Opinion: Five things that worry us about Apple's textbook push

Textbooks need to be revolutionised, but we have serious concerns about the way in which Apple is going about it.


Last week Apple made a big song and dance about reinventing the textbook with the launch of iBook 2 and iTunes U. Currently this is a US-focused project, but there is little doubt that Australia is a prime candidate for expansion, given our high technological uptake and common language. There have been no plans announced beyond the launch of iTunes U though, so it is important to keep in mind that this is based upon what is happening in the US.
In many ways it makes a lot of sense, getting rid of those hefty lumps of dead trees that many of us carried on our backs for 20 odd years of study is in and of itself wonderful. As is the reduction in cost of textbooks, which has been limited to $US14.99 and guarantees fresh, unsullied copies of what are still the most expensive books this writer has ever purchased. No more will one have to fork out huge amounts of cash for second hand texts, or avoid scrawling notes on the pages to ensure the ability to resell something that will be used for a semester at best. It also makes things easier by speeding up the ability of publishers to revise their texts, without it turning into a massive logistical and budgetary nightmare for schools.
But, Apple being Apple, the entire program is a closed ecosystem. Inputs into iBook 2 are done with Apple formats, not commonly used ones based on open standards. Outputs from iBook 2 can only be published through iTunes, and the resulting format can only be read on an iPad.
Being fans of the open standards on which computing has been built, this kind of lock-in goes against our very nature here at PC & Tech Authority. Which brings us to our list of our five major concerns with textbook reinvention Apple-style.

It mangles the ePub format

Given the rise of eReaders and tablets, more and more people are reading on handheld devices. One of the most frustrating things at the moment though, is that books aren’t universally available. Currently no matter how good the quality of the various devices out there, the widest range of books is available to Kindle owners. Given Amazon’s stranglehold on the ebook market there is a need for a consolidation around a single open standard to allow other booksellers to compete.
This is coming in the form of ePub 3, which adds a lot more rich media functions to the open format. It is important to remember that this format refers to the design of books themselves, and any DRM is overlain on top of this. This allows books to be authored from a single file and then packaged to work with various readers. Apple’s format, while based on ePub 3, is sufficiently different from the common standards to kill the author once, publish many times philosophy behind ePub. This isn’t an issue for Apple though, which brings us to our second concern.

It is platform exclusive

Much has been said about the obfuscated EULA of iBooks 2, which limits the sale of books created with the utility to iBookstore. This means that any work done with Apple’s iBook Author utility can either be given away or sold with Apple getting a 30% cut of the profits. This makes it not so much a textbook revolution as it is an iBookstore revolution. You can bet that we won’t be seeing non-Apple software being able to author in the iBooks 2 format, which eliminates the traditional desktop publishing solutions on the market (companies like Adobe are working on much more eBook friendly publishing software as we speak).
So for those laying out textbooks the options are going to be doubling up on work designing for both ePub and iBooks 2 or just giving in and using a single publishing platform (we can guess which of the two Apple wants to see). But it isn’t just publishing that is locked into Apple’s ecosystem, the really insidious thing in our minds is our next concern.

It is a gateway drug to iTunes

Want to access this textbook revolution? Then you’ll need an iTunes account. This is the case even if the iPad used for iTunes U access is supplied by the school. While iTunes is one of the best options out there for purchasing digital content, there are plenty of people who still happily avoid signing up and go with other digital distribution solutions. Thankfully Apple has instructions on how to set up an iTunes account without putting in credit card details, but once a student is having to purchase textbooks and the like through iTunes then it predisposes them to use the store for purchasing other digital media as well.
iTunes as a choice is fantastic, but iTunes as a compulsory part of schooling is worrying to say the least. Of course, not only will they need an account, but each student will also need to have an iPad in their hands while at school. Which brings us to the next issue.

Tablets suck for long periods of reading

Several of us in the PC & Tech Authority editorial room have both tablets and ebook readers, actively preferring the non-backlit nature of e-ink for long periods of reading. So when you are poring over the pages of words that make up the majority of most textbooks you would be much better off doing it on an eReader. The corollary to this is that currently colour e-ink exists largely as a proof of concept solution, there have been few actual product releases (the most prominent actually uses a completely different technology to e-ink, called mirasol, which has the same non-backlit nature).
The one area where colour e-ink is perfectly suited for is textbooks, but there is still a way to go before the kind of rich video features work with the technology. While tablets are currently a better solution, we cannot envision a world in which Apple would produce eReaders for students, especially when it can keep pumping out the same old iPads without the massive expensive of tooling up a new factory and product line. This is core to our final concern.

It puts Apple’s interests ahead of students

Make no mistake about it, the whole iTunes U and iBooks 2 push is about selling more Apple products, and reaping in that sweet, sweet cut that comes from iTunes sales. Whether iPads are purchased by the school or the student, it keeps the production lines rolling and products selling. Given that Apple is notorious for cutting off support for older devices when it releases new operating systems, we’d expect that a student would end up going through a few iPads over the course of their schooling.
Students would also be locking themselves into a long period of spending on iTunes, where Apple would develop a stranglehold on the textbook market. This seems the natural result of the ‘only publish through us’ EULA on iBook’s, and the deliberate use of a non-standard version of ePub 3. It basically makes it so that there can never be a mix of reading devices. If an iBookstore textbook is mandated reading, then you will have two options – carry around a lump of dead tree, or buy an iPad.
The one saving grace we have here in Australia is that by the time the inevitable push comes we’ll have the US to watch as a case study. It will also likely be a lot tougher to entrench the Apple ecosystem inside the school system, although we’d expect that private schools would already be eyeing off what Apple is doing.
If anything this is justification of the need for open standards. While the iPad has the considerable advantage of consistency with screen size, the textbook market is so potentially huge that you can imagine both tablet and ereader makers bending over backwards to comply with a ‘textbook ePub’ standard.

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