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Earlier this fall, I received a note from Inkling's PR firm with the subject line "Inkling breaks into the consumer market," and I admit, my heart sank a little bit. I think that what the startup is doing to "re-engineer" textbooks on the iPad is pretty innovative, and I feared that the contents of the email would indicate a new direction for the company -- one that eschewed textbooks for some other, perhaps more profitable sort of project.

In fact, the announcement was simply an update about the latest book in the startup's catalog, The Professional Chef. The book is a textbook, one written by the Culinary Institute of America and used in culinary schools everywhere. But it's also a cookbook that anyone can use.

Cookbooks are, as a genre, an interesting blend of instruction manual and DIY learning tool. Don't know how to make Boeuf Bourguignon? A cookbook can help. It can't really teach you. But it can outline the ingredients and the steps. The rest is up to you. (Unless you have an instructor or you can tap into other experts or learners in the kitchen.)

Boeuf Bourguignon is, of course, one of the best-known dishes from Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a title that just made it to e-book earlier this month, some 50 years after its original publication. A recent story in The New York Times details some of the struggles that the publisher Alfred A. Knopf had in converting the cookbook to a digital format, particularly due to Child's two-column layout and the hand-drawn sketches.

While the Knopf e-reader version of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a faithful translation of print to digital, the new Inkling title -- like all the books in its catalog -- does something more. It disassembles the printed version of The Professional Chef and when re-assembled for the iPad, has the features one associates with Inkling -- videos, photos, scroll-over tips on techniques, easy navigation between recipes and references, interactive 3D diagrams.

The cookbook also contains the new features that Inkling introduced this summer -- shared notes and real-time discussions right in the book's margins.

These new features, when added to a type of book like a cookbook, seem particularly intriguing. This is less that "Inkling breaks into the consumer market," I'd say, than Inkling extending its core focus into one of the most popular teach-yourself genres, into a genre where -- again, culinary school aside -- you're often stuck figuring things out alone. I think there's huge potential right at that very moment for a learner, as technology changes not just learning in the classroom but learning for a lifetime. What happens if we can bring the social element and the teacher element (all from within the margins of these books) to other types of DIY learning books?

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Audrey Watters


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