Almost as soon as Apple finished announcing its new iBooks 2 initiative this week, critics began tearing it down. “It’s not open enough”; “iPads are too expensive”; “Other companies are already doing this.” The list goes on. Never mind the fact that most of these folks hadn’t even tried the new iBooks yet. Why try to appreciate what’s good about Apple’s admittedly grandiose ambitions when it’s so much easier to poke holes in the company’s plans? Here’s why Apple will succeed in transforming education and prove the naysayers wrong.
Complaint No. 1: It’s a walled garden.
One of the main criticisms Apple’s competitors have about iBooks 2 is that you can only use them on the iPad. That’s true, but this only applies to books created using iBooks Author. Nothing prevents a publisher from putting out a nearly identical interactive textbook using the more widely accepted EPUB format. And while there would certainly be work involved in outputting for different types of devices, I could easily envision an Adobe or someone else stepping in to make it easier for publishers to move toward a write-once, run-everywhere solution. I’m not a programming expert, but I imagine this process would be easier than writing apps for multiple platforms.
Complaint No. 2: iPads are too expensive (and fragile) for cash-strapped school districts.
At a time that schools continue to cut costs, the last thing they would seem to have funds for would be hundreds or thousands of iPads. Today, the iPad is quite expensive, at $499, but I expect Apple to keep the iPad 2 around and drop the price by at least $100. That’s still pricey, but it will certainly help get iBooks textbooks into more hands. And over time I’m sure Apple will debut an even lower-cost iPad to compete with the likes of the Amazon Kindle Fire.
For those school districts that are going to make a significant investment in technology over the next few years, where do you think they should put their money, in laptops or in the iPad, which has a more engaging, multitouch interface? Today’s kids don’t need physical keyboards. As to whether iPads are too brittle for kids to handle, a good protective case could go a long way toward making it easier for schools to protect their investments—and to make it easier to share the tablets among multiple students in those schools that can’t afford a 1:1 ratio.
Complaint No. 3: What Apple is doing has been done before.
As the Apple announcement drew near, pioneers in this area understandably trumpeted that they’ve been innovating in the e-textbook space for quite a while. Kno is one good example, which started out trying to market a dual-screen color tablet and then wisely changed course to developing an app. Today, the company offers over 100,000 textbooks, which are accessible on both the iPad and the Web. The problem is that no one really knows this company or any of other Apple’s competitors. One can’t underestimate the marketing muscle Apple will put behind not only iBooks 2 but iTunes U, which provides students with their course materials through a separate but complementary app. It’s this kind of synergy—and Apple’s already huge presence on campuses—that will give the company a huge advantage.
Complaint No. 4: The books take up too much storage.
There’s no getting around the fact that the new iBooks are very large files. A single biology book download ate up 950 MB on our iPad. At just under 1GB, it wouldn’t take long to fill up a 16GB tablet, which could force school districts to consider purchasing even pricier 32GB or 64GB models. In addition, these files take a long while to download, which requires a high-speed connection. Perhaps in the short term, Apple could experiment with enabling downloads by chapter. But in the medium- to-long-term, Apple could leverage iCloud to stream parts of books or perhaps just audio and video. However, that would require schools to drastically improve their infrastructure. As an alternative, Apple could subsidize 4G connectivity for schools as Amazon has done with the 3G version of the Kindle as the iPad moves to next-generation mobile broadband.
Complaint No. 5: Teachers don’t have the time or energy to learn a new platform.
I know some teachers and education administrators, and I’m pretty sure that many don’t have the inclination to create their own books with iBooks Author. The biggest issue is that the program requires that you use a Mac. In order for Apple to make iBooks truly ubiquitous, it would need to make a version of iBooks Author for Windows, as well as Keynote, which is used to help power the software. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Where I do see a lot of potential is with iBooks 2 itself. It’s in teachers’ best interest to embrace touch-optimized and multimedia-friendly books to help engage their students in new ways. And I suspect that as the iPad takes on more content-creation capabilities, educators won’t need a computer at all to re-imagine learning materials for tomorrow’s digital students.
Apple faces plenty of obstacles with its new iBooks platform, and I don't expect those to be overcome this year or even next year. But I’m glad Apple is trying to do more with tablets than double as a universal remote control or stand up to splashes by the pool. Trying to change the way children learn is a laudable goal, and I’m optimistic that iBooks will make that happen. And if Apple forces competitors in this small-but-growing market to pull all-nighters just to keep up, that’s a great thing for everyone.