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.