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When the news broke yesterday that student tablet maker Kno is reportedly abandoning its hardware manufacturing efforts and pivoting to build student software, I don't think anyone was surprised. No-one I talked to was, at least. And considering the amount of time I spend engaging with educators and ed-technologists, I'd say that speaks volumes.

Despite a sizable investment (over $55 million) from some high profile venture capitalists (Andreessen Horowitz -- accompanied by what now seems to be a rather regrettable endorsement -- "the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made"), and even a nod from Salman Khan who told me he'd use it, the Kno tablet never really materialized. Originally set for release around the holidays, shipments of the Kno have been delayed, according to Engadget , and the company website now says "there aren't enough to go around."

Hardware is hard

To paraphrase Tim Carmody, "hardware is hard." Building a tablet -- a dual screen tablet with a stylus, no less -- is no easy task. And, for its part, Kno "decided that the quicker-than-expected uptake in tablet production by a multitude of powerful device makers had made its efforts to package a seamless offering less critical."

But it isn't simply the production of the device that matters anymore. When you're talking tablet -- educational or otherwise -- you need third-party developers. You need apps. You need digital textbooks (meaning you need publishers on board). You need integration with learning management systems. It's not just you, the tablet maker; it's you, your hardware, and a thriving ecosystem of developers and content providers. That's why students (and/or their parents) would opt to purchase your tablet, and not an iPad or a XOOM or whatever.

By dropping the hardware, Kno will reportedly focus on all of the above. BoomTown's Kara Swisher writes that "the company will focus on its robust software and services to offer students on the Apple iPad, as well as upcoming tablets based on Google's Android mobile operating system and others."

If, indeed "hardware is hard," I'm not sure that we can presume that somehow "software is easy." In fact, I tend to be almost as skeptical of Kno-the-app as I was of Kno-the-tablet. Some people are touting the background of Kno co-founder Osman Rashid, also the co-founder of Chegg, the textbook rental company, as a sign that the company "gets" education. (And I admit, I've probably invoked that relationship in every story I've written about the company.) But I'm not sure I see Chegg as leading the charge into the new future of educational content. To me (and this is an argument I do need to spell out more fully), Chegg seems to mark a transition between the traditional idea of universities bookstores and a new model of digital content. A transition, mind you. But not really "the future."

So, what is this "robust software"?

Based on the Kno website as it stands today (for whatever that's worth), the apps it touts are Reader, Notebook, Browser. Color me unimpressed.

Its textbook offerings are more "robust" -- true -- and I see titles from a number of academic publishers -- St. Martins Press, Knopf, McGraw-Hill, and so on. Yes, deals with publishers are good. But looking at the website, I don't really see those digital textbooks as being any cheaper than what's for sale on Amazon (and add to that, the titles listed on the Kno site are pretty out of date.)

I'm sorry, but I'm just not sure that offering an e-book, even an e-book that comes with a Reader, Notebook, and Browser, really cuts it.

I don't mean to cry "vaporware!" but I do think that it'll take much more than just selling off the hardware business to get Kno back in the game. The company admits that it's fallen behind other hardware manufacturers, but I think it's fallen behind on the software side as well. There are other companies -- Inkling, for example -- that have already embraced and innovated around the textbook-as-app. There are other companies -- Flat World Knowledge, for example -- that have recognized the changing face of textbook publication and usage.

Kno has a long, long way to go just to catch up -- and not just with tablet manufacturers.

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Audrey Watters


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