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6 things we don't know about Apple's e-textbooks strategy

Apple's bold move into the ripe-for-change textbook market has introduced more questions than answers. Here's a look at some out biggest ones.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
David Carnoy
Scott Stein
5 min read
Apple Textbooks have roared into the iBookstore, leaving a trail of questions in their wake. Apple
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Textbooks aren't a terribly sexy topic, but give it to Apple for trying to make it sexy.

Yes, today Apple officially rolled out an upgraded 2.0 version of its iBooks app that now supports interactive textbooks while also releasing a free Mac application, iBook Author, that lets people create electronic textbooks on their computers.

Seems clear enough, right? Apple jumps headlong into an entrenched, inefficient industry, threatening it with "digital destruction," or, to put it another way, textbook go boom.

But the truth is, the announcements stirred up more questions than they answered. So with that in mind, here's a look the six biggest questions we had after Apple's presentation in New York.

1. Who will pay for hardware and software?
There were a lot of questions about how Apple's electronic textbooks would actually be deployed in schools. Since we assume Apple won't be doing an Android version of its iBooks app anytime soon, we presume students will need an iPad to access e-textbooks, but the question is, who is going to pay for those iPads? Will Apple subsidize the cost? Will kids be forced to buy an iPad? And will students be given the option of choosing between the digital version and the printed version (again, will students be forced to go digital).

2. Copyright issues (re: course packets)--will Apple enforce copyright?
Call this the "course packet" problem: students are well-accustomed to getting photocopied packets of articles for their university classes. Many times, these packets are made without properly paying for the rights to the articles. What's stopping a professor from cutting and pasting someone else's content into an e-book made with iBooks Author? More importantly, how will Apple enforce proper copyright protection on educational content? It's all too easy to envision a flood of content featuring lectures and chapters cut and pasted wholesale from other sources. It's a problem plaguing some self-published books already, and if Apple's serious about opening up the floodgates of textbook content via iBooks Author, the situation could skyrocket if not properly handled.

It's also unclear how easily independent authors will be able to submit iBooks Author-created books to the iBookstore. Perhaps iBooks Author will be more of a tool for locally shared content than a platform for wide-scale publishing, at least in the short term.

3. Will Apple curate/censor textbook content?
Textbooks have to be approved through a state certification process, and in a lot of cases different versions of the same textbook are approved for schools in different states. There have been reports that Steve Jobs wanted to circumvent the state certification process by having Apple release its own free textbooks (we're not sure how the economics of that would work), but that opens up the debate over just what textbooks Apple would allow to be sold in its iBookstore. Does it allow books that, say, teach creationism or a controversial philosophy? And how heavily will it scrutinize the potentially huge trove of new e-books created in iBooks Author, rejecting e-books for content it deems objectionable? Nothing was said about Apple's role as arbiter of content at the press conference.

Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET
4. iTunes U: Will it remain free and open to all?
One of the great side benefits of iTunes U in its current incarnation is how it can be a way to casually and virtually audit lectures. The newly added ability to add everything from syllabi to reading lists to office hours could make iTunes U more of a hub for universities, but will all of it be free for anyone to access? If so, iTunes U will be a freeloader's dream, but it could cut into the market for paid auditors. If iTunes U is meant for students, then could it end up being more of a closed-off ecosystem than what it currently is? The new iTunes U app is already impressively populated with free course materials and even notes, but the "subscribe free" button suggests that paid courses and materials, or additional required paid books, may start becoming the norm.

5. How much cheaper will digital textbooks cost?
While we see that Apple has some high school textbooks already selling for $14.99 in its iBookstore, there's no word yet on exactly how much higher-priced college textbooks will cost. Will the digital versions be 50 percent less than their print counterparts? Or will it be more like a 20 percent to 30 percent savings?

Except to indicate prices would be lower, not much info was given on pricing. And the fact is that pricing is a key factor in all of this. Despite offering multimedia elements such as video, 3D graphics, and hyperlinked text along with other whiz-bang interactive features, if the prices for the digital version aren't affordable enough, they probably won't sell terribly well.

Why? Well, there's still a big market for used textbooks, and you can always sell both new and used printed books back to the bookstore (or directly to fellow students). You can't do that with e-books. A digital version is yours to keep after you're through with it and right now, there's no way to resell it and transfer ownership (that's why publishers like the e-book market because they don't make any money on the sale of used books).

How social will Apple's e-textbooks be?
Apple made no mention of social in its New York education-targeted event on Thursday, prompting many to wonder whether the textbooks available via iBooks 2 would incorporate any way of socially sharing notes or highlights. At this point, fingers point to no, although "social" books seem more like an inevitability than a possibility. Amazon's already enabled some social features on the Kindle.

In short, Apple's educational initiative seems long on self-publishing ideas, but short on clarification of details and execution for schools at large. We hope more-specific answers emerge sooner than later, but it's a long way to the start of the next school year in September. If you have any unanswered questions yourself, post them below.

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