Apple iBooks 2, iTunes U Initiatives Could Change Textbooks

Apple has launched iBooks 2, designed to bring an interactive textbook experience to the iPad, along with an authoring tool and a new iTunes U. The potential impact is huge.

Apple launched a new education initiative Jan. 19 at a high-profile event at New York City's Guggenheim Museum that focused on "reinventing textbooks" and using technology to make the classroom more engaging for students.

"Education is deep in our DNA," Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told the assembled media, according to several live feeds from the event. Indeed, for years, Apple has positioned itself as a particularly education-friendly company. Its latest announcements, however, elevate that stance to a whole new level.

Apple's iBooks 2 is designed to bring a "new textbook experience" to the iPad, which the company views as an evolution beyond traditional paperbound textbooks. These interactive textbooks will feature not only multimedia, such as video and touchable graphics, but also tools, such as highlighting and search. The software platform converts students' notes into study cards, and alters the textbook's layout, depending on the tablet's orientation.

Apple's other initiative, iBooks Author, lets authors and publishers create those interactive textbooks. The interface seems reminiscent of Apple's other productivity software; it offers the ability to add everything from text to graphics by dragging-and-dropping, with text flowing automatically around each added element. Available as a free download in the Mac App Store, Apple intends for content creators to produce textbooks for every subject at every level, for $19.99. Any e-book created via iBooks can be published to a special area of Apple's iBookstore hub.

Apple's third big education announcement, the revamped iTunes U, is a free application that gives educators the ability to distribute course materials and video or audio lectures, as well as view presentations. As with iBooks Author, Apple is emphasizing the supposed ease-of-use in constructing a full course, via the iTunes U Course Manager.

For days leading up to Apple's event, rumors leaked that the company was prepping something related to textbooks. Before his death, Apple CEO Steve Jobs long harbored an abiding interest in creating some sort of textbook-related product. "He wanted to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of spavined students bearing backpacks by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad," read one passage in Jobs' recent biography by Walter Isaacson. At another point, Jobs "agreed" with News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch that "the paper textbook business would be blown away by digital learning materials."

Of Apple's new announcements, iBooks Author in particular, seems destined to toss the company into even fiercer competition with Amazon, which is also moving from book distributor to more of a book producer. Apple's easy-to-use tools and digital distribution could also have a seismic impact on a traditional publishing industry looking to find its place amid a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

But whether Apple's education initiatives have a similarly massive effect on school districts, at least in the short term, is a big question.

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