Do we want textbooks to live in Apple’s walled garden?

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Apple’s launch of a new suite of textbook-related services for the iPad is being widely celebrated, and with good reason. The ability to have beautiful, interactive and easy to use e-books on the tablet makes a huge amount of sense — as startups like Inkling have been arguing for a while — and Apple’s new book-authoring software could open publishing to a much broader market. But as usual, all this great design requires a major tradeoff: namely, that schools and publishers agree to be locked inside Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem. That might be fine for music and movies and games like Angry Birds, but is that really appropriate for educational material?

My GigaOM colleague Darrell Etherington has written about both the launch of the new iBooks2 — which includes thousands of interactive textbooks from some of the publishing industry’s major players, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, for $14.99 or less — and about the new book-authoring software Apple also launched on Thursday, called iBook Author. The latter allows for drag-and-drop creation of books, including embedded Keynote presentations, videos and other interactive features. And Erica Ogg of GigaOM has written about what this evolution of the book means, in terms of how that interactivity can improve textbooks.

Digital textbooks have benefits, but should Apple own them?

There’s no question that digital books have plenty of benefits: Not only can students carry more of them in electronic form, but they can also be distributed more cheaply (one of the reasons why publishers are likely willing to accept a much lower price point) and they can be updated if the information changes — something that’s impossible with printed textbooks. Plus, Apple’s books have 3-D interactive illustrations and the ability to create study notes automatically, and the launch of an expanded iTunes U allows teachers to connect their curriculum directly to those digital textbooks in interesting ways.

But where do these new, fantastically interactive books live? Only on iOS devices like the iPad, of course. Although the new iBooks software Apple launched appears to be based on the open ePub standard for e-books, it has enough proprietary tweaks in it that it likely won’t be compatible in either direction (at least not without a lot of effort). Once you create a book using the publishing software, you can save it as a PDF and send it to someone — but if you want to sell it, the end-user licence Apple makes you sign (or click on) says you can only sell it through the Apple iTunes store. Even the usually-supportive Apple blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball says this is “Apple at its worst.”

The same thing goes for the textbooks that are going to be supplied by Houghton Mifflin and McGraw-Hill for $14.99 or less per copy: They will only live on iPads, which cost $500 or so each — unless Apple plans to offer some kind of educational bulk discount or special version of the device, the way it did with the original iMacs, but there was no word about that kind of program in Thursday’s announcement.

Do we want to give Apple control over the curriculum?

As one writer with some experience in the educational system pointed out at Cnet, as appealing as it might be, the kind of cost and investment involved in rolling out digital textbooks would be beyond the ability of most schools, even if they were to somehow land a major educational grant for such a purchase. And if a school buys books in bulk, according to a Wired magazine description of the program, they would have to repurchase new versions of all those textbooks for every new school year.

But the biggest criticism of Apple’s attempt to co-opt the educational system doesn’t have anything to do with costs: If its digital textbooks became the standard in schools, it would commit those institutions to a much broader — and theoretically much more dangerous — relationship with a technology provider than we have ever seen. Apple’s iMacs may have made their way into every school, but they didn’t control a key part of the curriculum. Every textbook would effectively have to be approved by Apple, and the software that controlled them would belong to Apple alone.

It’s possible Apple is planning to open up its new iBook textbooks, either by embracing the ePub standard or making it easy to move texts out of its system and into another, so iBooks can live alongside Inkling textbooks or CourseSmart books or Kno books — but if it’s planning to do that, we didn’t hear anything about it on Thursday. All we heard was how Apple wants to do the same thing to the textbook market as it has done to recorded music and mobile gaming: that is, own and control it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and Jeremy Mates

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