By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 14, 2012

The flaws in Apple’s plan to reinvent textbooks become apparent when you see Inkling’s

One of the things the tech press missed last month when Apple (AAPL) summoned them — satellite trucks and all — to Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum for the unveiling of its new textbook authoring tools, is that Inkling got there first.

Launched two years ago by a former Apple educational marketing manager named Matt MacInnis, Inkling had already published more than 100 electronic textbooks for the iPad in the time it took Apple to make eight.

And on Tuesday, with a good deal less hoopla than Apple was able to generate, MacInnis unveiled a second generation e-book publishing tool, Inkling Habitat, that has even more interactive bells and whistles than Apple’s iBook 2 — guided tours, 3-D exhibits, quizzes, high definition video, etc. — but is designed to streamline the workflow of industrial-strength textbook publishers. Among the features touted in its press release: (I quote)

  • Cross-platform with a click. Click “Publish”, and Inkling Habitat pushes updates to every target platform at once, automatically customizing layouts for each device.

  • Everything in the cloud. Teams of authors, editors and production partners can collaborate on projects seamlessly from anywhere in the world. Because everyone sees the same thing at the same time, it’s easy to communicate, collaborate and coordinate from first edit to final publish
  • Object-oriented content structure. On the world’s first strictly semantic publishing platform, content is treated like software, shifting the industry from a page-based model to a software based model that benefits from decades of computer science advances.
  • Automated error reporting. Every time new content is published, Habitat runs a set of tests to make sure everything works. Broken links, missing files and even glossary problems are spotted automatically.
  • Infinite rollback. Habitat automatically saves every version of the entire project, every time. That’s a lot of data, but it means that nothing’s ever lost. Anyone can roll back changes anytime, all the way back to the very beginning to see how the project has changed.

According to MacInnis, the eight titles Apple unveiled in January were painstakingly hand-crafted one worker at a time. Inkling’s platform is made to accommodate the large teams of designers and editors — often scattered across the globe — that major publishers assign to a textbook project.

“To reinvent the book,” he says, sounding very much like an Apple marketing manager. “We had to reinvent the printing press.”

Whether Inkling can compete in the e-textbook market with Apple — which makes the hardware, the software and the distribution system — remains to be seen. But it’s got a head start.

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