By Richard Nieva, contributor
FORTUNE – Matt MacInnis wants tablets to overhaul how college students learn. San Francisco-based Inkling, which he founded in 2009, provides some 150 electronic textbooks for the iPad. With backing from Sequoia Capital and publishers McGraw-Hill (MHP) and Pearson (PSO), Inkling makes products that sizzle compared with paper. Text is supplemented with multimedia, quizzes, and social networking for sharing notes with classmates. Inkling's textbooks are sold on the App Store and this fall will be available in the 900 college bookstores operated by Follett Higher Education Group.
The stodgy $11.3 billion textbook industry is begging to be disrupted, but nobody quite knows what a successful digital business will look like. MacInnis is betting it will take rich experiences and a break with convention. Inkling has done away with page numbers, for instance, and students can spend as little as $2.99 to purchase a single chapter rather than an entire book. (Inkling takes a percentage of each sale.) Vineet Madan, McGraw-Hill's senior vice president of new ventures, views Inkling as a testing lab of sorts.
MacInnis may have the ideal pedigree. The Harvard engineering grad was an Apple (AAPL) campus representative in the late 1990s. Eventually he became a marketing manager at the company, helping hatch the idea of giving students free iPods with new Macs. The promotion became a smash. MacInnis left a few months before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, having heard only rumors of the device.
Still, Inkling faces a tough road. Digital textbook sales have exploded and could comprise up to 25% of the market in the next three years, according to one industry estimate. That has giants like Amazon (AMZN) and Apple jockeying for a piece. What's more, Inkling's focus on adding clever features slows its ability to churn out books -- one title can take up to a year to produce. To keep growing, Inkling launched an e-book publishing platform and is putting out plush travel guides for Frommer's.
MacInnis has one major advantage: his age. At 32, he can relate to his college customers. After all, it wasn't so long ago he was giving them free iPods.
This story is from the July 12, 2012 issue of Fortune.
The flaws in Apple's plan to reinvent textbooks become apparent when you see Inkling's
One of the things the tech press missed last month when Apple (AAPL) summoned them -- satellite trucks and all -- to Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum for the unveiling of its new textbook authoring tools, is that Inkling got there first.
Launched two years ago by a former Apple educational marketing manager named Matt MacInnis, Inkling had already published MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Feb 14, 2012 10:00 AM ET
The goal is to sell more iPads to schools, not to destroy the textbook industry
"This whole event is being blown out of proportion."
That's a former Apple (AAPL) executive talking about the media drumroll for the education announcement the company is scheduled to make Thursday at New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Case in point: The 20 headlines that topped Techmeme's news aggregator Tuesday morning, most of them lifting details from Chris Foresman's article MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Jan 17, 2012 7:34 AM ET
Fortune's curated selection of newsworthy tech stories from the last 24 hours. Sign up to get the round-up delivered to you every day.
"You're headed for a one-term presidency." -- Steve Jobs to Barack Obama (The Huffington Post)
"I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product ... I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this." -- Jobs on Google Android (Bloomberg)
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The Silicon Valley startup reveals its establishment investors, an intriguing business model, and the future of interactive textbooks -- on iPads and beyond.
Some technology advances change everything for their users in a way that is deeply visceral and memorable. I still remember, for instance, when I started using a Palm Pilot in 1997. The clunky device certainly was radical and all, but the epiphany for me was the sync-able desktop MOREAdam Lashinsky, Sr. Editor at Large - Mar 23, 2011 3:01 AM ET
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