I came across Inkling via a press release from Elsevier
announcing the release of ‘Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach’ on Inkling. As a side-note, the first thing I see visiting the website Inkling.com
is an advert from O’Reilly about ‘books that code.’ The site seems to market at geeks for now, perhaps because of the platforms it is targeting: iOS & the Web.
What is Inkling
In my own words, it is trying to be for textbooks what Amazon is for regular books. The result is more than books, however, the formatting is Inkling’s own, separating books into chapters that can be sold separately including interactive elements like quizzes and graphics, and displaying the content on various devices and interfaces.
During the rest of this review, I will focus on the marketing, partnerships, selection and pricing of books, and finishing with the interface. If you have comments or feedback, leave one below!
Research conducted on media-aggregators like Mediagazer as well as on Inkling.com’s news page revealed that the main media-coverage was centred around the product launch in the beginning of this year, with little more exposure afterwards, with the exception of press releases. That said, the New York Times published an article about Inkling, including the featuring of a quote by Hal Plotkin, the senior policy advisor to the Obama administration on matters of education, about how important platforms like Inkling are to the future of education. So, a pretty big deal.
Another big deal is the pedigree of companies backing Inkling, both on the investment side (Sequoia Capital) and the publishing side (McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Reed-Elsevier, O’Reilly, Wolters Kluwer, John Wiley & Sons, etc.). I find the number of major publishers supporting Inkling very encouraging to its future, though I’m sure that, like on music platforms, many of these companies are spreading their bets across multiple platforms, trying to see which one sticks.
Another side-note: you have to wonder what the definition of publisher is and whether or not Inkling classifies as one. Venturebeat has an interesting quote from the founder & CEO, Matt MacInnis, about that:
“Inkling’s goal involves using the content of an existing textbook as a skeleton, then “casting off the shackles of the book” and adding interactive and multimedia content that could only work on the iPad.”
The site’s about-page also features the folllowing statement about what Inkling represents:
“a flexible, interactive publishing platform where the human is at the center of the creative process, not the book. Where the iPad is the canvas, not paper. And as people start to grasp the power of the platform, you’re going to see ever more exciting content inside. What we’ve done so far is just the beginning, but it’s already exciting.”
(One hell of a side-note; sorry about that.)
Another major element affecting Inkling’s changes of succeeding are whether or not educators adopt the platform. That’s a big sell, because it’s not just about eTextbooks, but about premium-priced electronic readers. This is possibly one reason why Inkling allows the reading of books via it’s website and relatively less expensive laptops & desktops, as well as the cheaper iPhone & iPod Touch.
Inkling.com offers information targeted specifically at educators, and Google searches revealed that there are a number of pilot programs under way in universities like Abilene Christian University, Seton Hill University, the University of Alabama, and Nova South Eastern University. But, just like the iPad, it is clear that Inkling is just in the beginning stages where it comes to using eBooks in education.
Apple made a lot of headlines enforcing its 30% commission on apps and in-app sales. With the result that companies like Amazon completely removed any link to the shop on their website. Similarly so, you won’t find a link in the Inkling app to where the actual shop is located on the website. The effect is clumsy, especially for new apps and lesser known platforms where your first instinct is to try and buy books via the safe and reliable method that Apple offers.
I understand Apple’s perspective on this, especially towards big companies like Amazon, and because it offers competing eTextbooks to that of Inkling’s. But it seems to me that Apple still needs to make a case to educators to use its products, and it’s sad that it doesn’t support companies building on the iOS platform to reach this important market.
Selection & Pricing of Books
Inkling seperates its offering into 11 categories, ranging from business and medicine to travel and “vices” (Cooking? Blackjack?). The business category has by far the most books (100), followed by medicine (60), and technology (31). But of course quantity does not always mean quality. The law section only features 4 books, but that is an area where there are a few authoritative books that matter to students of that field (3/4 books are on bar preparation and a chapter price is already $29!).
The business category, which I can judge best, is split into different sub-categories like accounting, marketing, and strategy. I found that many books that were core-requirement for my bachelor were listed there.
Pricing-wise, it was interesting to see that books like ‘A Framework for Marketing Management’ cost $50 less than the list-price of ca. $150 (currently discounted to $122 on Amazon.com). The book ‘Operations Management’ was a full $70 cheaper than on Amazon. A big plus is also that you can buy the book per chapter, saving students a lot of money.
Also relevant to pricing/marketing, is that most books have tasters in the form of free chapter, something that enabled me and other new customers to sample the app risk free.
The geek in me wanted to write most about this part. But due to time constraints, I will have to be brief. In the end, a cool interface/product is also only as good as the market for it.
My primary reading devices are an iPhone 4 and a Kindle, so I tend to look for applications on these two. Inkling has three interfaces, the iPad, the iPhone, and the web, but it is designed for the first and somewhat for the second.
As mentioned, I came across Inkling via a press-release, which lead me to the website, after which I installed the app. This is a logical progression, making the platform easily understood. But what if I had come across the app in the app store and installed it? The primary issue for me would’ve been to find books to read in it. The only hint about it is a text indicating that you can find books on Inkling, however, a recent update also allowed for the remote installation of free taster-chapters via the help-me file.
The help-me file itself is pretty cool: it’s basically the first few chapters of William Strunk, Jr.’s “The Elements of Style”, followed by a few chapters discussing the elements of Inkling. I like the way the chapters are split up and that it’s possible to do quizzes to test your knowledge. I had some issues before the last update, because my fingers tend to fiddle while I read and I would accidentally load the next chapter before finishing the last. Chapter loading, on an iPhone 4, takes a few seconds, interrupting your flow of reading.
The rest of the app looks more or less like the Kindle app. You have the separation of books in the cloud and on your device, and you can load the latter onto your phone/tablet. Books are however fairly large, sometimes 80mb per chapter, so loading in WiFi seems wiser.
The Web book looks fairly similar to the phone interface, except for the larger screen. As mentioned, I believe it’s to make it more accessible to schools/universities with existing infrastructure.
Overall, I think Inkling represents a good reading experience. You can highlight and define words, but you can only add notes on the Web interface. But ok, it’s not like you should be writing in your textbook anyway!
I’ve tried to balance this review somewhat discussing the market first and the app second. In the end, a great app is nothing without a use case. Inkling has some fierce hills to climb, but has got the publisher & media support to make it happen. I’m sure that there will be many changes on this landscape a year from now, with the iPad Mini and perhaps other tables representing a good educational device for students (good = affordable, usable, relevant content).