keyboard.

      Inkling won’t be going under; even if they struggle, they have promising tech that will get bought out by companies with deeper pockets. Palm-kling?

  10. Join Us Tomorrow: Disintermediation in Publishing Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    [...] seen Seth Godin write a Dear John letter to traditional publishing and a major new startup announce funding as it launches an attempt to crack open the protection racket known as student [...]

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