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What to expect from Apple's education event: Digital textbooks, 'GarageBand for ebooks'


The Wall Street Journal and Ars Technica have weighed in with information about Apple's upcoming education event. Both outlets cite the usual "people familiar with the matter" for their information, and their sources have generally given accurate info in the past. With those caveats out of the way, it's worth looking at what the WSJ and Ars have to say about Thursday's event.

The Wall Street Journal confirms most of the past week's speculation and says Apple's education event will indeed focus on the launch of a new platform for digital textbooks. According to its sources, Apple has been working with textbook publishers on this new platform for quite some time; McGraw-Hill has been collaborating with Apple since at least June of 2011. Cengage Learning, a major player in textbooks for higher education, has worked with Apple in the past and will also attend the event.

Reportedly the event will focus on a new type of digital textbook providing a greater degree of interactivity than has been offered in the past. The iPad is of course the perfect medium for consumption of such content, and the iTunes Store is a ready-made outlet for delivering that content. Apple has already provided all the tools for digital textbooks to get into the hands of teachers and students, with one exception: an easy way to create that digital content in the first place.

Tools for creating ebooks from scratch or converting standard books into digital versions have traditionally been confusing to use, delivered inconsistent results, and haven't played well with anything more than basic multimedia integration. Speaking from my personal experience in trying to create a simple text-only ebook using iWork, I've longed for a simpler and more user-friendly tool; I can only imagine that textbook publishers have been clamoring for such a piece of software even more stridently.

According to Ars Technica, Apple is set to deliver that final piece of the puzzle in crafting digital textbooks, which the site characterizes as sort of a "GarageBand for ebooks." Apple is expected to announce support for the EPUB 3 standard -- it currently supports EPUB 2 with some HTML5-based extensions to allow grafting of basic multimedia content onto ebooks. While this may render such ebooks incompatible with other ebook platforms (Kindle, most notably) it should also make it much easier for textbook makers to deliver interactive content in their ebooks.

Both Ars's sources and people within the digital publishing industry agree that Apple is set to introduce a tool designed to make the process of creating digital content for ebooks as easy as GarageBand makes it to throw together a song on your Mac. While this lowering of the barrier for publishing could have some unintended consequences (I shudder to think that these kinds of tools might mean my ex-girlfriend's Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction might reach a wider audience), the implications for bigger publishers like the major players in the textbook market are disruptive -- and lucrative.

If The Wall Street Journal and Ars have it right, Thursday's event looks like a fairly big deal despite the lack of any new hardware. For the past 25 years (at least) we've been promised that technology would eventually revolutionize the classroom entirely, but it's only recently that the tools and means of delivery have existed to supplement or supplant the traditional dead-tree textbook. It sounds like that might be coming to pass at last.

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