“We have to be prepared for this,” Lyman said. “I think that [the Apple tablet] will really capture the imaginations of students who haven’t really considered switching to eTextbooks yet. … I think it’s going to generate a lot of excitement for students and institutions alike.”

And the number of students who consider eReaders for classes is increasing, Lyman added.

“We know that there are more and more students looking at [eReaders] as a reasonable solution,” he said. “And that notion of not having to lug books around will have a lot of utility for college students. It won’t move everybody, but it will move it to a larger customer base.”

Creators of educational iPhone applications said the tablet could offer a wider format that would remove space restrictions imposed by small screens on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

“Logically, if we were to take this project to the next level, a book-like form factor [such as] a tablet would be beneficial,” said Steven C. Mitchell, owner of Componica, an Iowa-based company that developed an iPhone app called Memorize Words for Spanish. “We’re interested in expanding to other languages and eventually including grammatical training, sentence synthesis, and comprehension, but physically a person can only stare at a tiny screen for so long.”

Developers of Memorize Words for Spanish, which features more than 6,300 commonly-used Spanish words, had to eliminate parts of the iPhone app because space was limited, Mitchell said.

“Many features didn’t make the final cut because we ran out of screen,” he said.

The reputation of eReader devices took a blow last June when the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind joined a blind Arizona State University student in suing the school, alleging that the Kindle’s inaccessibility to blind students constituted a violation of federal law. A settlement was announced Jan. 11.

The university, which denied the pilot program violates any law, agreed that if it decides to use eBook readers in future classes over the next two years, “it will strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind,” according to a statement.

Although the Kindle has a read-aloud feature that could help the blind and the visually impaired, turning it on requires navigating through screens of text menus. The federation has said the device should be able to speak the menu choices.

Blindness groups said another impetus for the settlement was the fact that Amazon and other companies were already working to improve the accessibility of eBook readers for blind and visually impaired people.

If Apple’s tablet propels the popularity of eBooks the way iPod did for online music, Testa expects illegal web sites for downloading textbooks to proliferate.

This would follow a pattern established with the rise of illegal music downloading sites on campuses to avoid the costs of the iTunes store, and it could create more headaches for university IT officials who have struggled to stop illegal downloading on campus.

“The Limewire of books is coming,” Testa said, referring to the popular illegal music site. “You can count on that.”

Links:

CourseSmart tablet concept

Amazon Kindle DX