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Apple starts selling interactive iPad textbooks

Apple is trying to swap a backpack full of books with an iPad by selling electronic versions of some textbooks.

January 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Apple is trying to swap a backpack full of books with an iPad by selling electronic versions of some textbooks.

The electronic textbooks will be able to display content with videos and other interactive features, and it's tailored for elementary and high-school students on their iPads.

The books, which include "Biology" and "Environmental Science" from Pearson and "Algebra 1" and "Chemistry" from McGraw-Hill, will be available under the new version of the free iBooks application, which became available on Thursday.

With the new electronic books, students can use their fingers as highlighters, take instant notes and the app also converts those into study note cards right away.

However, it remains unclear that even a company with Apple's clout will be able to reform the primary and high-school textbook market. The printed books are bought by schools, not students. They are reused year after year, which isn't possible with the electronic versions. Also, new books are subject to lengthy state approval processes.

Textbook publishers have been making electronic versions of their products for years, but until recently, there hasn't been any hardware suitable to display them. PCs are too expensive and cumbersome to be good e-book machines for students. E-book readers like the Kindle have small screens and can't display color.

IPads and other tablet computers work well, but iPads cost at least $499. The software giant did not announce plans to discount or give away any of the sleek tablets.

Albert Greco, a professor at Fordham University in New York and a former high-school principal, said schools would need to buy iPads for its students if printed books were to be completely replaced.

It wouldn't work to let students who can afford to buy their own iPads use them in class with textbooks they buy themselves, alongside poorer students with printed books, said Greco.

"The digital divide issue could be very embarrassing. Because if you don't have the iPad, you can't do the quiz, you don't get instant feedback ... that is an invitation for a lawsuit," Greco said. "I would be shocked if any principal or superintendent would let that system go forward."

Apple argued that over time, an iPad is cheaper than books. Greco disagrees, saying hardback high-school textbooks cost an average of about $105, and a freshman might need five of them. However, they last for five years.

That means that even if an iPad were to last for five years in the hands of students, the e-books plus the iPad would cost more than the hardback textbooks.

Apple also released an app for iTunes U, which has been a channel for colleges to release video and audio from lectures, through iTunes. The app will open that channel to K-through-12 schools, and will let teachers present outlines, post notes and communicate with students in other ways.

The company also revealed the iBook Author, an app for Macs that lets people create electronic textbooks.

Biographer Walter Isaacson said reforming the textbook market was a pet project of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, even in the last year of his life. Jobs died in October after a long battle with cancer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.