Apple Inc. on Thursday launched its attempt to make the iPad a replacement for a satchel full of textbooks by starting to sell electronic versions of a handful of standard high-school books.
The electronic textbooks, which include Biology and Environmental Science from Pearson and Algebra 1 and Chemistry from McGraw-Hill, contain videos and other interactive elements.
But it's far from clear 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, and are reused year after year, which isn't possible with the electronic versions. New books are subject to lengthy state approval processes.
Apple staged the launch in New York City, home to the publishing industry. Phil Schiller, Apple's head of marketing, unveiled the books at an event at New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Publishers have been talking about digitizing cumbersome textbooks for years, but Apple says the iPad has changed the equation. The company says there are already 1.5 million iPads in educational settings, making the tablet the ideal springboard for getting rid of paper.
"The iPad ... is imminently portable. It's a lot more durable than paper and binding. Of course it's interactive," Schiller said.
A Slow Adoption Of E-Textbooks
Major 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. Dedicated e-book readers like the Kindle have small screens and can't display color.
The iPad and other tablet computers work well, but iPads cost at least $499. Apple didn't reveal any new program to defray the cost of getting the tablet computers into the hands of students.
All this means that textbooks have lagged the general adoption of e-books, even when counting college-level works that students buy themselves. Forrester Research said e-books accounted for only 2.8 percent of the $8 billion U.S. textbook market in 2010.
On Thursday, Apple also released iBooks Author, a new tool meant to lure publishers into creating new content specifically for the iPad education user. At the unveiling, Apple's Roger Rosner showed off technology that makes it easier to include animation and high-tech features into textbooks, and then publish them instantly.
The publishing tool is available for free, and the books that result from this effort will be available in a new iBooks store. The company also announced upgrades to iTunes U, which already holds thousands of college lectures.
The Digital Divide Issue
The publishing initiative may create a painful dilemma for school districts and colleges. Albert Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University in New York and a former high-school principal, said schools would need to buy iPads for its students if it were to replace printed books.
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.
"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."
Greco said 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 Can 'Educate The Market'
A lot of companies already offer some of the features Apple is rolling out. Greco called the new app "a shot across the bow" of Blackboard Inc., a privately held company that provides similar electronic tools to teachers. It, too, has applications for cellphones and tablets.
But Osman Rashid, founder of a startup called Kno, says despite Apple's heft, the new initiative will help his business by making e-textbooks more common.
"So we as a startup don't have to spend as many marketing dollars trying to educate the market," Rashid says. "We can now spend our funds telling people why Kno is the best place to go."
According to Walter Isaacson, the biographer of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, reforming the textbook market was a pet project of Jobs, even in the last year of his life. At a dinner in early 2011, Jobs told News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch that paper textbooks could be made obsolete by the iPad. Jobs wanted to circumvent the state certification process for textbook sales by having Apple release textbooks for free on the tablet computer.
NPR's Larry Abramson contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.