Apple today announced that it would begin offering digital textbooks on the iPad via its iBooks app. The books, which currently focus on high school-level subjects but will later expand to cover the entire K-12 curriculum, can cost up to $14.99, and Apple is working with publishing companies such as Pearson, McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and DK Publishing to make it happen. The textbook store is available in iBooks 2.0, which requires iOS 5 and is currently available as an update to the original iBooks app.

The digital textbooks can include interactive elements like pictures, video, or 3D models, which will be displayed more prominently while the tablet is in landscape mode, while flipping it into portrait mode will display a text-centric view. Students can highlight text in multiple colors and take notes, and use the app to automatically display flash cards of their highlights and notes mixed in with glossary terms from the book. Glossary terms, usually displayed in bold, can be tapped to bring up definitions of the word both from the book and from the built-in dictionary, and the text is fully searchable.

Of course, most of these features are imports from existing eBooks and old-school educational CD-ROMs - embedded video, highlighting, note taking, and many of the other things Apple showcased aren’t new innovations, though they appear to be implemented well here. More interesting was the iBooks Author app for OS X, available for no cost in the Mac App Store.

iBooks Author is used to create these interactive textbooks - pictures, videos, and Keynote presentations can be dragged into any of the provided templates, and authors of existing books can import their Word or Pages files to save time. More advanced coders can also create interactive widgets using HTML and Javascript. Publishing books requires an iBookstore seller account, the iTunes Producer app, and an active iTunes Connect contract with Apple - a full FAQ is available here. Once all of these requirements are met, the book can be submitted to Apple for review. Textbooks have a maximum size limit of 2GB.
The technology behind all of this looks solid - iBooks Author makes eBook authoring and publishing relatively painless, and buying the books on the iPad is cheaper than buying a physical copy, at least at face value. Carrying around a single iPad is much less burdensome than carrying a book, and the ease with which students can look up words, take notes, and review material is impressive.

Even so, to my mind there’s a sizable gap between what Apple announced today and something that could truly make digital textbooks ubiquitous: the cost of entry, i.e. either purchasing an iPad for each student’s use or mandating that students purchase iPads for school use, is fairly high, even if you figure for a conservative 3-4 year replacement cycle (and even with AppleCare, iPad warranties run out after two years, making a 2-3 year cycle more likely, especially once you factor in iPads that are dropped, spilled on, or otherwise destroyed). Over time, the reduced cost of the books may offset the cost of the iPads, but the upfront cost (along with the cost of supporting the devices) is likely to scare away cash-strapped public schools. The announcements made today are less likely to revolutionize education, and more likely to increase the usefulness of iPads in school systems that are already using them.

iBooks Author requires Lion and is currently available for free in the Mac App Store. iBooks 2.0 is available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch as an upgrade for the original iBooks app, though digital textbooks are not available on the smaller devices.

Source: Apple

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  • Mr Perfect - Friday, January 20, 2012 - link

    A single college text can cost the same as an iPad though. Buy four textbooks twice a year for four to five years and one iPad could be significantly cheaper, assuming the digital college books are priced right. This has potential if the content owners see it.
  • rangda - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    No because you are the product and the publishers are the customer. For the publisher this is great as they get parent's to pony up $15 / book / child whereas schools would reuse the books for several years. This in effect turns the single book sale into say 5 book sales, assuming schools keep a book for 5 years before replacing it (the math only gets better for the publishers as that number gets bigger). So presumably the actual book costs the school less than $75 and this is getting the publishers more money.

    College, on the other hand, prices books at $200+ and they are bought by the student, so there is (in theory) no reuse at all. Of course when I was in college the store bought back textbooks and sold them, but there was always far less used copies than students wanting them.

    College is also far more likely to try to pirate the books; the student has a strong incentive as he could potentially get several hundred dollars from the parents for books, pirate them, and then pocket the money. I think this reason in an of itself causes the publishers to fight college textbooks from going digital.
  • GotThumbs - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    As I said in an earlier post, College text books have been available in PDF format for many years. This is not a new concept. Just a re-packaging by Apple. IMO.
  • doobydoo - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    As I corrected your earlier post, to mistake a PDF for an interactive textbook with all the features on offer here is your failing, not Apples.
  • NickB. - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately digital content has a long history of trying to price a digital license the same as the real thing. I'd hate to see schools have to shell out $500 per tablet and still have to pay the same for the books, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were the case.

    All the classrooms around here have been getting $10,000 SmartBoards... what's an additional $10,000 per class for some iPads?
  • extremepcs - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    $10k for a smartboard? They got robbed. We put the model that includes a projector and also the response systems for about $3k.
  • Andrew.a.cunningham - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    A lot of the high school level Algebra and etc. texts that Apple is offering go for something like $100 apiece on Amazon - that's probably a decent watermark to use for comparison.
  • V-Money - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    I think it would make more sense from an economical point of view for this to be done on the kindle platform. Argue all you want for how superior or whatever the iPad is, but any tablet on the market now is capable of adequately viewing books on kindle. If Apple really cared about students they would release an iBook device for a much cheaper price since it can be stripped down a lot. With all of the budget cuts towards schools lately(my high school is being shuttered as I type) and the economy the way it is (and the fact I don't have any kids), I would be angry at so much money being used for this.

    With that said, as soon as this is widespread for college level textbooks I'll be all over it. I already have kindle devices and would prefer to use it on them, but if Apple successfully released all of the textbooks for college and at reasonable enough prices, I would splurge on a iPad.
  • doobydoo - Sunday, January 22, 2012 - link

    iPads are cheaper for education too, and will no doubt reduce in price once the iPad 3 is out.
  • prophet001 - Thursday, January 19, 2012 - link

    or math homework with a digital textbook is fail.

    It can take as many as 3 or 4 books open concurrently and frequently referenced to accomplish the task.

    Tablets and laptops aren't practical for this.

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