How a Startup Wants to Change Higher Education — What You Need to Kno!

You know how one thing leads to another? Well, that’s what happened with Osman Rashid, the co-founder and CEO of Kno, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup that’s publicly previewing its digital textbook platform and device (Kno) today. Rashid, who previously started Chegg, a Netflix-for-college-text-books service, was struck by the archaic nature of the whole college textbook experience. So he and lifelong friend Babur Habib started to wonder what it would be like if students could carry essentially their entire backpack in a single device, on which they could access textbooks, surf the web, scribble notes and even take exams. Better yet, what about turning this into a full-blown platform for education applications and at the same time, marry it to an e-book store? How about selling e-tuitions?

Crazy? Apparently not! Given the rise of connected e-readers, cheap displays, muscular mobile chips and open-source software (including browsers), it wasn’t impossible to build what seems to be the bouillabaisse of technology targeting the higher education sector. It didn’t take long for Rashid and Habib to line up investment dollars (about $10 million) from the likes of Ron Conway, Mike Maples, First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz for the company, which at at the time was known as Kakai.

That was a year ago. Today, the company, now known as Kno, is showing the world its two-panel tablet. The device will launch as a student beta-test later this year. Kno has already signed deals with four higher education book publishers –- McGraw Hill, Pearson, Wiley and Cengage Learning. A handful of U.S. colleges and universities have also signed up to beta-test the device. From the company press release:

It replicates the true book experience by fully preserving the publishers’ carefully defined page structure. Complex charts and graphs are presented in the same manner as a physical textbook, which allow students to interact, take notes and highlight directly on the page.

Students can also access their email accounts and for example, send coursework to their professors. Kno supports Flash, HTML5, PDF and ePub content, the underlying technologies of most publishers.

The two-panel multitouch device looks pretty much like a regular notebook; both displays work independently of each other. It uses a stripped-down version of Linux, features the Chrome browser and is based on Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chip platform, which allows it to play back Flash videos. It has built-in connectivity — Wi-Fi and 3G — and comes with a handwriting interface, which from the images I’ve seen looks pretty attractive. (The actual device I will see sometime in the near future.)

What I find most amazing is the audaciousness of this device and the ecosystem planned around it. The rational part of me believes it’s the right device at the right time. iPhone, Android-based phones and lately the iPad have started shifting user behavior from what we think of computing. The emergence of e-readers has made it possible for us to think of books in a digital context. More importantly, the next generation of college-goers has grown up with new technologies and are very receptive to change.

And Rashid and Habib are smart enough to realize that Kno can’t just be a hardware company — it needs to build a services business on top of this device in order to become the proverbial billion-dollar business. Kno is essentially taking a page out of Amazon (s amzn) and Apple’s (s aapl) playbook. And therein lies the trouble.

My inner cynic believes that the very adaptability of the iPad is going to be the single biggest challenge for Kno, which in my opinion is going to need a lot of money to realize its eventual ambitions. Just as the iPhone managed to disrupt many markets, the iPad is only starting to mutate. I wonder if students will carry two (or more) devices in the future or will the prefer the iPad and its app-based personalization. I really hope Kno takes off — after all, we need fat startups with fat ambitions. And who doesn’t love a David-vs.-Goliath story?