Did Apple Just Reinvent the Textbook?

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There's been speculation for months now -- at least since the release of the Steve Jobs biography -- about Apple's plans to take on the textbook publishing industry. And today at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, we finally got a glimpse of what the company has been planning since long before the death of its co-founder.

As Apple's Phil Schiller noted in his opening remarks today, "Education is deep in our DNA… and has been since the very beginning." And while that may be true, it was one of the company's most recent inventions -- the iPad -- that took center stage today as the ideal learning device, with Apple touting kids' (of all ages) love and desire for the tablets.

Apple boasted the adoption that iPads have already seen -- some 1.5 million iPads already in use at educational institutions, with over 1000 schools having 1:1 iPad programs. Apple also noted the rich app ecosystem that's been built around the iPad as a learning device -- over 20,000 educational apps made specifically for the device.

While the mantra throughout the event was "iPad, iPad, iPad," the focus of much of today's event was on textbooks -- digital textbooks -- and Apple's insistence that these are "not always the ideal learning tool." Apple unveiled several new tools that it argued would move the "great content" found in textbooks into a new, interactive, durable, portable format -- in other words, move the textbooks onto the iPad.

Reading: Apple introduced iBooks2, an update to its iOS e-book app (which sadly still isn't accessible on Macs, let alone on Windows machines) that offers a new category specially for interactive digital textbooks. These new e-textbooks contain many of the features we've been more accustomed to seeing in interactive e-book apps rather than in the iBookstore -- videos, photos, and 3D diagrams, as well as an easy way to highlight passages and take notes. The latter, along with glossary terms, can be transformed into flash cards for studying.


As part of today's news, Apple announced it was partnering with the Big Three textbook publishers -- Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Many of their newly redesigned textbooks are available to purchase today. These new textbooks will cost no more than $14.99, Apple promises, and they'll be owned by students individually (rather than by the schools and instead of being shared by multiple students across multiple classes and years). That's a substantial shift to how textbooks are bought and distributed, particularly at the K-12 level, and it's not quite clear how schools or students will handle these purchases or how this will impact budgeting decisions. After all, schools tend to procure textbooks with the understanding that they'll last for at least 5 years. That does mean that the content can be out-dated, something that these digital textbooks are meant to combat. But the trade-off, of course, will be purchasing iPads and now purchasing annual updates to books.

Writing: Apple also introduced a new piece of software to allow "anyone" to build their own interactive e-books: iBooks Author. While Ars Technica speculated prior to today's news that this would be a "Garageband for E-Books," that doesn't seem like quite the right description. It's more akin to iWorks for e-books -- an authoring tool that greatly facilitates the layout of e-book content. The drag-and-drop interface makes it easy to add text, photos, video, Keynote slides, and even HTML widgets to build an iBook.

I have "anyone" in quotes because, for the time being at least, this app is Mac (OS X) only. The app itself is free, and after building an e-book, one can upload it to the iBookstore. The textbooks that are built to sell or give away in the iBookstore will be subject to a review process, Apple says, and the company will take its normal "cut" of sales as well as demand exclusivity to their sale. One can bypass the iBookstore by simply emailing the file to another person, who'll be able to open it with the iBook app.

Courseware: In addition to the new iBooks and iBooks Author apps, Apple also announced a new app for iTunes U. Long a hidden gem of the iTunes Store, iTunes U has provided a way for universities and other educational institutions to distribute course content -- primarily lecture videos -- via iTunes. With over 500,000 pieces of audio and visual content, Apple says that iTunes U is the "largest catalog of free educational content." The new iTunes U app adds several new features to the platform, in Apple's words, to "let teachers do a lot more" including offering "full online courses."

It's close to an online learning management system, although it's worth noting here that since the content on iTunes U has mostly been free and open, that there is no process here for submitting assignments or grades. And much like the new iTextbooks, what's missing here is a "social" component. The app does allow instructors to upload full course packages, and starting today K-12 teachers will also be able to post their materials to the iTunes U ecosystem.

Game-changer?: Apple's announcements are often described in hyperbolic terms: "revolutionary," for example. I'm not sure that we can necessarily apply that adjective here. Considering the involvement of the three largest education publishers -- a group that currently controls 90% of the textbook market -- I don't think we can pronounce the textbook industry "digitally disrupted." Rather, Apple has strengthened its relationship with these publishers who are now able to point to content that they've specifically designed to work on the iPad. Their content will continue to appear in other digital formats too, of course, and will likely still be available via other e-textbook apps (such as Inkling and Kno and CourseSmart).

The ability to easily create e-books with the new iBooks Author app does feel like an important innovation, and if Apple can steer authors (students and teachers and "anyone") to its iBookstore, then it will be in a better position to compete with Amazon's self-publishing offerings. That's not necessarily a game-changer for education, however; rather it's about controlling the future of e-book creation and distribution, something that Apple must compete with Amazon over.


That's a future that revolves around the Apple publishing and app ecosystem, and it's a future that relies on Apple hardware too -- Macs and iPads. While all of this might make it easier to build, buy, and read beautiful interactive textbooks with these new "free" software tools, that hardware investment might be something that causes a lot of schools to balk.