In a characteristically slick presentation at New York's Guggenheim Museum in January, a top Apple executive stood before a room full of journalists, introducing them to the company's latest effort to apply its computing philosophy to a facet of everyday life that is still-in its view-languishing in the technological dark ages. One two-word slide said it all: "Reinventing Textbooks."
During the presentation, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide marketing, Philip W. Schiller, outlined the company's ambition to replace paper textbooks with digital textbooks, which would be specifically designed to be read on an iPad. He announced the release of the second generation of the iBooks app, which now provides support for downloading etextbooks. Also introduced was the free iBooks Author app, which will allow users to create their own electronic textbooks as easily as they would create a keynote presentation-providing, of course, that they have a textbook's worth of content.
Schiller's presentation also showcased Apple's partnerships with three K-12 educational publishing behemoths-The McGraw-Hill Cos.; Pearson, PLC; and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt-to produce digital textbooks. The first titles offered through iBooks 2 include Biology and Environmental Science from Pearson and Algebra 1 and Chemistry from McGraw-Hill.
This slate of announcements constitutes a major step toward fulfilling the late Steve Jobs' dream of placing an iPad in the hands of every school-aged child in the country. (Apple pointed out in the course of its January announcement that there are already 1.5 million iPads being used in schools and more than 20,000 education apps in its iOS App Store.)
In Walter Isaacson's blockbuster 2011 biography of Jobs, it's clear that the Apple chief viewed educational uses of his company's products as one of his highest priorities. Near the time of his death, he described his distaste for the existing system of selecting textbooks for use in the classroom.
As he put it to Isaacson, "The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt. ... But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don't have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money."
There are certainly advantages-beyond shirking bureaucracy-to digitizing, tabletizing, and otherwise Apple-izing textbooks, and the company is eager to point them out.
One of the more pointed images Schiller used in his presentation was a backpack overstuffed with a dozen printed textbooks. Apple's idea of replacing all of that hardcover dead weight with a single lightweight device seems likely to have a broad appeal to concerned parents.
Another strong selling point for Apple is the dynamic functionality inherent in an iPad application. The company website describes in almost ecstatic terms the interactive functionality of etextbooks: "[Students] can flip through a book by sliding their finger along thumbnail images of the pages. If they don't know the definition of a word, one tap takes them to a glossary or dictionary. No longer limited to a single picture to illustrate the text, now students can flick through a gorgeous photo gallery or dive into an image with interactive captions. They can use a finger to rotate a 3D object to show a human brain from every angle, or have the answer spring to life in an interactive chapter review."
As splashy as the iPad-in-every-backpack idea might be, there are obstacles planted firmly in the way of its education vision.
Those state textbook certification policies that Jobs spoke disdainfully of to Isaacson are, like it or not, the law of the land, and it seems unlikely that even the most capable textbook writer using Apple's authoring tools will be able to get a book into a classroom without any state scrutiny.
Some analysts, however, see states themselves jumping onto Apple's bandwagon. Kathy Mickey, analyst and managing editor for educational publishing and educational marketer at Simba Information, says it's already happening. "Utah, for instance, is working on developing free, open digital math textbooks it would encourage schools to use, while at the same time, the state continues to review and recommend commercial textbooks, both digital and print," Mickey says.
But then, of course, there's the issue of cost. While Apple intends to keep the price of any etextbook to $15 or less, the base price of an iPad 2 is $499. It remains to be seen whether-and how-Apple will be able to convince already-cash-strapped school districts and/or parents to make this significant investment in its hardware.
Mickey says Apple will need to prove that iPads have broader applications in the classroom. "The biggest hurdle is making sure that there are enough ways to use it to make an investment worthwhile," she says. "Just to use it as a textbook reader is a waste of its capabilities; that would be more expensive than it is worth."
With its swath of educational computing initiatives, Apple is opening up another front in the ongoing tablet wars.
Amazon, which produces the Kindle line of e-readers and tablets, attempted its own play for prominence in the fledgling etextbook market 3 years ago when it launched a trial program that provided Kindle DX e-readers to students in a handful of U.S. colleges. The plan was largely unsuccessful, with one participant school, Reed College, reporting that the Kindle was "unable to meet [the] academic needs" of students and faculty. Apple's hope is that the possibilities for the iPad's etextbook interactivity will allow it to gain traction where the static first-generation Kindle-and the still-unproven Kindle Fire-have stalled.
The future of Apple's attempt to reinvent educational publishing is far from being preordained, but the company's lofty ambitions may be designed to make good on a promise, and further cement the legacy, of its late visionary leader.