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When it abandoned its plans to build a student-focused tablet earlier this year, Kno said it was pivoting from hardware to software in order to focus on digital textbooks. The first version of the Kno iPad app was released at the beginning of the summer, and while it boasted an impressive catalog of e-textbooks (now with some 100,000 titles), there wasn't really much about the app itself that set it apart from its competitors (apps like CourseSmart, for example).

But with the launch of several new products today, Kno looks a lot more like a player -- and an innovator, even -- in the digital textbook space.

First, Kno's app will now be available on the Web, not just on the iPad. This opens access up to students using any browser and any device, and sets Kno apart from other digital textbook providers who've focused on iOS and Android devices. The Web app has most of the functionality of the iPad app (with the exception of a few new features listed below). And the Web-based Kno bookstore offers the added benefit of offering students a 15-day money-back guarantee. In other words, if you buy your e-books via the Web (and not via an in-app purchase on the iPad) and then drop the class, you can "return" your books.

Second, Kno is unveiling a Facebook app. Students will be able to access their textbooks while on the website where they're already spending a large portion of their time. That makes this a brilliant marketing move, true. But it's also a recognition that students are already using sites like Facebook not just to procrastinate, but to study. Furthermore, according to Kno CEO and co-founder Osman Rashid, building on the Facebook platform gives the company "a lot of opportunities for social."

Rashid told me that the company has been focusing on "rapid, incremental changes" rather than undertaking major changes as it's built its digital textbook products. That's a subtle jab, perhaps, at Kno's competitor Inkling perhaps, whose app truly re-engineers what a textbook -- electronic or otherwise -- looks like.

The last two products announced by Kno today are, indeed, "incremental changes." But these do indicate that Kno has taken seriously a lot of the input it's been requesting from students.

Kno is launching Quiz Me, a new feature on the iPad app (coming soon to the Web app) that works with all the textbooks in the Kno catalog. Quiz Me takes any diagram in a textbook and, as the name suggests, transforms it into a quiz. The tool strips text from a diagram, replacing it with a multiple choice study guide.

It's a feature that recognizes that students' relationship with their textbooks isn't simply about reading, it's studying and (just as likely) cramming. Indeed, on the first day of class, says Rashid, a textbook is the most important tool a student has. But as the semester progresses, the value of the textbook diminishes; and the value of the student's notes -- the information the student has curated, highlighted, jotted down, annotated, and so on -- surpasses it. So when it comes time to study for finals, the student's notes -- from class and from the textbook -- are what matters.

And to that end, the last product announced by Kno today is Journal. Like Quiz Me, this feature is now a standard part of the Kno iPad app. Journal automatically transfers all the images, text and media that a student highlights, along with annotations and notes (and eventually audio recordings from class too, says Rashid) from the textbook into a separate (but in-app) notebook for easy review.

The features that Kno has added to its app are all crucial if the company wants to win student consumers: textbooks needs to be accessible across device; annotation needs to be easy; note-taking and studying needs to be integrated into the design. At the end of the day, a digital textbook has to do a better job than a traditional print textbook does. Because despite the high cost and the heavy weight of print textbooks -- the arguments we often hear about why students hate textbooks -- it's pretty clear that digital textbooks don't save you any money.

So if they cannot really compete in price -- particularly with used textbooks -- e-textbooks have to compete on features. Finally, it seems, Kno gets that.

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Audrey Watters


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