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Apple's e-Textbooks Just Too Good to Be True

While the concept of replacing outmoded school books is great, a proprietary approach is not.

It seems silly at a time when nearly a third of American households have either an e-reader or a tablet, when 4 million of Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets were sold in December alone, that kids still lug around half their weight in dated, frayed textbooks.

Apple, champion of the smartphone and tablet markets, has decided it can change all that, becoming a champion of electronic textbooks as well.

With a lot of hoopla at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last month, Apple announced a new textbook initiative, cutting deals with textbook companies to sell K-12 e-textbooks for no more than $14.99 in its electronic store, iTunes, that could be used on iPads. It also announced new e-book authoring software, iBooks Author, that could be downloaded and used for free.

Sounds great! Until you start looking at the numbers, at how the K-12 textbook business works, at the unproven effectiveness of e-books in teaching, and at the “crazy evil” end-user licensing agreement that Apple has attached to iBooks Author. When you do, suddenly those dog-eared old hardcovers begin to look good again.

The dark side of Apple seems to have dominated this time.

First, why K-12? It seems to make more sense at the college level, where students and their parents are expected to typically pick up the tab for more than $700 in textbooks each year. Some $4.5 billion was spent by 19 million college students on textbooks in 2010. What's $499 for a new iPad if you can reduce the cost of the textbooks?

On the other hand, in the K-12 market, which is about $8 billion annually, taxpayer-funded school districts pick up the tab. A textbook costing $50 to $75 is expected to last from three to five years or more. These are the same school districts that, because of the recession, are facing huge cuts in staff and are struggling to keep campuses open.

Yet school districts are expected to put a new iPad in the hands of every child? And add the tech-support staff necessary to maintain them? And let middle schoolers and high schoolers take them home, where they can be dropped, stolen, misplaced or misused?

And the $14.99 for e-textbooks only covers licensing the text for one student for one year, which means they cost no less than the hardcover books over their lifespan. You might think a one-year license means it will be easier to keep the textbooks up to date, and that would be true at the college level. But for K-12 it takes years for textbooks to be vetted, first at the state level and then by each school district.

So why K-12 instead of college? It may not be the logical first step for education, but it could be for Apple. Plenty of college kids and their parents are already buying iPads on their own. School districts, on the other hand? Most have dabbled but few have jumped in. It's an untapped market.

There has been exactly one study on the effectiveness of iPads in the classroom, conducted by Apple in conjunction with textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin, at a middle school in Riverside. That study showed a 20 percent improvement in math test scores, but the study is not peer reviewed and is of questionable validity. Houghton Mifflin called it a positive but inconclusive data point.

Other studies on the use of educational technology in classrooms have found that, while its use can be effective, it isn't always so, and the biggest determiner of its effectiveness is the teacher who is using it.

Apple, in rolling out its iBooks Author tool for creating e-books, could have used the popular and well-established open EPUB format for its books. And it did—mostly. Using the EPUB format as its foundation, it instead made just enough changes to it to create a proprietary fork of EPUB that it could control.

And control, it does. In the iBooks end-user license agreement, or EULA, the fine print a user must OK before running software the first time, Apple says any book authored using iBooks Author can only be sold through its iTunes store, where Apple takes a 30 percent cut on any sales. Additionally Apple can reject the book, which leaves the author with no way to sell it.

This is an apparent first in such licensing agreements, which normally only control how software is used, i.e. how many copies a purchaser can keep or whether it is used for personal use or in a business. Instead Apple seeks to control the product made with the software, something akin to Adobe wanting a 30 percent cut on any photo processed using its Photoshop software.

Apple counters that its agreement only covers e-books made in the iBooks format, and that authors can export their material as a PDF and then do with it what they will. But a PDF is not really an e-book, lacking most of the multimedia features possible in the EPUB format. One observer called the agreement not just evil, but “crazy evil.”

Whether “crazy evil” or just plain greedy, it does not exactly suggest a company taking our kids' education to heart.

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