How Inkling Is Rethinking the Future of Digital Books

The iPad Software Development Kit, which gave developers the tools to build software for the iPad, was released less than ten months ago. Since then, we’ve worked diligently to build our vision for the structure and presentation of learning content on multitouch devices.

Admittedly, it would have been much easier if we’d taken the existing outputs of the print publication process (i.e., PDFs, EPUB, and the like), shoehorned them onto an iPad, and called it the future of digital textbooks. But this would have been a rendition of the past, rather than a vision for the future. We wanted to take advantage of an entirely new medium and the freedom of a fresh start, technologically speaking, to build something fundamentally better.

It has been an arduous process, to say the least. Building a technology platform like Inkling requires the coordination of many moving parts – content specifications, server APIs, user interface designs, iOS application code, and complex content ingestion processes, to name a few. Developing these has required the help of authors, editors, subject matter experts, content designers, platform designers, front-end engineers, back-end engineers, iOS engineers, and a team of smart businesspeople. (Oh, and we’re still hiring!) As an illustration, we’ve had hours-long debates over whether links in the content should “jump” you to a new place in the book (making it easier to explore) or “push” a specific card onto your navigation stack (making it easier to return to your previous context). We decided to support both, using each approach where appropriate. And we’re still arguing over the details.

With this collaborative effort, we have achieved a process to convert existing content into our format, S9ML (a hybrid of XML and HTML that follows a custom specification), and developed the technology to display that S9ML on many devices. The iPad, of course, is our first target platform. Although it has taken a lot more effort to reach this point than it would have using simple PDFs, the result is that we’ve achieved a level of technical ability that creates whole new opportunities for content innovation.

Over the course of the next two months, you’ll see a lot of exciting progress from Inkling. In addition to Lights, Camera, Capture, the exciting new title we released last week, we’ll be tripling the number of available books in the store. More importantly, the speed at which we release new titles will be increasing over time.

Upcoming titles will show off a bevy of new features. In a forthcoming music appreciation title, you’ll be able to listen to an audio clip of the performance you’re reading about while following along with the staff notation. In a forthcoming biology title, you’ll be challenged to fill in the blanks on an image of a cell, right inside the content. And a forthcoming anatomy and physiology title lets you instantaneously turn a labeled diagram into an interactive flash card, revealing each label at the touch of a finger.

The semantically structured nature of S9ML has also allowed us to radically redesign the table of contents of our titles, exposing far more information up front and making it significantly easier to navigate. Having better access to information means a better reading experience, which we’ve found increases time spent with the material. And that’s good for everyone.

None of this, nor the many other great things we have in store, would have been possible if we hadn’t invested the time it took to build a robust, XML-based format and workflow for our content. Yes, it means we won’t be offering ten thousand titles anytime soon. But for the titles we do offer, it means we’ll have the best user experience, the most innovative content, and, perhaps most importantly, the best learning experience available anywhere, for years to come.

To state the obvious, defining the future is so much more interesting than repurposing the past. If you like what we’ve done over the last ten months, you’re going to love what the next ten have in store.