Apple iPad & Textbooks: Preliminary Observations & Questions

So today was the big day, the day that techies, Apple fans, and book people alike were all waiting for: the big announcement of what had been well leaked as the “Apple tablet” amidst all sorts of rumors of features, price points, and even names. And we did indeed get confirmations and negations (yes, it’s a touch-screen tablet, it’s called iPad, prices start at $499 and go up to $829 with additional storage and connectivity). Now let’s look at what else we know, as well as what we’d like to know, what the iPad means for college students (um, it looks like an awesome gaming and media device, you know, for when you’re not studying), and of course, how it affects buying and reading textbooks.

The biggie is that the OS is going to be very familiar to iPhone and iPod Touch users. Same sort of interface there in terms of touch, icons, the App Store, accelerometer, “sensing” portrait/landscape orientation, etc. Cool, because that’s a great interface that has been a real game-changer. Besides, we have an app for it 🙂 And this OS combined with the absence of any sort of optical drive reinforces that all software and media will be sold and downloaded through . . . the iTunes Store, which is of course, the parent to the App Store.

Which brings us to a new app and store: iBooks. It’s a combo reader/store and free download (well, it will be a free download; it’s not available as of this post and there’s no date for delivery though the iPad device itself is slated for late March and early April). Unlike the black-and-white Kindle, the iPad utilizes a high-resolution LED-backlit screen that displays everything in sharp color. This is big; in fact, when we reviewed the Kindle and discussed whether or not it was right for textbooks, the absence of a full-color display was a deal-breaker for us.

We also know that iBooks will feature content from Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette Book Group. How much content and whether or not that content will be academic textbooks or just more mainstream titles is unknown, as is the role that other publishers will play in title offerings. iBooks will use the EPUB standard, and Steve Jobs hinted at more to come by saying, “We think iPad will be a terrific e-book reader for popular books and textbooks.” What that more is, however, is either TBD or under wraps. We can tell you that from the demo that it seemed as if non-academic books would be selling for $8-$15 each or so. No word on textbook selection or pricing, but obviously we expect that the titles will cost more than the trade books and less than print textbooks. Oh, and will the iBooks app work on iPhones? Seems like it should if it’s an app from the App Store and it uses the EPUB standard, right?

So where does this put us and college students in terms of what the iPad means and can deliver? Well, as always, Apple has delivered a gorgeous device that puts the competition to shame in terms of form and function. But we’re just not quite sure what the iPad’s function is exactly given that it’s somewhere between an iPod Touch and a MacBook (Steve acknowledged this from the get-go). We think that the iPad will carve its identity and that users and developers will dictate that identity pretty quickly. There’s a lot of possibility and potential here, and Apple knows it as they are already offering developers the iPad SDK.

In terms of textbooks, there’s a lot that’s unknown and we feel pretty safe in saying that the iPad is hardly making the printed word obsolete any time soon. But the iPad could have a very big future if more publishers get on board and load the store with content for good prices. Probably the biggest thing that iPad has going for it in terms of books (textbooks and non-academic titles) is that its price starts at just $10 more than the Kindle DX and the Kindle is just an eReader whereas the iPad is a lot closer to being a full computer with things like word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, map and GPS, games (they look amazing), movies, and anything else an app-maker can create. And that is a huge difference.

In the meantime, we’re eager to hear about textbook selection and pricing and to get our hands on an iPad to play with the iBook experience. Until then, while by no means a laptop replacement (still no Flash) or the complete eBooks device (yet), the iPad could easily be a Kindle killer.

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