There is no Ink in Inkling


Inkling is an iPad textbook app through which textbooks books can be purchased, read, and annotated. It has a pleasant user interface, and (as of this writing) a small collection of what look like high school or intro college level textbooks on a range of topics. This content seems to have been either developed, or heavily adapted, for the iPad app. This makes for a smooth reading experience, loosely anchored on the book metaphor. In addition to reading per se, the app offers some standard navigation and annotation features, but these are works in progress.

Books are divided into chapters, and chapters into sections. Sections are separated with page-like gaps typical of other such applications, but each section is presented as a continuously-scrolling sheet. Page numbers corresponding to some printed edition appear in the left margin, and can also be used as navigation targets. Inkling also has bookmarks, a rudimentary keyword search interface, and a table of contents for moving around a textbook. The interface is simple and easy to figure out, and I like the navigation aid on the left side of the page that shows the relative position in the current section and the relative sizes of other sections on the same chapter.

Table of contents showing sections in a chapter

The table of contents for each book breaks out the sections of a chapter, and indicates the current reading point with a dogear. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show the locations of bookmarked pages in the view, something that might be useful to move around the book more efficiently than the much smaller bookmark menu.

One important limitation of search and bookmarking is that these features are usable only within a single textbook, making it hard to compare related materials found in different books. While this may be a minor inconvenience for a course that only uses a single textbook, it doesn’t support the more typical situations (such as in Literature and History courses) where reading materials may include many different books or sections of books that need to be understood as a whole.

Inkling offers the standard highlighting and text annotation capability, although the interaction is a bit fiddly: you first have to select some text, and then chose to apply the highlight, or to add a note. Notes are displayed in small PostIt-style rectangles with the first few words visible without opening it. This is an improvement over the iAnnotate note that either obscures the text it overlays or is reduced to a small icon that does not show any text at all.

What’s missing is any inking capability, or the ability to take notes or to write longer comments. These features could be useful both in class and during independent study for making sense of the material. While small comments can be added as notes to various pages in the book, they may be harder to find than book- or section-level comments, notes, questions, etc. iAnnotate suffers from the same problem.

In short, Inkling is a good start toward an electronic textbook application. The interface is clean and has some useful innovative touches. Obviously, the success of application will depend on  the availability of appropriate textbooks, but the designers should also think about activities associated with textbook use beyond just reading the words and flipping the pages. These other activities — comparing, commenting, reflecting, annotating–  are an integral part of active reading, and should not be neglected. The iPad application structure encourages perhaps too fine-grained a compartmentalization of functionality, which, in this case, may result in unnecessary obstacles to effective learning.

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  1. Mark Taormino says:

    Interesting post Gene. It seems both iAnnotate and Inkling cannot support marginalia because of hardware limitations of the iPad capacitive touchscreen. Is this a valid assumption, or could there be iPad apps in the future that could support ‘effortless’ ink based writing with a stylus type pen? I’m getting prepared to conduct some doctoral research in this area, and am trying to select a reading device that is the current best of breed for use in higher education. I’m very pessimistic about any of the e-ink based devices to support active reading strategies; therefore I’m looking to use the iPad. However, although underlining and highlighting might be supported, it seems that genuine free form writing is a real deal breaker for higher education students. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We read your review — and liked it a lot. Great feedback for us. Thanks for taking the time to share your feedback with us (and the world). We’ll be considering these ideas as we continue to improve Inkling.

  3. @mark: I don’t think the capacitive screen is a show-stopper for digital ink annotation, but it certainly requires more attention from the developer to get the inking experience right. The problems are not trivial, but they are not insurmountable, in particular, if one pays attention to the value added to the interaction through the application of computation. In other words, once you have the digital ink, what can you do with it that cannot be done easily on paper?

  4. @Inkling team: Thanks for the comments! We’ve done a bunch of work in this space (on much older hardware) and would be happy to talk to you more about it.

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  6. […] In addition, there has been some competition in the software textbook space (e.g., CourseSmart, Inkling, […]

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