Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Why We Need This Giant Tablet Computer

We need the “screen territory” available in a textbook, magazine, or A4 sheet of paper.

  • August 10, 2010

The first thing everyone notices about the forthcoming tablet computer / ebook reader called Kno is that it’s ginormous. Each of its two 14.1” screens is slightly larger than a regular A4 sheet of paper. The thing weighs five and a half pounds. Handling it is like cracking open a 15” Macbook Pro (that happens to have a hinge that allows it to open completely flat on a table) sideways. It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to peruse on the subway - much less the couch.

But that’s not the point, says Osman Rashid, co-founder of the company Kno.

“Rather than build a generic consumer devices and ram it down the throat of educators, we looked closely and figured out what it is a student needs,” says Osman.

What a student needs, according to Kno’s research, is something that faithfully reproduces a full-size textbook, without compromise. In contrast, the attempt to cram a textbook onto a smaller screen is a primary reason that previous trials with replacing textbooks with e-readers such as the Kindle DX were abject failures.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that faithfully reproducing the existing textbook form factor means that publishers can port their content to the Kno painlessly: Publishers just give Kno the existing PDFs they use to go to print, says Rashid.

“The biggest thing is that publishers don’t have to change their content to work with us,” says Rashid. Kno already has deals with the “top four higher education publishers,” and there are more coming, he adds.

Backed by the likes of Marc Andreesen and Kno’s founders, who are veterans of other successful startups, the company certainly seems to be making all the right moves.

But none of that matters if students don’t take to the platform. So, starting this fall, 100 students at three unnamed colleges will begin testing the device in advance of a possible pre-holiday launch of the first generation of the Kno.

A number of questions remain to be (publicly) answered: can students learn as effectively, and study as hard, using a backlit screen that has essentially the same resolution as the average laptop? A small study (24 subjects) has suggested that, for example, people read slower on iPads and Kindles.

A second question is whether or not the Kno’s hardware will accomplish all the device aspires to - to my knowledge, no one has yet to attempt to run so much screen territory off of a processor designed for mobile devices, the NVIDIA Tegra 2. While it was merely a prototype, one of the few hands-on demos of the devices showed it responding sluggishly, a killer of usability in touch-driven tablet devices.

Meanwhile, an avalanche of other tablet devices are about to crash over the heads of consumers, putting to the test the Kno’s basic premise: too-small screens just won’t do for the serious business of learning from textbooks.

But here’s a bet: if the makers of the Kno can produce a responsive, affordable device that includes a good deal with publishers that leads to a reasonable price point for textbooks, they’ll succeed. And not only in the education market.

“I had a meeting with CEO of a Silicion Valley company, and he said I really want to use the Kno - and he’s an executive,” says Rashid. The CEO wanted a device on which he could view PDFs, annotate them, (the Kno supports a stylus as well as a touch interface) and share them with others in the company.

Which highlights the fact that no tablet or e-reader can currently do exactly what we all find so natural on paper: full screen viewing with no scrolling, with unlimited room for editing, note taking, highlighting, etc.

“People outside of school still have to learn and study,” observes Rashid. Not to mention view PDFs, fill out forms, view things at their original size, etc.

If the Kno doesn’t succeed, something like it will – because what the world needs isn’t another e-reader, but a true e-book.

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