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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 (s aapl) 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 (s goog) on a variety of Android devices, and we’re looking forward to working with Microsoft (s msft) 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 (s jw-a), McGraw-Hill (s mhp), Cengage Learning (s chc-wt) 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 (s ibm) founder Mitch Kapor.
MacInnis said that while there are other digital textbook solutions, including Amazon’s Kindle DX (s amzn) 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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