Big January Apple events are becoming common—perhaps as a move to distract from the messy, drawn-out gadget orgy that is CES. Tomorrow's big reveal has a distinctly educational flavor.
Several weeks ago we learned that Apple had something to do with textbooks waiting in the wings, and it came with the blessing of none other than Steve Jobs, himself. Jobs is said to have made a big effort on this plan, as it's something that was close to his heart, even as his health was deteriorating. That alone makes the event significant.
But what, many folks have wondered, is Apple going to do, exactly? We know the iPad is a game changer in many ways for the publishing industry, and we know that many educational establishments are leaping to embrace the device to enable much more sophisticated teaching methods (and that it's inspired other efforts to do the same for much less money). We've seen companies like Kno try to bring tablet computing to schools and universities with one main selling point, amid others like cleverer note-taking: To simplify the problem of hauling many heavy and expensive textbooks around. We also know that while a plain e-version of a textbook has many benefits over a dead trees edition, there's much scope for adding rich media and interactivity, perhaps to better illustrate difficult math equations or mediate history pop quizzes, in order to really make the lessons stick in the mind.
So some rumors suggested Apple was going to squash the existing textbook publishing paradigm—perhaps "digitally destroy" it—by releasing a new platform for powerful interactive textbook design, along with all the necessary tools to enable authors to make iPad e-textbooks truly 21st century. The new package would be a "GarageBand for textbooks," it's been thought, leveraging the simple and amazingly potent skills of the iPad GarageBand app to attract all sorts of people, incuding those who'd otherwise never have been interested in making music.
These rumors may have been enough to push Kno to add new technology to its tablet education platform: Kno Flashcards which automatically turning key phrases in any Kno-format textbook into a flashcard to boost student revision, and Kno Me, which is an analytics platform to keep students abreast of their learning habits and targets. Meanwhile a firm called Chegg, which has done pretty well in shaking up the textbook paradigm with a novel book-rental scheme, has just released its first piece of software aimed at the e-textbook game. It's an HTML5-based interface, meaning it's platform agnostic, that lets students access their e-texts whether they're using an iPad in class or in bed, or if they're using a school PC in the library—including all their personal annotations and reminders, and other habits more usually associated with physical books.
These are great innovations, excellent for students.
Yet other rumors say Apple's simply going to try to shake up the textbook sales market by promoting existing publisher partners and simplifying access to their content via a dedicated e-textbook (iTextbook?) marketplace. Rather than concentrating on tools for publishing—a move that some think will be met by great resistance, not least because of the way authors tend to use Adobe tools—Apple's learned its lesson from upsetting the music industry and will try a more measured approach.
We're not convinced by this. Sure working on two platforms (Adobe and Apple's) may be a pain, but if the minds behind the better textbooks are offered a powerful and superbly easy-to-use interface by Apple to create truly next-generation books that convey their educational message more potently...then our money is on them leaping to embrace it. The softly softly idea also doesn't feel very Steve Jobs—and we know he was passionate about this topic.
The Wall Street Journal last night revealed that Apple's put its iWork man, Roger Rosner, in control of the new educational system. Citing "people familiar with the matter," in a manner we've come to suspect means the WSJ is an official leak channel for seeding Apple ideas, again mentions "tools for building digital textbooks" and suggests something new, too: The "service is expected to be a way for a broad range of schools, publishers and others to develop learning material in a digital format." This strikes us as being a very Jobs-ian idea, and we can imagine he'd have taken the stage tomorrow and said something like: "It's not just the textbook writers who have great ideas—teachers do too, and so do their students. So why not let everyone build some great interactive books that help their class, and perhaps other students elsewhere, understand a lesson?" iWork, you see, has both a clean interface and a cloud-storage aspect that would seem suited to an expansion into educational publishing, co-work and sharing.
If this really is the thrust of Apple's news tomorrow, then it's a step to bring textbooks into the modern era that seems much bigger than the moves of Apple's peers. We'll only know more when the chalk dust starts flying at 10 a.m. EST tomorrow.