Inkling: The tablet textbook breakthrough

March 23, 2011, 7:01 AM UTC

Some technology advances change everything for their users in a way that is deeply visceral and memorable. I still remember, for instance, when I started using a Palm Pilot in 1997. The clunky device certainly was radical and all, but the epiphany for me was the sync-able desktop software that went with it, digitizing my calendar and contacts (but not email). I immediately realized that Palm had re-invented and obsoleted my Rolodex and Filofax, constant professional and personal companions for me at the time.

I had the same feeling recently when I saw an iPad app from Inkling that replicates a college textbook in a digital format. Inkling, a San Francisco startup, recently added textbook giants McGraw-Hill (MHP) and Pearson (PSO) to its roster of investors, which includes Sequoia Capital as well as Felicis Ventures, Kapor Capital and Sherpalo Ventures. Interesting though the business story of Inkling is, what’s amazing is how the company has re-invented the textbook experience. Or, in the words of company founder and CEO Matt MacInnis, Inkling is “gently deconstructing the textbook and rebuilding it.”

Inkling’s app, which for now works only on the iPad, is the college textbook you wish you had in college. It’s all digital but is more than a copy of a textbook page slapped onto a flat screen. The pages of the book scroll in a way that is optimized for a tablet, yet a feature allows the student to “jump to” a specific page number if, say, the professor says to do so. Interactive elements are seamlessly woven into the educational experience. In the venerable “Music: An Appreciation” by Roger Kamien, for example, a section on Beethoven allows the reader to listen to a symphony without leaving the text. While studying a graphic of the eyeball in Chapter 12 (on vision) in “Ganong’s Review of Medical Physiology,” a standard for medical students, the Inkling app allows the reader to use iPad’s multi-touch functions to zoom in and see every last capillary.

The possibilities are endless. Inkling lets readers electronically highlight passages, which automatically are saved in the cloud. Then, when the owner of the chapter logs into the app from another device in the future — say, a different iPad or the Web — the highlights will show up. It allows a professor to annotate a chapter, a kind of “director’s cut” version for students. Inkling also went back to the authors of the 14 titles it has recreated so far and persuaded the authors to contribute “test yourself” material, including wrong answers, so that their once static textbook now is an interactive learning guide.

Inkling’s business model is revolutionary too. Students can buy single chapters of books for $3, allowing them to spread out the cost of expensive textbooks. Publishers will like this model as well because, if Inkling’s technology is widely adopted, the market for second-hand books will go away. Today, publishers only make money selling new books. In an Inkling future their revenue streams will recur with each new class.

MacInnis, who worked on education products at Apple (AAPL) before founding Inkling, says the company has forged relationships with all the major textbook publishers. It intends for iPad to be just the beginning, he says. Inkling will produce versions of its books for Google’s (GOOG) Android and other platforms well utilizing HTML 5 web software. College students already are using Inkling, and it’s not a stretch to envision a classroom in the not so distant future where every student has a tablet in her book bag. “The big story is that publishers are moving beyond flat-panel PDFs,” says MacInnis. He says Inkling will focus on the 2011 back-to-school season but that “the market is to be won in fall, 2012.”

He had me wishing I could go back to school as soon as the Beethoven symphony started playing.

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