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Apple Saves the Backs of Our Children

This is an all-too-common scenario: When walking to school or from class to class, your child is lugging a huge backpack containing textbooks and other course materials. With large halls or a long distance between classes in separate buildings, your child may be struggling under that load for hours each and every day. But I’m not about to suggest the extent of the damage to one’s spinal column or back muscles. The point is that it’s a heavy load to bear, particularly for a small child.

While books are, in my experience, usually supplied free of charge in most grade schools, once a student goes to college, there’s a huge upfront expense in buying the textbooks needed for a single semester or the entire school year. Once the books are used, they may be sold off for a fraction of the money originally paid, stored in a garage or recycled. But I’m using strictly the U.S. example here.

Now when I first read about the iPad, I joined others in imagining a revolution in the making for our educational systems. Instead of having to lug all those hefty and expensive books around, all the material could be stored in digital form on Apple’s tablet.

For months, not much happened, except for reports that iPads had been deployed at a number of schools. But to enter the textbook game, Apple had to reach deals with the major textbook publishers to create interactive e-books. It also evidently required an update to Apple’s iBooks software and iTunes to complete the process.

Well, that happened this week with the release of iBooks 2, which is available for the iPad and, in fact, the iPhone, although textbooks are meant strictly for the former. There’s also an iBooks Author app for the Mac that allows anyone to create such an e-book.

The final piece of the puzzle involving cementing deals with the biggies in textbook publishing, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson. That step opened the possibilities for loads of textbooks to soon become available for iBooks 2, although only a handful of titles have been released so far.

The other part of the equation is uptake by school systems, or at the very least agreeing to accept students using their own iPads to acquire the digital versions of the textbooks they need. Perhaps, for a time, the printed and e-book versions will exist side by side, maybe as a test to see how grades might be impacted. The betting is that students will feel empowered by the interactive textbooks and score higher.

I suppose school systems could also have site licenses for these digital textbooks, and maybe the reduced cost — because of all that money saved from printing physical books — will be sufficient to even justify the purchase of iPads to hand out to students on loan or to keep.

In “reinventing” textbooks, Apple has the first mover advantage here. Sure, Amazon and Google could upgrade their e-book apps to better support similar interactive content. But they’d still have to sign contracts with the publishers in order to be able to provide those titles. Obviously neither Apple nor the three publishers under contract are going to say if the deals are exclusive. That won’t become obvious unless or until textbooks appear in other formats.

And remember that even if there’s an Amazon Kindle or Android app that supports interactive textbooks, publishers would have to provide their files in forms that are compatible. That could mean producing not just one digital version, but two or three. At the same time, don’t forget that Apple has long held a substantial presence in the world of education. It’s going to take an awful lot of work for other tech companies to convince publishers and school systems that they deserve a chance.

Meantime, I’m happy to see that education is being pushed kicking and screaming into the 21st century. My biggest concern, though, is how many cash-strapped school systems are going to be able to take the plunge. Will the price per student, including an iPad, be low enough to make it possible for school systems in lower income areas to get on board? That’s something I surely don’t know, but if the iPad and digital textbooks can make it to the inner cities and cash-starved rural districts, Apple will have created yet another revolution.

Besides, if students are using iPads in school, and they would naturally have to take them home to complete classroom assignments, how will that impact Apple’s sales of iPhones and new Macs? The legendary halo effect has already helped boost sales of Macs; Microsoft is suffering from reduced PC demand, reporting a 6% drop in sales of Windows in the last quarter. Apple’s new initiative can only increase the prospects for Macs, or maybe encourage more people to simply use iPads as personal computers.

Meantime, I think back to my son’s huffing and puffing when he got home with that stuffed backpack in tow. He didn’t suffer any physical damage, fortunately. In fact, he’s now an English teacher to Spanish-speaking students near Madrid. I wonder how long it’ll take for the iPad, iBooks 2, and those interactive textbooks to spread around the world. It sounds like a win win to me.