Are you in the Kno?

Nov. 2, 2010, 12:15 a.m.

Imagine this: you are sitting in the library, stuck on a problem set. After a few frustrating attempts to understand the examples in the textbook, you ask your book to tell you if anyone nearby is working on the same thing. It turns out that, a few tables over, someone is. You want to go ask for help but you can’t talk in the library so you have your textbook send them a ping. Your ping is accepted, you start a screen sharing session and your new friend clarifies the problem.

While this sounds like some sort of sci-fi fantasy, it may become a reality sooner than you think. This magical textbook of the future is the vision of Babur Habib, M.S. ‘95, CTO and co-founder of Kno. I got to play with the first iteration of the companies’ namesake device, which is set to be released by the end of the year. Let me tell you, if this is the future, I’m officially excited.

The Kno is not small. Sporting two 14” touch-screens, it’s approximately the same size and slightly lighter than a large hardcover textbook.

Habib is unapologetic about the size. “I don’t want to build a piece of jewelry. I want to build a device that works for the customer.”

And work it does. The generous screen real estate means that two full pages fit on the screens at one time. You can have a traditional textbook experience, or make the pages flip independent of each other so that you can read a question and look up the answer at the same time. You can also pull up a notebook to take notes, work on your problem set or open a Web browser to do research.

This is where the line between “digital textbook” and “tablet computer” starts to blur. The OS is Linux-based and every application runs inside a WebKit browser. And by application I don’t mean just textbooks. According to Habib there will be a full software development kit and an app store so that third party developers can extend the Kno’s functionality. The applications will be developed using JavaScript. The Kno can access the Internet through WiFi and connect to hardware accessories – like a keyboard that will be available at launch – using Bluetooth. It also supports most common multimedia formats, including Flash (take that, iPad!).

In the land grab for tablet computing market share, the Kno caters to a very special market. “Other companies are still focused on entertainment and reading as [a form of] entertainment,” Habib said. He was very keen on emphasizing the difference between the passive experience of reading a novel or an article and the active process of studying from a textbook. “What do students do? They read, they write, research, organize and collaborate.”

Despite his belief that the Kno tablet represents the best form factor for students, Habib assured me that Kno is a platform company at heart and that their long term goal is for the platform to thrive regardless of your choice of software. The Kno itself will come in a choice of single or dual screen models.

What don’t students do, though? Most of them don’t make a steady income, so the upfront cost of a device like the Kno can be a serious roadblock toward mass adoption. Habib says that the main goal of Kno is to make sure students are happy, not to deal with university bureaucracy. So at least for now, the company not reaching out to academic institutions in hopes that every incoming freshman will receive a free Kno.

This means that the selection of textbooks available might be a deciding factor on whether the investment is worthwhile. Habib assured me that they are working to get the core of the most common textbooks available at launch. They are also partnering with universities and professors to offer course readers and custom packets.

While the device I tried out felt very much like a prototype, you can clearly see potential there. If the final iteration of the hardware comes through on all of the promised features and the Kno manages to reach critical mass, this company just might change the way that we learn for good.

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