Can Apple’s tablet spark a textbook revolution?

Educators expect the Apple tablet screen to be much larger than the iPhone display.
Educators expect the Apple tablet screen to be much larger than the iPhone display.

Can the release of Apple’s eReader tablet do for textbooks what the iPod did for music: combine an online store for purchasing books with sleek hardware that holds every text a student needs?

That’s the question many educators are asking as anticipation of Apple’s new tablet mounts.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is widely expected to unveil his company’s eReader Jan. 27 in San Francisco, and industry insiders expect the product to have a large touch screen that is smaller than a laptop screen but larger than an iPhone.

Education has yet to warm up to the eReader format in recent years, although some colleges and universities have launched pilot programs using Amazon’s Kindle DX eReader, which has a 9.7-inch screen compared with the original Kindle’s 6-inch screen.

The Kindle lets readers download books wirelessly and has appealed to a larger audience since trimming its starting price of $400 to $260, and Amazon officials confirmed last month that customers bought more digital books than physical books from Amazon’s online store for the first time ever on Christmas Day.

eBook companies have trumpeted recent sales reports showing that digital books might be entering the market’s mainstream. Sales reports from the Association of American Publishers show digital books sales have risen sharply since the beginning of 2008, just after the Kindle’s release.

Education technology advocates say students’ allegiance to Apple and the familiarity of buying music or applications from the company’s online store and downloading those purchases on an iPod or an iPhone could make the new Apple tablet an instant hit on campus.

“This is huge for electronic print,” said Scott Testa, a business professor at Cabrini College near Philadelphia who tracks campus technology trends. “Ten years from now, the idea of having a physical textbook is going to be very limited. … I really think just having the ecosystem in place for content delivery will be a very appealing aspect for consumers.”

In what technology analysts say is a response to the buzz about Apple’s tablet, Amazon recently announced that developers outside the company could begin making programs for the Kindle—the same way Apple officials encourage outside development of iPhone apps.

Testa said even if the Apple tablet is similar to the Kindle DX, college students could flock to the product simply because it sports the largely beloved Apple logo.

“I think from a marketing perspective, Apple is a spiritual brand,” he said. “Students will buy it based upon their prior experience with Apple. … That can’t be overstated.”

Jobs’ announcement has digital book companies planning for what’s next in higher education and how to distribute their content among Apple tablet users.

Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart—the country’s largest provider of electronic college textbooks—said company officials would meet shortly after the Apple press conference to discuss how they can capitalize on the new product.

If the tablet uses the iPhone’s operating system, Lyman said college students could have immediate access to CourseSmart’s 8,700 electronic textbooks. The company designed an iPhone application last summer in anticipation of an upcoming Apple eReader.

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