First Look at the Kno iPad App: WTF?

Kno set out to reinvent the textbook with a proprietary hardware/software solution. After the iPad took off Kno did a hard pivot to become a software solution. Yesterday, Kno rolled out the Kno iPad App. After taking the Kno iPad app for a spin, all I have to say is: WTF?

Remarkably, the Kno app has a WTF button. The WTF button concisely sums up my impression of the Kno app. WTF? An app targeted to the primary, secondary, and higher ed market has a WTF button? We all know that WTF is short hand for what the fuck. Right? Um, not in Kno-land. In Kno-land WTF stands for Words To Friends. Huh?

What else does the Kno offer? Stickies and highlighting! Who-hoo! The ability to add notes and to highlight key passages are basic study tools. The highlight tool worked intermittently for me. Can I search my notes or highlighted passages within a book? Across all of my Kno books? Unclear. I can with the Kindle app.

Navigation within a book? I like the option of chapter level navigation and to then drill down to sub sections within a selected chapter. The Kno lacks, as far as I can tell, chapter level navigation. Navigation occurs via a tedious page oriented nav system in which each page is represented as a rectangle with the page number on it. Chapter home pages are designated, but selecting them simply takes you to the first page of the chapter. The sample Psychology text included with the Kno app download, has chapter front pages formatted with what appear to be links to the section. Nope, they are faux links. WTF?

How do book and PDF files render in the Kno app? OK. At times, pages of the sample textbooks would render larger than the screen of my iPad 2 and no amount of shaking, pinching, or flicking would readjust the page to fit the screen properly. I find the Kindle App provides a better reading experience.

Can the Kno reader play interactive media? It appears it cannot. Kno appears locked into a vision of textbooks locked into the dead tree text era. WTF?

The Kno app offers an academic calendar metaphor for grouping together books or materials rendered in PDF format. Assets can be grouped into Courses. Courses can be grouped into terms. This organization seems appropriate only for courses that have relatively few assets.

Ultimately, the Kno app appears to be little more than a ebook store. One can purchase books from the Kno store that are downloaded into the Kno app. Presumably, these books are accessible exclusively via the Kno app. Pricing? I shopped the Kno Bookstore for several titles I use in my classes. In each case, Kno is offering the book for the full sticker price of the dead tree edition. WTF?
Let's take a look at how the Kno fares against my eTextbook dream criteria:

1. Device independent? No. the Kno currently lives on the iPad exclusively.
2. Platform independent. No. iOS only.

3. Consistent reading experience. As the Kno is iOS only this is an n/a

4. No connection required. Yes. Once material have been downloaded to the iPad, an active internet connection is not required.

The Kno App scores a one out of a possible four.

Another challenge facing the Kno is that it does not appear to interact with learning management systems (LMS). For the Kno to be useful in the higher ed context, it is essential that faculty can distribute class assets via the LMS and that students can easily pull those assets into their working environment. The Kno App appears to be an island in a land of LMS connectivity.

Ultimately, the Kno App's value proposition eludes me. Why would anyone purchase etext (or other) books from the Kno Bookstore as opposed to, say the Kindle bookstore or CourseSmart? The Kno App offers no apparent distinctive difference that enhances value to students, faculty, or institutions.

Don't Kno.


eTextbooks: A Wish List

Kindle at the Barnes & Noble CafeI'm a fan of ebooks. My Kindle Reader is my primary reading device for trade books. Text books, and some professional research books, render better on my . The iPad's larger screen and color display is a better fit for rendering tables and figures. Many eTextbooks are not available in Kindle format. For eTextbooks, published on proprietary platforms such as CourseSmart, a tablet device provides a reading experience vastly superior to reading texts on a laptop, netbook, or desktop machine.

I prefer to purchase digital books in Kindle format for three key reasons:
  1. Purchase ease: Amazon.com provides an excellent shopping experience.
  2. Safe keeping: Amazon.com stores my ebooks so I always know where to find them.
  3. Ubiquity: I can read Kindle format books on every digital device I own: my laptop, my netbook, my iPad, my desktop machine, my Droid X Android phone.
  4. Future proof. I have confidence Amazon will make it possible for me to read my Kindle books on any device I may own in the future.
A recent email exchange with Steven Joos, Product Development Manager for 4LTR Press | Cengage Learning, suggests that some textbook publishers misunderstand the Kindle platform. Text publishers appear to equate Kindle with the Kindle device. Viewed narrowly, I agree that the original Kindle, due to its 7" screen, does not provide an optimal textbook reading experience (I've not tried reading texts on the larger Kindle DX, which seems a better fit with textbooks).

Texbook publishers appear to misunderstand (or prefer to ignore) is that Kindle is a publishing platform that integrates acquisition and distribution to almost any device a person is likely to own and use. If textbook publishers were to prioritize market access, the Kindle publishing platform would seem to have much going for it. I am confident that 100% of my students own one or more devices that support the Kindle platform.

Cengage dismisses the Kindle as incompatible with how students use text books; claiming that the Kindle is too linear. This video is offered as evidence of the superiority of Cengage's proprietary etext publishing platform. Perhaps I'm missing something obvious, but the video seems to confirm that the Cengage platform is (a) linear and (b) offers functionality very similar to that of the Kindle platform. The Kindle apps enable jumping around a text, search, highlighting, etc. The key features demonstrated in the cengage video. I do appreciate that the Kindle publishing platform has some limitations with regard to incorporation of interactive elements. Consequently, the Cengage claim of platform superiority of the Kindle platform appears without merit.

As a faculty member, the proliferation of ePublishing formats discourages adoption. I presume my students have a similar reaction. Keeping track of which platform I must access to use a particular text book -- must I log onto the publisher's website? do I use a dedicated app? what device do I have to use? -- is a distraction. The CourseSmart delivery platform offers less functionality than I experience with the Kindle platform. Flat Earth publishing offers wonderful customization features, but is weak on delivery options. The demise of the Kno Tablet illustrates the hazards of device dependence.

My take is that the textbook publishers efforts to develop proprietary eTextbook distribution systems is retarding, rather than encouraging, eTextbook adoption. By focussing on developing proprietary publishing platforms (i.e., by decreasing compatibility), textbook publishers are increasing complexity and failing to leverage ubiquity of availability (a key relative advantage of eTexbooks). The net result is to diminish customer value of eTextbooks relative to traditional dead tree textbooks.

My dream eTextbook (one I would readily recommend to my students) is:
  1. Device independent. I can read my eTextbooks on every device I own today or may own in the future; I'm not locked to reading the eTextbook on a specific device.
  2. Platform independent. I can read my eTextbooks using any OS platform.
  3. A consistent reading experience across devices and platforms. I want a similar reading experience and suite of reading tools (e.g., search, highlighting, etc.) now matter the device or platform on which I read an eTexbook.
  4. No connection required. Affords the ability to use materials when not connected to the internet. Yes, internet connectivity is near universal, but it is not universal. I want to know that I can read my eTextbooks anytime anywhere I happen to be and have a device available.
At present, the Kindle platform appears to be the publishing solution that comes closest to delivering on my dream list.