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e-Textbooks: How Apple Can Dominate the Education Market With the iTablet

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Apple (s aapl) tablet rumors are swirling once again, and it looks like we might be able to put our hands on the mythical iTablet sometime early next year. The question that everyone is asking is where the device’s niche will be. Tablets have been around for years, but none of them have been what you would call a “success.”

One area of strong speculation is that Apple will position the tablet for the ebook market, which has received a major boost since the release of Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindle device last year. I agree with this analysis, but I think the target market should not just be e-books, but more specifically e-textbooks.

The Kindle is a great device for consuming books, even for those who aren’t tech savvy…just ask my Mom. The Kindle, however, is a very passive device by design. Jeff Bezos himself said he wanted the Kindle to dissapear while you were reading. This works great for a novel, but as Amazon has found with its attempt at e-textbooks, it’s much less effective when you need to interact with the text. Despite introducing the larger Kindle DX to target this market, early results from pilot programs at universities like Princeton are less than favorable.

In particular, students and professors note the difficulty of adding notes, highlighting text and finding content quickly. One student called the Kindle DX “…a poor excuse of an academic tool.” Professors are finding that they have to change their style of teaching because off the difficulties that students are having marking up texts. The absence of real page numbers is also cited as a problem.

This should signal a huge opportunity for Apple to enter the e-textbook market with its tablet device. The problem with the Kindle DX is that interacting with the text requires the use of a small joystick and clunky QWERTY keyboard. A touch enabled tablet device, however, offers a much more natural method for interaction. To add a note just tap on a place in the page. To highlight text just drag your finger across it.

What’s more, a tablet device from Apple will have the benefit of being a multi-use computing platform. With the Kindle DX you create your annotations and then have to export them to your computer or the web to make use of them elsewhere. By contrast, with something like the iTablet you could just tap on the screen and automatically have all of your notes exported to another program, or have all of your highlighted text exported as citations. The device could smartly conver the locations of the text to real page numbers. If you want to share a piece of text with a fellow student or professor you could easily send it via email, instant message or Twitter.

The opportnity for Apple is there, but in order to make it a reality it will need to work closely with textbook manufacturers to create a new format for e-textbooks that offer these kind of advanced features. It will also need to convince textbook publishers to offer these e-textbooks at a significant discount from real textbooks so that students see the value in paying the $700-800 that the iTablet could cost.

Finally, Apple will need to create an interactive distribution platform for e-textbooks. Something that is not only a place to purchase and download the books, but also a place to share notes, get homework assignments from professors and communicate about classes. This may be an extension of iTunes U, or a whole new platform.

None of this is a given, as I’m sure that textbook publishers will approach Apple warily. If Apple can convince publishers to work with them, however, it will instantly have a multi-billion dollar market for its new iTablet. A recent story indicated that Apple has been working on a tablet for a long time, but Steve Jobs continously asked what it was good for besides reading the Internet on the toilet. If I were at Apple, the above would have been my answer. I’ll be interested to see if it’s the answer Apple came up with as well.

26 Responses to “e-Textbooks: How Apple Can Dominate the Education Market With the iTablet”

  1. The price of printing textbooks is high. Also textbooks are often resold at least a couple of times. This provides publishers the opportunity to offer e-textbooks at a significant discount.

    XML and XHTML offer publishers the opportunity to add interactivity and diagrams that can be much more effective. Not to mention all the social networking and collaboration that can be done electronically. University specific course material that could be published to such a device.

    I see some universities offering tablets with tuition like some have done with the ipod touch, if apple gives them tools to develop material. A tool like that for itunes new album format would allow for interactive course material.

    Unfortunately E-ink is a long way from being able to provide what is needed for such a device. Some readability compromises will have to be made. There is no reason that Apples tablet should not be able to read the material to you though. E-ink devices for the short term will be for those who want to read novels an little else. Those looking for immersive and interactive learning or media experience will be looking for a device like the rumored Apple tablet .

  2. As Bas hinted above me, the screen will be a killer for this if any of the mock-ups to date are correct. You just can’t comfortably read stuff on a shiny iPhone type screen in any environment, so I really don’t get this e-book idea for the iTablet unless the mock-ups are a million miles off and Apple have somehow developed a colour e-ink touchscreen interface with LCD level refresh rates. Now I think that given the current state of e-ink tech that’s beyond even Apple.

  3. This is EXACTLY what my 14-year-old son was saying on the way to school yesterday. He hates schlepping around all those heavy books and much prefers reading on my iPhone. He just wishes for a slightly larger screen ala Apple tablet. He doesn’t see any reason why they couldn’t block some sites or limit internet access but allow for some interactivity at school. He’s 14 and “gets it”.

  4. The success of the Kindle is in no small part due to the E-ink technology, which makes reading from the display like reading from paper. This technology is still a long way away from color. So either the apple tablet will only display black and white, or it will not be a successful e-reader. If it is black and white it doubt it will be a hit as anything other than a e-reader.

  5. Because I can dream, it’d be really sweet if Apple could replace an entire backpack full of stuff for students and teachers alike. So what would I like to see in a tablet? I would simply like a tablet that would integrate into my college life. So below, here’s a few things I’d LOVE to happen (but probably won’t!) in fantasy land.

    I have no problem taking notes with a pen and pencil. An application where I can digitally take and flip through pages of notes (like a spiral notebook) would be incredible. I’d never have to buy paper again, lead, or erasers for a mechanical pencils. Depending on what you buy, a professional pack of pencils can be ten to fifteen bucks, with erasers and lead costing five or so.

