Switched On: Getting from Kno to yes, part 2

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

The last Switched On introduced the opportunity of the Kno tablet, which is in transition from having a large hardware footprint to having a large customer footprint. Without question, the Kno hardware is an outlier, but could be simply a first salvo in a battle for digital textbooks that will take years to play out.

Look at the ironic development of e-readers. Today's LCD-based Nook Color would not exist if Sony and Amazon had not opened (and soothed) consumers' eyes with e-paper-based readers that were themselves an answer to an early generation of LCD-based products like the Rocket e-Book. The outlier shows the potential.

But much as knows that the Kindle bookstore is ultimately more important to its business than the Kindle devices, Kno understands that software is a less painful path to prevalence. The company can easily justify its decision to create its own device as a proof of concept given the lack of any high-volume large-screen touch-screen slate options. As display technology and embedded operating systems evolve, the notion of a capable large, thin, and perhaps even foldable screen inches closer to the mainstream.

In some ways, Kno reminds one of another startup that is finding success in the college market with a combination of software and hardware that is a bulky version of an analog staple. That company is Livescribe, which tackled note-taking and has since slimmed down its pen. It is now actively courting developers to make the once troubled notion of the digital pen a platform. Both Kno and Livescribe compete to some extent with the PC, and while the Livescribe system costs less than even the cheaper Kno tablet, the digital writing instrument is far more expensive than its respective ink-and-pulp-based competitor.

Kno has thrown out estimates about how one of its tablets pays for itself after three semesters, and says its device is virtually a rounding error in the soaring costs of a college education. Skeptics want to see what Kno's textbook pricing will look like, particularly when compared to used college textbooks. Long-term, though, purchasing a digital learning device is not about return on investment any more than the potential savings of cherry-picking singles off the iTunes store drove the success of the iPod.

Continuing what we have seen on the Web for the last 15 years, whether for leisure or learning, digitization will raise text from its bound birthplace to become a productive part of a multimedia and interactive world. Indeed, while the Kno experience is shaping up to be both intuitive and targeted, there is a long roadmap of things the company could do within its environment to facilitate collaboration and expand -- as Livescribe is seeking to do -- beyond a core student market. That includes those who place a high value on research, learning, storyboarding and project planning. It may not be a market interesting enough to Microsoft to keep the hinged Courier alive, but it could certainly sustain Kno.

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.