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If Inkling’s Products Are so Great Then Why Does the CEO Come Across Like a Snake Oil Salesman?

February 12th, 2013 by · 9 Comments · digital textbooks

inklingThere’s a big digital publishing conference kicking off this week called O’Reilly Tools of Change. I’m not going myself (no press pass), but I have been getting early copies of the press release announcements.

I got the embargoed press release from Inkling on Friday, and since I didn’t have much else to do I was reading it and thinking about it all weekend. The press release includes what Inkling wants us to think are 2 major pieces of news, Inkling Habitat and Inkling Content Discovery Platform (the search engine integration that Inkling announced last month).

For some reason beyond my understanding Inkling decided to put month-old and year-old old news under an embargo. Or perhaps today is the real release of these 2 items; that would make the earlier announcements vaporware. In either case, it’s weird.

Since there is not much in the way of real news from Inkling to write about and since I don’t want to join the rest of the journalists who are writing the marketing copy Inkling is handing them, I am going to instead look at how the company has been promoting itself.

Inkling’s marketing copy sounds like it was written by a patent nostrum salesman.No seriously. Consider this press release alongside the the Inkling news from last month, a presentation the CEO gave in October 2012, and an interview he gave in late December 2012, and you’ll see there’s a common thread running through them all.

Edit: When you add the stories published today it becomes even more clear.

This weekend I read a lot of the press coverage written about Inkling in the past 6 months and I think I identified a pattern to Inkling’s routine. Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of Inkling is in the habit of inventing straw men enemies which Inkling is capable of defeating.

MacInnis likes to describe systemic issues in huge systems like the ebook market or Google search results and then pretend that Inkling’s new product is a solution – even though it doesn’t actually address the systemic issue.

Inkling’s current straw men include the “10-dollar text files” (how MacInnis mischaracterizes mainstream ebooks) and the supposed inability of finding book content in search engines like Google. Inkling Habitat is supposed to solve the first problem while the recently announced Google Search integration is supposed to solve the other.

If you have not seen it yet, MacInnis covers these two so-called problems in his recent presentation at the Internet Archive’s conference, Books in Browsers. I strongly urge you to watch the video; it’s your chance to watch him present the straw man arguments in his own words rather than via the journalists he usually talks to and uses as a filter.

It wasn’t until I watched the video all the way through that I realized that finding book content in Google has never been a problem for me. I can find fiction content (related to a book, at least) via community sites like Shelfari, and I can find nonfiction content via hobbyist websites.

This might not be actual book content but it is usable info, so I don’t see the difference. What’s more, I’ve been finding actual book content via Google since 2009.

The last time I really needed to find a book, and not just information on a topic, was in the Fall of 2009. I was taking a class in Computer Vision that semester and we had a terrible textbook. The textbook we were assigned was written with the assumption that the students would simply know any theorem or algorithm named in the text so there was no need to explain them.

I quickly got into the habit of googling key words from the homework problems and looking for some other related textbook that explained what the bleep I was supposed to know. I was usually able to find those other textbooks just fine (usually but not always in Google Books).

So finding the books online was not an issue, but more importantly I was not looking for books. I was looking for specific information and that has always been findable in Google.

The straw man argument in this case is both the claim that we are looking for a book-sized piece of content as well as the claim we are failing to find it. From this user’s viewpoint, that is nonsense.

I’m also calling BS on the other straw man enemy that MacInnis’ created, the so-called “10-dollar text files”.

If you have not yet watched the video, I strongly urge you to do so. I want you to see how he describes mainstream ebooks as being made by some offshore subcontractor being made by brown people (it’s in the presentation), using XML editors, and rife with errors.

Update: The text deleted from the previous paragraph was a poor choice of words. I apologize to anyone who is offended.

What’s especially amusing/shocking about MacInnis’ presentation is that he’s in front of a room of digital publishing folks, and yet he maligns their current technical abilities, the tools they use to make ebooks, and their professionalism.

