Apple announced its plans to reinvent the textbook at an event at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this week. It has already partnered with three major publishers and its iBooks Author tool is available for new titles. Welcome authors, to the closed world that developers have had to suffer for some time.
The fact that the late Steve Jobs had plans to revolutionize the textbook industry, which he saw as being
"ripe for digital destruction"
was already on the record in Walter Isaacson's biography. The details of the transformation were announced at the first Apple press event since Job's death and have attracted a mixed, and in many quarters, very negative response.
The educational textbook market is highly lucrative - according to a report in Bloomsberg Businessweek the K-12 textbook segment of the market alone was estimated to reach $3.5 billion in the 2010-2011 school year - and Apple has partnered with the three companies who control 90% of it, Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to launch iBooks 2 for the iPad.
iBooks 2 is available in the iTunes App Store and provides access to interactive textbooks for high school students and will cost $14.99 - there's even some free content available to get schools hooked.
The idea of science textbooks complete with video, rich graphics, multi-touch support and thumbnail-based navigation sounds attractive and at the launch event Apple's Phil Schiller provided plenty of reasons for adopting the idea - in book form textbooks are heavy, expensive and boring - but as kids love iPads reformatting their content books not only makes them interactive, it also makes them desirable.
These advantages are obvious. But Apple has a promo video that attempts to explain why their particular view of the future is the best of all possible textbooks.
But how many schools will be able to afford an iPad for every student?
Then there is the very real concern that after buying an iPad the student still may not have the tools needed to complete assignments. The iPad isn't good at input and many educational websites are still Flash-based. This almost certainly means that an iPad and a laptop are needed.
This seems like a golden opportunity for many teachers who have created their own teaching material and are poised to write a book but don't want to face the struggle of finding a publisher. The downside of producing textbooks using this tool is that any book written with it has to be sold exclusively through the iBooks 2 store, which will automatically take 30% of the revenue .
This is being seen as a shocking restriction and is causing a good deal of controversy. From our point of view this shouldn't come as a shock. Apple's attempts to control and profit from content are not a new phenomenon.
This is a pill that many developers have already had to swallow - if you develop apps for the iPhone or iPad you have to sell them via iTunes and Apple takes its 30%. OK you can rewrite your apps for another platform, whereas in this case once a textbook has been developed for the iPad you won't be able simply to port it to another e-reader. So this is a calculated move on the part of Apple to make the iPad the tablet of choice for education.
Apple's walled garden is increasingly looking like a fortress. It is about time consumers noticed.
At the same time the move to digital educational content raises other questions and suggests new opportunities.
Why digital textbooks for content when there is so much free content available on the web. Teachers need materials but once we move away from the printed book there are lots of opportunities for these to be computer-based and web-based.
Perhaps Apple has done us a favor by making schools without a big budget to spend on iPads look for lower-cost alternatives.