Sometimes, things don't turn out the way you expected them to, and this seems especially true in the world of technology. Companies doing okay with one product seemingly out of nowhere go in a completely unexpected direction with spectacular success; think Apple, the personal computer maker that suddenly dominated the portable music player market with the iPod, then became one of the world's leading smart phone platforms. A lot of people didn't see either of those moves coming.
Which brings me to Kno. We first started hearing noise about this company a few years ago, thanks to it's rather unusual approach to an e-book reader. Ignoring the slate form factor of most e-readers, the Kno design incorporated a pair of 14-inch touch screens that were hinged so the device would fold together like a real book. It was big, but it would have been a perfect digital platform for those massive textbooks that high school seniors and college students lug around.
This was right around the same time that Amazon was launching the latest version of its Kindle DX, a 9.7-inch E Ink e-reader that it hoped would become a textbook platform, among other things. While the Kno was decidedly sexier, offering goodies like a color display, more screen real estate and that unique form factor, the Kindle DX had its advantages. For example, the Kindle DX was a real, shipping product entering its second generation (as opposed to a prototype), it had the marketing power and e-book library of Amazon.com behind it, its battery was good for up to three weeks of use (where the Kno claimed 6-8 hours), it weighed just over a pound (compared to 5.5 pounds for the Kno) and it was priced at less than half the cost of the Kno.
The prototype Kno e-reader made the rounds of the tech conferences, generated lots of media interest, then faded away. Apple's iPad likely put the nail in the coffin. But Kno was not down for good. Seeing something of value in the Kno e-textbook interface (not to mention content deals the company had signed with textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill and Wiley), investment money began to flow into Kno, including $30 million announced in 2011.
Kno now describes itself as an "education software company" and has announced the Beta release of Textbooks for the iPad, a free download. The app combines advanced e-reader software with course management (helping students to organize documents), along with what's being described as "academic social features," which allow students to ask questions, post comments and interact with each other.
Perhaps the killer feature is that agreement with textbook publishers, which has evolved into what is claimed to be the world's largest catalog of e-textbooks. With 70,000 titles available and a discount of 30-50% off the list price compared to traditional paper versions, iPad-toting students (and their parents) are bound to take notice. Considering that estimates put the cost of textbooks in the range of $1000 yearly for college students, Kno could make that iPad pay for itself in only a year or two. Not to mention the lure of going from lugging a backpack loaded down with twenty pounds of textbooks to slipping an iPad into a carrying case.
From an interesting, but clunky, dual screen e-reader to the publisher of educational software that brings the world's largest library of e-textbooks to the iPad. You never Kno how these things are going to evolve.