I don’t know why MacInnis feels the need to put down everyone else in digital publishing in order to make Inkling sound good, but that’s what he did.

MacInnis builds a straw man argument out of the existing ebook market in order to set up Inkling Habitat as the solution. He is careful to avoid mentioning any detail that would defeat his argument, like the many plugins and conversion tools that simplify the act of making ebooks.

I can demonstrate that MacInnis’ entire argument about the “10-dollar text file” is complete BS in a single word:

Epub3

That ebook format can support interactive content, embedded video and audio, and is nearly as rich as the features made possible in the Inkling app (all of which is currently supported by iBooks). It is by no means a “10-dollar text file”. Heck, KF8 alone is enough to render MacInnis’ straw man argument invalid, and that is not much more capable than Epub.

So Inkling’s 2 most recent new launches are actually solutions to straw man arguments. Doesn’t that make you wonder why Inkling chose to take this approach?

I strongly suspect that their tech would not sound like much if Inkling had not invented an enemy to be defeated. The search integration is certainly unimportant once you realize that it is little more than adding pay-content to Google, where it will be found alongside vast amounts of existing similar content.

But Inkling Habitat, on the other hand, was important – or so I thought. I do not understand why Habitat needed a straw man argument to defeat, but I suspect that it cannot stand on its own merit.

I think it has some hidden weakness. Perhaps it is really no more capable than iBooks Author, InDesign, or the many other ebook creation apps. Any ideas?

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Dan Meadows

    Ebooks are made by brown people? What the hell is that about?

  • Mike Cane

    I haven’t watched the video yet, but …

    >>>“10-dollar text files” (how MacInnis mischaracterizes mainstream ebooks)

    So what? I’ve called them tarted-up text files. And they are. And ePub3? Haw! Haw! Um, no.

  • Mike Cane

    I have watched the video in its entirety and this –

    >>>I want you to see how he describes mainstream ebooks as being made by brown people

    – is a severe mischaracterization of what’s presented. He doesn’t “describe” “brown people” at all. He shows one photo of women in India in front of notebooks, apparently laborers at one of the *many* formatting mills at work in that country that *many* different publishers around the world currently use.

    As for everything else he said, he’s correct. And ePub3 is still nothing but a tarted-up text file to me.

    Inkling per se I have no interest in. Textbooks are not my thing. The issues he raises are my thing but Inkling is just one small step towards that — as are things like Small Demons.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      And what about the many other people in digital publishing who aren’t in India? See, my point was that he selectively pulls together details to present a bad argument.

      And if Epub3 is nothing more than a tarted up text file then so are Inkling’s ebooks, I would think. No?

      • Mike Cane

        >>>And what about the many other people in digital publishing who aren’t in India?

        What about them? AFAIK, the majority of these outfits are in India, raking in the publishing bucks, just as there’s computer code outsourced to programmers in India.

        No, if Inkling’s books are actually web-accessible, they’ve moved beyond locked-in tarted-up text files. How far beyond, I’m not sure and don’t care to investigate. Textbooks are not my thing.

  • Rob Siders

    For grins, I opened one of the free for all accounts last night. They give you a getting started guide loaded up in the software. I did nothing to it and then generated/downloaded an epub.

    It doesn’t pass epubcheck 3.0.

  • NickBangO

    There is one point right in his presentation: outsourcing to India is definitely contributing at building a crappy ecosystem. Even semantics are screwed up! SEMANTICS! They can’t even do a proper heading.

    I think it is high time for the IDPF to care about quality. Low quality files are weakening EPUB and creating so many problems that vendors can’t deal with it anymore. This issue is critical, really. And unfortunately, guess who the vendors advise to publishers? The companies who are notorious for their crappy files. If Apple really cared about quality, they would just kick Jouve’s ass… But truth is they doesn’t care at all about this kind of quality and they accept to sell crappy files to their customers.

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