Apple sets out to transform textbooks

Apple Inc. has already transformed the music, mobile phone and personal computing industries, and now the tech giant says its next chapter will be about reinventing textbooks.

In New York on Thursday, at the company’s first product launch event since the death of Steve Jobs in October, Apple announced a trio of new or updated products — the iBooks 2, iBooks Author and iTunes U applications — that it said would uproot the traditional learning experience.

With the new iBooks 2 app, students can download interactive textbooks to their iPads, usually for $14.99 or less, eliminating the need for a bulging backpack laden with out-of-date, hundred-dollar textbooks. IBooks Author enables publishers and writers to create their own books using Mac computers and publish them to Apple’s iBookstore. And students can use the iTunes U app to receive course curricula, read textbooks, view presentations and lectures, and get assignment lists from their teachers through their mobile devices.


The apps are available free of charge in Apple app stores.

“It’s a game changer,” said John Bailey, former director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, who said Apple was smart to tap into students’ preference for and familiarity with technology. “This is for education and publishing what iTunes and the iPod was for music.”

The aggressive foray into the education industry could elevate Apple’s popular iPad tablet into a must-have device for students, and it cranks up the competition between the company and Inc. The online retailing giant is a leader in the physical book-selling market and recently released its first tablet, the Kindle Fire, which was widely considered the iPad’s first real competitor; Apple’s venture into education could be a strategic move to get one step ahead of Amazon before it ramps up its own e-book initiatives.

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said 1.5 million iPads are already in use in education institutions and that the tablet was “rapidly being adopted by schools across the U.S. and around the world.” More than 20,000 educational apps are available in the company’s iOS App Store.

The announcement also brought to fruition Jobs’ longtime dream of revolutionizing the publishing space, a goal he shared with biographer Walter Isaacson in his book “Steve Jobs.”

“Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform,” Isaacson wrote. “He believed it was an $8-billion-a-year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around.”

“The iPad,” Isaacson quoted the tech visionary as saying, “would solve that.”

The company promised that the titles would be “an entirely new kind of textbook that’s dynamic, engaging and truly interactive” by featuring interactive animations, diagrams, photos, videos and navigation. Students would be able to highlight portions of the text with their fingers, take notes and instantly transform the sections into digital flashcards, for instance.

“This is really, really different,” said Shaw Wu, senior technology analyst at Sterne Agee. “A standard e-book is basically a regular textbook — it’s not interactive, it’s just in digital form. Now we’re talking about textbooks that’ll interact like a website.”

Apple’s stock, which hit a record intraday high Thursday, slipped slightly to close at $427.75.

Apple said it teamed up with three major publishing houses — Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson — that together account for 90% of textbook sales to deliver digital textbooks through its iBookstore.

McGraw-Hill initially will focus on offering high school math and science titles, said Vineet Madan, the company’s senior vice president of new ventures and strategic services.

McGraw-Hill already makes its instructional materials available in some type of digital form, including companion websites or additional images for the K-12 market, Madan said. But Apple’s tools and the iPad’s touch screen enabled other kinds of features, such as the ability to manipulate 3-D molecules in virtual space. The titles being offered on the iPad exist in print form but will now include content such as videos, layered images and animations.

“It’s one thing to see a picture of a cell structure; it’s another to see an animation of the layers of the cell coming together,” Madan said. “It’s easier for students to understand that than seeing one very complex image, which is all that is possible in print.”

Pearson said its “first wave” of books for Apple’s iPad comprises about 7,000 pages of content, more than 100 videos and 1,000 “interactive widgets” that include features such as 3-D animation. The publisher is releasing several of its current high school math and science textbooks for the platform, covering topics such as biology, environmental science and algebra.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will release “a number of titles” for the iPad but declined to announce specific titles Thursday. They will most likely be for the middle school and high school markets, said Josef Blumenfeld, senior vice president of corporate affairs.

Blumenfeld said a big challenge will be getting more iPads, which start at $499, into the hands of students. Deployment “is expensive and it’s a high hurdle for a lot of districts to overcome right now,” he said.

During its announcement Thursday, which took place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Apple made no mention of new discounts on iPads for students or schools. But Wu said students who go the iPad route for their textbooks would quickly find it to be cost-effective.

“The initial cost may be high, but the whole ownership cycle is probably cheaper because you just carry that one iPad,” he said. “Doing it this way is actually lowering costs over the longer haul.”

Chang reported from Los Angeles and Wong from Chicago.

Times staff writer Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.