    Digital textbooks would be a plus. I could add digital stick notes to pages, digitally highlight text, and if I could even edit the text itself (with changes being made to an alternate file, so I could retain “defaults” for that textbook), that’d be great. The only problem being I couldn’t get any money back out of my invest (I can’t sell a digital textbook since it’d probably be DRM’d).

    Now imagine putting one of these in the hands of a teacher. The teacher could sync with your device, or perhaps an entire class at the same time, pull down your homework, and you wouldn’t even have to be arsed with going to Blackboard, Moodle, or even email to upload your assignments. Heck, make this process automated and you have a winning device. Then, let’s take this one step further. Say you’re doing a math problem. As you write your problem, your math teacher could interlude on your screen, and in perhaps red text, give you pointers on how you should solve the problem.

    At the end of a class, digital copies the days notes could automatically be uploaded to each student, with the device retaining an audio copy of the class it recorded during your session. While studying, students could share notes in the cloud, so classmates can study and ensure they didn’t miss any material. I currently do something similar by having dropbox set up between me and classmates (but it’s not a perfect system).

    Make the tablet a gradebook. I don’t want to have to log online to check my grade. Gimme an App where I can get a consolidated list of all my grades, and if a semester is finished, that semester’s GPA. Heck, even display the degrees, certificates, scholarships, and anything else I’ve earned along the way.

    Throw in your casual calender, mail, and internet browsing apps, and you’d have a dream tablet. Boom.

  6. People are missing the point of an Apple iTablet. The days of single use personal electronic items is coming to an end-just look at the iPod nano. The iTablet will be a convergence device; which means its does a lot of stuff well, not a few things great. So it may not be the best platform for e-books, but it could be good enough, and the software could make it such a joy to find, read, edit and share books that it overcomes those deficiencies. On top of this it would also play music, surf the web and probably have a forward facing camera for iChat. Can a Kindle do that?

    The trick is how to position it between a laptop and a netbook? I think it can be done by having better battery life, weight and price than a regular laptop. Better user experience (software/apps) and dare I say performance, than a netbook at a similar price point.

  7. Touch-typers will never go for it. I hate hate hate typing anything on my iphone because I have to look – there is no way to feel your way around a touch screen. Until they solve that, I can’t see it working. Part of bringing a laptop to class is being able to listen to the lectures while mindlessly typing.

    Also, how uncomfortable will it be to type onto something laying flat on the table?

    • I can tell your not a touch-typer, seeing as touch’typers don’t look at where their fingers are, do you really think someone could be that fast if they looked, or that if they had a solid button under their fingers? when you touch-type, you don’t usually have time to feel which keys you are pressing, you just know where they are, they only time you need to feel a key is if you just turned back to your keyboard and need find out the starting keys, hence the F and J bumps.

  8. Sadly nothing beats a physical textbook. I have tried the whole e-textbook thing on a tablet and in the end the physical textbooks won out for me. I am sure that as the demand increases and technology develops it will be more usable. But the main issue is with a physical book you can read and take notes in a notebook, but on a tablet you are stuck splitting the screen or constantly minimizing/maximizing windows to do that. It got annoying real fast.

  9. Apart from the e-book market, I think Apple is after newspapers. Newspapers are trying to find a way to survive, but need a revenue stream. I think linking an iTablet to a form of paid ‘newscast’ subscription for newspapers is the way to go via iTunes. The iTablet will provide the form factor that makes the experience of reading enews pleasurable as well as mobile.

  10. Light (400 to 600 g) and small.
    Full Mac OS X (touch) inside.
    Video-out and USB2 ports

    The ultimate presentation tool using NATIVE Keynote and NATIVE PowerPoint files.

  11. Carl Hancock

    The iTablet isn’t going to dominate anything unless it is priced for mass adoption.

    ebooks are a great idea, and everyone that owns a Kindle seems to love it. HOWEVER even the Kindle isn’t going to see mass adoption until it’s price drops.

    Honestly I don’t see any e-reader gaining mass adoption until it is in the $99-$149 price range because people aren’t going to justify paying hundreds of dollars for an e-reader. Let’s face it, the iTablet is going to be much more than a Kindle, not cheaper.

    So while I think the iTablet is going to be a very cool device, I don’t see it or any device that acts as an e-reader getting mass adoption until it’s priced accordingly.

    • Alfredo Padilla


      Normally I’d agree with you, but that’s the beauty of positioning yourself in the education market. Students are already used to spending $1000 or so on a computer and hundreds of dollars each semester on books. If you can offer them a computing device that also doubles as a way to buy and access all of their class materials at a discount I think you could easily sell an iTablet for $700-800.

  12. I agree with the e-textbook market… but what I really want in a tablet is the **complete Mac OS-X operating system** with complete functionality, not a stripped-down version or an enhanced iPod Touch. Give us a MacBook with a tablet input screen. We have enough compatibility issues with cross-platform applications.

    • For the iTablet to be a success I think it must be marketed as a consumer electronic device not a computer. The breakout success of the iPhone and iPod Touch (apart from being great products) is due to the fact that they are platform agnostic i.e., they can sync seamlessly with Mac or PC. Therefore the iTablet must run a modified iPhone style OS so as to not get caught up in the Mac v PC debate.

  13. I agree but they’re gonna have to find a way to drop the price quite a bit, and make it as useful as my laptop. I agree that Apple should get into the e-textbook market. But they should make things equally available for iphones, macbooks and the new tablets.