updated 01:00 pm EST, Thu January 19, 2012
iBooks 2 gets our early look
Apple committed iOS to education in a big way at its event by launching iBooks 2. We've taken a look at Apple's first dip into a full digital textbook platform and come back fairly impressed. Read ahead for more details and what this might mean for Amazon, Kno, and others hoping to get into e-books for schools.
What's most impressive about Apple's textbook system is how it manages to unite two seemingly disparate worlds: text has the complex, polished look of the many image-based book apps in the App Store or Newsstand, but still keeps the sense that it's an interactive, living document with selectable text and elements like 3D models that can "spill" out of their containers. In that sense, it's somewhat like Blio, although the layouts here actually seem more complex and alive than they do in Blio's reader.
We used DK Publishing's Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life as the example, and while it's oriented somewhat towards the younger set, it's a good representation of just how far the presentation can go. As a self-proclaimed "visual guide," it has interactive elements at every turn: an animation (a Keynote presentation) that shows the decay of a prehistoric fish, videos showing simulated or analogous movement of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or the 3D model of an ancient crab. Apart from blending in well with the text, they simply feel like they belong in the OS, with pinching to expand, AirPlay when relevant, and galleries that swipe in place.
We also liked the new highlighting and note taking systems. Although the very base of them existed in iBooks, the system is both more polished and feels less vestigial than it has been in the past. Highlights and notes can be linked together, too, and it makes for a much easier time associating extra information with a highlight or making clear what in a text a note is referring to. Apple's interface for collecting notes isn't terribly complex, but it does split notes into individual chapters to avoid overwhelming a reader who's been taking notes all semester long.
Search is simple. Finding an individual page number is helpful, especially if you're in mid-class and asked to go to a specific page. The contextual searching really amounts to getting some of the text surrounding a keyword, so don't expect miracles. Glossaries have much the same appearance as notes and are certainly easier to search than their paper equivalents, although we'd need to compare against other digital versions to see what if anything Apple is doing better beyond simplicity.
One unsung element may be the nature of the books. Although Apple is putting its own app layer on top, the books underneath are technically ePub files, as Macworld's Serenity Caldwell discovered Thursday morning. The method lets the more enterprising readers convert files (albeit without Apple-specific additions) and modify the code if they like.
We only had so much time to create study cards, but we like that the process is relatively automated and interactive.
Our only real concerns at this early stage for Apple's textbook platform are its age range and how well it will adapt to official guidelines. Right now, the focus is on K-12 learning, where the text doesn't need to be large or have extensive footnotes. Likewise, while the books we've read pass scrutiny for accuracy, the concept of self-pubilshing raises concerns for supplying books to classes on a more official level. We suspect it will be awhile before school boards and state regulators are clearing a custom-produced version of a calculus text, for example.
Even so, iBooks 2 is a big step forward not just in encouraging digital textbooks, but for iBooks as a whole. Before, there wasn't much reason to opt for an iBook version of a title unless you just wanted to have the "store" option that Apple made other publishers remove. Now, even if you're not limited to textbooks, you can expect self-published authors or others bypassing traditional tools to produce something you can't easily get elsewhere.
Blio, Inkling, and Kno will have a good reason to be worried. The last three certainly beat Apple to the basic concept -- Kno just added flashcards days earlier -- but they're not as focused on the mixed media side as Apple. And, like it or not, schools are more likely to gravitate towards Apple's official solution than to talk to a third party, even if using something such as Blio avoids lock-in.
Amazon should worry more, because it's currently not even participating in the game. While it has tried to make Kindles part of schools, it's just months into color tablets and has no built-in facilities for advanced textbooks, not to mention the authoring tools or class coordination tools like the new iTunes U app. It's hard to imagine a high school teacher fortunate enough to have tablets for each student that would cobble together a set of Kindle Fires and Blio apps instead of getting everything at once through an iPad. We don't know how many schools will take to spending tens of thousands of dollars per classroom on iPads, but for those that have the option, the new iBooks makes it a lot easier.