eBook evolution

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The diversity of tablet-based textbook and ebook devices seems to be increasing of late. The success of the iPad seems to have emboldened hardware manufacturers (e.g., Sharp, Dell, NEC, etc.) to announce a number of similar devices for the Android platform. In addition, there has been some competition in the software textbook space (e.g., CourseSmart, Inkling, etc.).

Another interesting development is the approach taken by  Kno: The Kno device is a prototype textbook device that seems to be designed around explicit feedback from students about how they use textbooks. It hasn’t been released yet (I couldn’t even figure out much about the hardware and OS that it will be running), but some things are clear: Kno is an integrated hardware/software platform aimed at high school and college students’ use of textbooks. It has been announced in a two-screen and a one-screen version.

The device is larger than an iPad, and about a pound heavier for the one-screen version. This might be a problem for using it without a convenient nearby surface. The software, on the other hand seems much more capable than equivalent applications on existing devices. Of course this is all conjecture on my part at the moment, as I have not seen the device in person.

The initial design called for a two-panel display that closed like a normal book, but apparently feedback from students was that the weight and bulkiness wasn’t worth the extra screen. Hence, a one-screen version. The screens are touch-sensitive, and but the device also comes with a stylus. It’s unclear from the web site whether it is an active pen or not.

As far as I can tell from the screenshots and the promo video, the software is quite capable: highlighting, inking, and PostIt-style notes are all supported, and there is an integrated notebook for writing and sketching. No mention of search was made in the video, and it is not clear whether non-textbook material can be imported and exported easily.

The textbooks appear to have (at least in the marketing materials) all the standard multimedia goodness of integrated video, link following, web browsing, etc. The interface seems to have mode-less inking and highlighting (unless the mode selection is on the stylus) and  a great clippings feature that allows content from the book to be copied into the notebook. The notebook at the clippings remind me a lot of the notebook view in our XLibris prototype, described in the JCDL 2001 paper.

XLibris Notebook view with three clippings (Marhsall et al., 2001)

Kno notebook view with a clipped-in bar chart (about 1:08 into the video)

The Kno seems to have some apps, and the web site solicits developers to build more apps for the platform, but there is little other information about what that entails. Registering as an interested developer did not reveal any new information or any schedule on which one would be able to learn about the system in more detail.

Overall, the vision is enticing, and it will be interesting to see how well it is executed in practice, both in hardware and in software. Finally, I wish they had picked a different name: the name ‘Kno’  is visually jarring, and the associated puns get pretty old pretty quickly.

I am also wondering how long it will be before Kno content is available as an iPad or Android app. I assume that the hardware market will become commodatized quickly, and that the diversity of device manufacturers we see now will converge, just as it did for desktop PCs. We are already seeing some signs of this coming trend: the Kindle is now available as a software-only product for the iPad and the for PC, and is now making its way into the browser. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the software ebook/etextbook industry evolves in the next few years.

2 Comments

  1. Mark Taormino says:

    I have been following this product with great interest. It’s impossible to decipher if the screen technology is a capacitive screen. The fact that a stylus is an integral part of the user experience suggests that this device might offer some unique value to students over other electronic reading devices. The dual screen could be effective for cross-document referencing, if that is the intent. I think that a device that offers an efficient annotation experience and easy navigation could really break some new ground. However, price is always going to a be a big factor. There are articles appearing recently about how many electronic textbooks are no less expensive than printed versions which might surely effect the adoption cycle. How much students might be willing to pay for enhanced portability is questionable even if the computational advantages of an electronic reader are evident. But until there is a good body of evidence that could suggest any relative advantages of an e-reader specific to active reading, the price is a moot point. Other e-readers are very cheap, and roundly rejected by students.

    I also wonder about battery life with two screens. Given that there is probably some kind of redundant power storage to support each screen, I would think that the power would need to last upwards of 10 hour or more to support a days worth of work. If the battery life is similar to laptops ~2-3 hours at best, that will be problematic.

    Despite many challenges, it’s encouraging to see that at least one manufacturer is paying attention to research based evidence to design a reading device that might offer some relative advantages over printed text.

  2. I wonder if a dedicated device can succeed in a market where people expect multiple applications on each device. My guess is that people won’t want to have both this and a laptop, and that in the end the laptop (or an iPad or something like that) will win.

    My sense is that this space is much better suited for software products than for hardware.

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