Switched On: Getting from Kno to yes, part 1

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Oh, e-readers are e-readers. And tablets are tablets. And surely the twain shall meet. Indeed, they already have, with the iPad hosting not only its own integrated bookstore, but client software from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others. Barnes & Noble, in turn, describes its new Nook Color as a "readers' tablet." But these devices and their affiliated digital bookstores are all chasing the same avid readers of bestsellers. These readers read mostly for leisure or self-directed enrichment as they can fit it in to their schedules.

But those who sell e-readers and tablets would really like to tap into a market of people who have to read versus want to read -- not just the low-stakes novellas of Amazon singles, but hefty, cumbersome, expensive, perpetually obsolete tomes that are assigned to 19 million full-time college students annually. The National Association of College Stores estimates that the average full-time college student spends nearly $700 per year on course materials. For the 2008-2009 school year, the average new textbook price was $64. And the mean gross margin on course materials for a college bookstore is 27 percent.

That is a prize worth pursuing. But can a device dedicated to the way students study survive amidst an onslaught of tablets from every corner of the PC, consumer electronics and cell phone industries? Kno thinks the answer is yes.

Kno debuted at D: All Things Digital conference with an expansive dual-screened 14" tablet. The company announced that product's price this week at $899. But a recent visit to Kno's offices provided an opportunity to try out a $599 single-screen version of the tablet. The Kno product is packed with hardware, promise and questions. The large screen size was chosen for its ability to accommodate 95 percent of textbooks, but it begs the question of whether the Kno is the Dell Streak of tablets, pushing past the point of diminishing returns for screen size given its usage scenario.

The Kno experience will rely heavily on touch while incorporating pen input for diagramming and handwriting, and is focused on three tasks -- reading and annotating, web browsing, and apps. Perhaps because it is an unfamiliar orientation for such a wide display, it took some getting used to get working with such a tall display on a flat surface, and I saw potential for some of the "hand jet lag" experienced when using a large-screen smartphone such as the Droid X .

Kno counters by noting that the device should rest fine on the chairs with small writing surfaces in most higher education classrooms, and that even the two-screen version will do so while folding under itself. Furthermore, it says that when its beta testers were asked which unit they would prefer, they overwhelmingly chose the one offering double the work surface. That said, even the single-screen Kno is a handful, weighing about a pound more than an iPad, which itself can get uncomfortable for extended reading sessions in the hand. As with medication, big tablets are hard to swallow, but again Kno brings it back to context, noting that its product is less cumbersome than many textbooks (true at least for the single-slab version), much less a backpack toting several of them.

The next Switched On will draw some comparisons between the Kno tablet and other products, address Kno's return on investment argument, and discuss the potential for digital learning beyond those of higher-education students.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.