Digital textbooks: are they really the future?

Student Life

Not content with revolutionising the way music, apps and, to a lesser extent, novels and movies are bought, Apple have turned to their next target- the digital textbook. Textbooks have mostly been left out of the recent drive to digitise books. Whilst a standard novel, mostly prose with the odd picture, is easy and quick to format to a digital version, large-page textbooks with diagrams and equations would be much more time-consuming. Not to mention it would probably look rubbish on black-and-white readers such as the Kindle. Apple intends to change all this, marrying interactive full-colour books with their prolific iPads in some sort of textbook-heaven. But will it actually work?

Apple’s idea is that a rich, digital textbook would make life easier for everyone. This new breed of textbooks, announced in New York a fortnight ago, would have slideshows, 3D diagrams and just been generally more interactive than your standard, dog-eared copy of Lifecycles of worms, or something else equally as thrilling. Apple have claimed that most of the textbooks would be priced at $15 (£10) or less, due to reduced production costs and cutting out of middle-men in the supply chain.

However, textbooks were not the only focus of this new release of iBooks. Now, using the iBooks Author app (available only on Macs, natch) any budding “author” can put their novels on the iBookstore or create their own textbooks.

The main impetus for having iPads littering classrooms (aside from the fact that the backs of the iPads would rapidly be covered in phalluses and “Rob + Katie 4 eva”) is that currently the price of an iPad is simply too high for them to be purchased in any useful quantity. The retail price of an iPad is currently £400, and even with student and bulk discounts, all but the richest schools could afford to equip their students with them. This doesn’t take into the fact that tablets have a short life-cycle and would likely be required to be upgraded every three or four years. Books, on the other hand, can happily last up to half a century chilling out on one of the Bodleian shelves.

That’s not to say that all schools are currently giving blank looks to these new resources. The first three days of the textbook’s availability, currently restricted a few free books, DK and some US publishers, saw 350 000 books being downloaded, which is fairly promising. Some schools in the US have already started using iBooks, although it remains to see how this number will grow.

Whilst getting schools on board is one issue, another lies with the authors of the content itself. The concern that authors are currently voicing is highlighted in the license agreement upon using the new authoring software, which essentially states that any book designed using the software cannot be sold elsewhere with the same design. Whilst some argue that Apple are providing this fairly decent software gratis and so they should make money of the books, others are outraged at Apple is dictating who they can sell their books to without designing it twice. Neither is there an option to import designs from the industry standard publishing software, which means publishers and authors who want to use the new interactive features of iBooks must start from scratch.

However, despite the shortcomings, Apple is well known as a company who can make something that seems like an absurd idea into a huge money-maker. The system is currently by no means mature, but if they add rentals and bulk purchases, Apple could be on to a winner. But there is always the risk they’ve set their sights just a little too high this time.

Personally, I’m sure the 14 year-old me would’ve preferred looking up naughty works on an interactive dictionary over a standard one.

Alex Curran 



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