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Is Apple Set to Revolutionize the Textbook Industry?

Natali Morris|CNBC Contributor
Monday, 16 Jan 2012 | 10:25 PM ET

The textbook industry has been waiting for its big digital revolution but so far, it's been slow going. Apple may be aiming to change that with an announcement that the company has planned for Thursday in New York City.

iPad
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iPad

It's amazing to think that in this digital age, students still start the school year with 10 year-old textbooks with "I love Mike" doodled in the inside cover. Why has the technology been so slow to catch up and how can this finally be changed?

The word is that Apple is planning to sell textbooks through its iBooks store directly from textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill . Apple could also be aiming to integrate those book sales with course material currently offered on iTunes U, Apple's education portal which allows schools and universities to distribute lesson plans, lab films, and audiobooks through Apple's free software.

In Steve Jobs' recently-published biography, author Walter Isaacson writes that the textbook industry was one Jobs desperately wanted to change. He had visions of the textbook as a live, document that would include videos, live Web-based text, and other interactive elements. If Apple has achieved this, it could change not only the way textbooks are created, but consumer-aimed literature as well.

Digitizing educational material is not a new concept to the publishing industry. They've been at it for years with very little success. Students don't seem to like the Kindle or other eReaders for textbooks because there are so many limitations where students need flexibility: annotation, note taking, highlighting, quick cross referencing, etc. There are apps that allow you to organize your educational life but they don't integrate with current electronic coursework. And Amazon does save bookmarks and highlights of your eBooks in the cloud but they are not easy to find, share, and interact with and they don't integrate with other course material.

If Apple aims to sell truly interactive textbooks through iBooks, it could mean a big boost for the iBooks store, which does not sell anywhere near the volume of digital books that Amazon does through the Kindle store. This could equate to big bucks when you consider how expensive textbooks are in comparison to pop novels. Not to mention that Apple takes a 30 percent cut of every book that is sold through the iBooks store, an industry standard.

Does this mean that all students will get iPads in order to take advantage of Apple's education plan? Probably not very realistic, although don't rule it out forever. iPad distribution programs in public schools are being tested in every state in the country. For now, Apple could launch a new textbook and publishing initiative which allows students to access books and other supplementary course material through its free iTunes software, as well as through iPad and other iOS devices for those who have them.

There has also been talk of Apple making a self-publishing tool for interactive textbooks — like an iMovie for books. I'm less convinced on this one. Why would Apple make an announcement that would compete with publishing companies in New York City, the heart of the publishing industry? My guess is that book publishers are on board with this one and crossing their fingers that it is the digital revolution that they have been waiting for. After all, digital textbooks could mean yearly subscription revenues. Those old "I love Mike" textbooks only make them money about once a decade.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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