I want to talk about an e-book platform called Inkling whose web version is not cross-browser compatible. But what I am really interested to talk about is neither an ebook platform nor its cross-browser support. I am interested in thinking about the way we assess and evaluate resource products from vendors and their market strategies as librarians. I am using Inkling just as an example to touch on this topic.
Inkling is a company that makes an interactive textbook. It works with publishers to get a contract for certain titles of theirs, so that those titles can be made to e-books that run on and are sold at the Inkling platform. Inkling originally started as an e-book platform app on the iOS device such as an iPad and iPhone. The Inkling platform is quite nice. Adding annotation is easy and the page numbers of a print book is clearly marked on the side of its e-book version. Inkling e-textbooks in medicine offer interactive quizzes integrated into a human anatomy diagram and include related audio and video files that can be played right there inside the app, thereby broadening the utility of a textbook to students. The Inkling e-book platform also provides various sharing features that can be handy for students and teachers.
Recently, Inkling released a Web version. My library, which tested its app version earlier, was interested in purchasing some of the titles that were available at the Inkling Store for library patrons. Not only did we like the Inkling platform as a reading platform but we also found out that those titles were not available as e-books from any other vendors. My library wanted to provide more medical titles as e-books so that our students and faculty can access them with convenience. But while testing their Web version, we found a few problematic things for library patrons. (1) First, the Web version of Inkling doesn’t allow library patrons to use their iPad/iPhone version unlike products such as Naxos Music Library. So the convenience of getting the resource on a personal device was taken away in the Web version. (2) Second, Inkling requires each library patron to create a separate Inkling account in order to access the Web version of Inkling through the institutional subscription. The double authorization required – one for the university log-in and the other for the inkling log-in – was cumbersome and annoying. The majority of library users do not want to create an additional account for each database or resource that they use through the library subscription.
But the most problematic was (3) the fact that Inkling’s Web version only runs on Safari and Chrome. No Firefox, no IE. This was a deal-breaker for us because the number one browser that is used to access our library’s website is IE and the second is Firefox according to the Google Analytics statistics. Furthermore, the most important patron group that my library serves, the medical students and faculty at our school, mostly work on the student laptops and office PCs that the school IT department configures and issues, and those student laptops and computers only come with IE and Firefox. Students and faculty have to request IT if they want to install any new software on these standard laptops and PCs. For this reason, when the limited browser support of the Inkling Web was known, librarians at my library unanimously agreed to wait for Inkling to add the support for other web browsers. We also did a demo of the Web version to a group of faculty with a few students included but the responses were lukewarm. So waiting was agreed to be the best option at this point.
At the same time, it was puzzling why Inkling released a Web product that only supports Safari and Chrome. We were told that Inkling e-books use HTML5 and CSS3 extensively and that not all the HTML5 and CSS3 features that Inkling uses are supported in IE and Firefox. Okay, but if the Web version is to target institutional subscriptions rather than individual consumers – whom their iPhone/iPad version targets, then why the limited cross-browser functionality? In my opinion, no libraries were going to purchase ebooks that are going to run on web-browsers that half of their library patrons or more do not already have on their computers. Perhaps did Inkling release its Web version in haste and are planning to add cross-browser support as soon as possible? However, when my library inquired about Inkling’s future plan of cross-browser support, we were told that they were planning to add that feature in the future but without any timeline for it. Then, the cross-browser support didn’t seem like a high-priority for them. So if this is the case, what is going on?
As long as I was thinking as a librarian, I could only think that this was simply a bad business model. But let’s think about from Inkling’s perspective. Is there a possibility that this is not a bad business model but an actually savvy business strategy? I do not doubt that Inkling’s development team can make their platform work with Firefox and IE. From the product they built, Inkling seems to have a capable dev team. I wonder if the company is debating internally whether adding the cross-browser support to their e-book platform would be a worthwhile investment at this point.
(A) First of all, HTML5 is being fast accepted as the new web standard and the W3C has a working group to finalize the specification. So whatever feature Inkling needs and FireFox lacks may well be soon added. And hopefully IE will follow the suit. If the browser support for these features are coming, Inkling may well do better by simply waiting a bit.
(B) The company may be uncertain about how much revenue will be generated from the institutional subscriptions. If the main attraction of their product lies in its availability on iPhone and iPad, then since this feature is not allowed for the users of Inkling’s Web version through the institutional subscription, individual consumers may well remain as their main target customer group. And for that matter, the release of the Web version itself doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is targeting institutional subscriptions as the main customers. The Web version might be a nice companion for the individual users who nevertheless purchase Inkling books mostly to use them on the iOS platform.
(c) But most importantly, Inkling’s real target could be mobile devices, not desktops. Now think about mobile devices – many different kinds of smartphones and tablets. If they are iOS devices, they will have Safari web browser. If not, they are likely to be Android devices. What browser do Android devices have? Chrome. So perhaps what the real market strategy of Inkling is going for the mobile market, not the desktop market. Maybe this is what they are really after. Now the choice of Sarafi and Chrome seems to make much more sense, doesn’t it? And I have to say that focusing on the mobile is only smart considering that the Mobile Internet is about to surpass the Desktop Internet. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of these guesses are true. I am simply testing hypotheses.
So what was the lesson I learned? It was something obvious but nevertheless I have been overlooking for a while. As librarians, we are used to evaluate a resource product based upon how user-friendly it is for library patrons to use and how easy it is to implement in the common library setting (such as IP authentication by EZproxy and institutional log-in). However, these two factors are not necessarily the greatest concern for the vendors. That doesn’t mean that their business model is bad. They just happen to have a different business model that is not quite library-friendly. But vendors don’t exist to be library-friendly as much as libraries exist to purchase vendor products. And sometimes, thinking about their concerns rather than ours can give us librarians a clue of where the vendors are going with their products and what their responses to our requests are likely to be, which we need to be aware of and to understand as much as we can. It is a good mental exercise for librarians.