Looking to supersize the tablet on college campuses

September 15, 2010

It’s only been half a year since Apple Inc’s iPad first hit colleges, and already a new device is looking to be the big tablet on campus.

A California-based company called Kno Inc plans to launch a tablet by the end of the year that it says will make digital versions of textbooks a lot more attractive to college students. The Kno tablet opens to two screens that are each 14 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and it comes with a stylus for writing on the screen. It also folds back on itself if a user wants to only use one screen. Kno touts the two-screen display as more “book-like” than anything out there.


Already, the iPad is seen as accelerating the sale of e-textbooks. Analysts expect digital texts to be 11 percent of the college book market by 2013.

Kno has received $46 million in debt and equity financing and it plans to use some of those funds to help with its first shipment of the tablet later this year. The company has contracted with Foxconn, a subsidiary of China-based Hon Hai Group, to build the tablet. Other companies such as Samsung are coming out with tablets for the general consumer market, but Kno is specifically aiming its product at college students.

“They’re both white hot markets, e-books and tablets, and when you put them together and provide a great user experience on top of it, that’s where we believe the demand will come,” said Osman Rashid, co-founder of Kno.

But while e-books are hot in the consumer market, growing from about 3 percent of sales last year to 8 percent in the first half of this year, the college e-textbook market has been a lot slower to take hold. Will a new tablet launched by a small company do anything to accelerate e-textbooks?

A walk around the typical college campus turns up a few iPads, but still nothing compared to the number of laptop computers that students carry around the quad.

One key to the growth of e-textbooks, which has implications for publishers such as Pearson PLC and McGraw-Hill Companies, will be whether professors start encouraging students to use e-textbooks instead of physical textbooks — something that has been lacking until now. One common complaint of students who buy e-textbooks is that, in class, their professors will say “turn to page 92″ and that anyone using an iPad to read that text will have trouble finding the passage because of the lack of page numbers on digital versions of textbooks.

But some professors are getting wise to tablets and e-textbooks. At the University of Southern California, journalism professor Bill Celis has his education reporting class using iPads. They read texts and crop photos on it, and eventually they will type out blog posts on field assignments. Celis called the iPad “infinitely convenient.”
Kirsi Crowley, 43, a graduate student in the class, likes the device, too. “It’s actually nice when you only take the iPad in your bag,” she said. “It saves your back a bit.”

There is another area of e-textbooks where college professors could get involved, and that is writing their own textbooks independently of the major publishers and distributing it themselves. California State University is spearheading an online repository of free course material called Merlot, which already has 25,000 free texts for instructors to use. Gerry Hanley, senior director of academic technology, said that “publishers will be competing with faculty in producing (course) materials.”

“Now on the World Wide Web, an individual can be a publishing and distribution house themselves,” Hanley said.

(Photo courtesy of Kno)

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