Apple took a giant leap into education today, announcing not only a selection of multimedia, interactive digital textbooks but also a simple app that allows anyone to create them. The textbooks from pro publishers like Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will cover the range of education — from grade school to graduate school.
Apple is far from the first company to sell digital textbooks. In fact, the company's lack of those offerings has made it the odd one out. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and lesser-known companies like Kobo and Kno all offer them — and not just on their own readers, but also for apps on the iPad and iPhone — where Apple's e-textbooks will also live. For example, Kno, which specializes in textbooks, sells 150,000 titles, which people can read on an iPad app or online with any computer.
Those systems do roughly the same thing that Apple will, but not nearly as well, said Basil Kolani, the director of information services at The Dwight School, a college prep school in New York City. "The way that e-books were until today… they were still pretty flat experiences," he said. The Apple books, in comparison, have interactive features that will make them far more useful, he believes. "It's not even right to call it a textbook anymore."
We spoke to a friend – a mother of a 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in Los Angeles – who had a similar reaction. "I do think there needs to be something besides a textbook, and I think that technology is good and kids have to learn interactively," she said. (She asked that her name not be printed, because she was speaking critically of the school her children attend.)
If nothing else, her daughter needs to have current information. "I find the books very dated. She's got California history, and the book was published 10 years ago." Furthermore, students don’t even have much access to these old books. They have to share. "The schools can't afford books," she explained. (However, the situation may be different at public institutions than at a private prep school on Central Park West.)
So textbooks starting at $15 would definitely help, but how likely are families or schools to afford iPads, which start at $500? "The iPad's certainly an expense, but coupled with cheap textbooks, it might be a more manageable one," said Kolani. He admits, though, that he needs more information on to see how costs work out.
His colleagues are definitely excited about Apple's iBooks Author software. Instead of requiring programming, it uses drag-and-drop tools, sometimes known as what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or "WYSIWYG."
"I asked our faculty if anyone would be interested in a hands-on workshop to make this book, and I've already gotten some enthusiastic responses," he said, "so the demand is there." Like the books themselves, however, iBooks Author will also run only on Apple products – its expensive Mac computers.
The software could allow teachers and professors to do a much better job of what they already do – create readers for their students. "We have teachers who prepare materials all the time," such as collections of readings and lectures. "And this allows them to package them in a really dynamic way," said Kolani.
But it's very important for students, too, he said. They can easily pull together their best work in attractive books.
E-book self-publishing is also not brand-new. Nonprofit organizations like ck12 and curriki already offer tools for it. And highly animated, interactive e-books are on the market already, from companies such as aerbook.com. http://www.aerbook.com/ But it takes a programmer to create them.
"If Apple were to come out with WYSIWYG tools to create… e-books, I think they would change the landscape of the publishing business, just like they have done with music, phones, and even movie editing," said Liz Castro, an e-book creator and author of the book " EPUB: Straight to the Point " (Peachpit Press, 2010) a few hours before Apple's announcement.
It could also help break up the publishing monopoly. "Textbook publishing is ripe for change," she said, "with its exorbitantly priced books, slow production schedules, and monopoly on creation."
Yannie ten Broeke , a professor of forensic psychology at Touro College in New York City, had the same reaction. "It's a real racket," she said. "They put up new editions all the time so students have to buy them."
But Castro was apoplectic a few hours later after reading the software license for iBook Author, which states: "If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a "Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple (e.g., through the iBookstore)."
So it's fine to give books away. But anyone who uses it to sell books has to pay Apple 30 percent of what they make. "Having books that you can only sell though Apple…it's discouraging, it's disheartening, it's deflating, and it's greedy," she said. Basically, she believes that it might scare pro bookmakers away.
Apple's policy could be a problem for universities, too. If the school is charging for the whole educational program, isn't it also charging for the books? So who pays the 30 percent fee?
Apple exclusivity isn't just a worry for businesspeople and school bureaucrats, though. It's a cost concern for families. "I wonder if it will be less expensive on platforms like the Kindle," said the California mother. Or why require a reader at all, she asked. "How come it cannot be available on a regular computer?" she asked. "Everyone has computers."