Future of Tablet Textbooks

July 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm 2 comments

I attended an Apple-offered seminar this last week at Georgia Tech on the future of mobile media and higher education.  Most of it was show-and-tell about cool books and apps available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad platforms.  What I found most interesting (and what I went to hear about) is where Apple sees textbooks on this platform.

Apple really doesn’t know, but they have a direction that they’d like to see.  They think that the first iPad-based textbooks are going to come out as apps available through the App Store.  There are some pretty stunning ones like the Elements book-as-app.

But that’s not Apple’s preferred path.  Apple would prefer to have textbooks come out as EPUB books, read through their iBook reader.  (Having used Kindle reader for over a year now, I find the iBook reader flakey and annoying, but I trust that there will be more stable versions than 1.1.)  Apple is hindered by the fact that EPUB is an international standard that they don’t control, and current EPUB books can’t do everything that one would want a Tablet-based textbook to do.  The current EPUB standard allows for embedding of some HTML links to audio and video (for example), but doesn’t allow for the rich simulations that we’d like to see embedded in future digital textbooks.  Apple is pushing to have the EPUB standard extended.

Now, why would Apple care?  This is the part that gets interesting.  EPUB books can be distributed through Apple’s iTunesU channel in the iTunes store — that’s the established higher education distribution channel for them.  Apps are much more tightly controlled, e.g., they have to be checked for memory leaks and proper behavior (expensive!), and they have to be signed and distributed carefully to make sure that what the customer gets is what the publisher delivered (and what Apple vetted).  Apple doesn’t want to have to vet textbooks — very explicitly.  Vetting textbooks starts to cross the line from technology into content.  Who makes sure the content is right.

I think Apple doesn’t see the problem as I do. When textbooks have the capability of rich textbooks, what makes them different from an App anyway?  Couldn’t they misbehave in the same ways as errant apps?  And don’t you want someone to do some of that content vetting?  Isn’t that what publishers do for you, when the customer-publisher relationship is working well?

It’s interesting how the distribution, cost, standards, and technology issues are overlapping here.  No clear answer, but it was interesting to see some of the possibilities laid out.

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