Digital Textbook Publishing Turns Into David Vs. Goliath Battle

When Apple makes a new product announcement, companies listen. Especially if a company competes directly with their new offering. Yesterday Apple unveiled its iBooks Textbooks platform that aims to digitize textbooks for K-12 students around the world, echoing the efforts of startups in the digital textbook space. Apple has support from major publishers McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who represent 90% of K-12 content in the U.S. and already have titles available in the Textbook section of the iBookstore. The interactive textbooks have many of the features users have come to expect from the iPad – photo galleries, videos, and interactivity. The iTunes U app allows educators to incorporate iBookstore textbooks into course syllabi, and the iBooks Author tools allows people to create their own interactive textbooks.

But while it took Apple two years to debut educational tools for iPad, competing startups have been working on it since the tablet was introduced, including e-textbook company KnoInkling is another startup that has been trying to disrupt the publishing industry with their digital textbook platform. Founders Josh Forman, Robert Cromwell and Matthew MacInnis created Inkling in August 2009 to take advantage of new media tools including the iPad, and offers interactive and socially-connected textbooks. Similar to how Prezi turned the idea of PowerPoint presentations on its head by taking the idea of slides and replacing them with non-linear open space, Inkling textbooks rethink the idea of a page and instead use the iPad as an open canvas for content. It also taps into the collective knowledge of anyone who reads a specific textbook, allowing readers to ask questions and have conversations with professors. Founder MacInnis told Fortune they are “gently deconstructing the textbook and rebuilding it.” And they’re doing it with some powerful help – the San Francisco-based company has funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, and publishers including McGraw-Hill and Pearson, with whom they also have content partnerships (and who are also now Apple partners).

After Apple’s announcement, MacInnis posted to the company’s blog about their reaction. He says it’s great for students, and great for Inkling because Apple will create a greater demand for digital learning. The question he leaves unanswered, at least in this post, is how a small (albeit successful) startup can compete against the largest company on the planet. For now, the target markets of the two initiatives seem to differ. Apple is focusing on the K-12 market, while Inkling targets post-secondary students. The pricing structure also sets Inkling apart – students can buy individual chapters for $3 while their price for a full textbook is over $50, whereas Apple only offers full textbooks for a pricetag of $15 per year/student. Inkling also offers social interaction on their platform, something Apple failed to incorporate. But this may be a case where being first is eclipsed by being biggest, and only time will tell how publishing startups like Kno and Inkling fare in the face of a behemoth like Apple.

It’s also worth noting that MacInnis worked on education projects at Apple before Inkling. It’s doubtful that he was in the dark about Steve Jobs’ plans to take on the education market, so Inkling likely has a contingency plan for competition of this nature. Though his blog post praised Apple’s announcement, there was a note of competition. “We were flattered to see what looked like many Inkling-inspired ideas on stage today,” he wrote. For our part, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing: building the world’s greatest software for digital learning content.” Whatever the outcome, in March 2011 MacInnis told Fortune that the market for digital textbooks “is to be won in fall, 2012.” His prediction looks like it’s about to come true – he’s just hoping Inkling comes out on top.


Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Co-founder and CEO at Willful, an online estate planning platform. Also a former Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.

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