Apple Inc., expanding its ambitions in education, joined the race to sell digital textbooks, hoping to get students to trade their book bag for an iPad.
The electronics company unveiled a new version of its iBooks digital book store that supports textbooks featuring quizzes, note-taking, study cards and other features, like the ability to interact with a diagram of an ant.
The service launched with a small number of high-school titles from McGraw-Hill Cos., Pearson PLC and others, with some from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt coming shortly. Textbooks for courses such as algebra 1, environmental science and biology will be available first, priced at $14.99 or less.
Eventually, Apple said, it expects textbooks for almost every subject and grade level.
The company also announced iBooks Author, a free tool to help developers create interactive titles.
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During an event at New York's Guggenheim Museum, Apple executives said today's textbooks weren't adequate teaching tools as technology had raced ahead. Instead, textbooks should be portable, searchable and easy to update, they said, demonstrating the ability to load, close and manipulate diagrams and video content by pinching your fingers.
"The bottom line is immediate feedback," said Roger Rosner, Apple's vice president for productivity applications.
Digital textbooks are drawing growing buzz, as tech companies see big potential to upgrade them to the digital age while tackling often-cited problems with education, such as the rising cost. Sold by a range of companies from Amazon.com Inc. to small start-ups, the business is still small. Only about 6% of education-textbook sales will be digital this year, up from 3% in 2011, according to textbook distributor MBS Direct Digital, but that is expected to rise to more than 50% by 2020.
It's a juicy new territory for Apple, which has long eyed schools as customers. At the news conference, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of world-wide marketing, said education institutions are using 1.5 million iPad tablet computers. Apple sold 11.12 million iPads in its quarter ending in September.
A bigger footprint in education could help Apple fend off fresh tablet competition from Amazon and Samsung Electronics Co., which use Google Inc.'s Android software.
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For Apple's effort to gain steam, schools must adjust to new buying models. Today, publishers generally sell high-school titles to schools directly at around $75 each, expecting them to be used for a number of years. The new model could rely on individual students getting their own books for $15 every year.
"We'll do very well at that price," said Harold "Terry" McGraw III, chairman and chief executive of McGraw-Hill. The company has five interactive textbooks in iBooks today and will have another five by September.
Prices of the tablet devices remain a barrier to adoption for cash-strapped schools, which buy iPads from Apple at around the retail prices, which start at $499 for new models. In an interview, Apple's senior vice president of Internet software and services, Eddy Cue, said "the iPad is already very, very affordable."
The iBooks textbooks are available only on iPads, whereas other iBooks are available on iPhones and iPod Touches.
But playing up the price, iBooks competitors say they believe they can capture more of the market by selling titles that can work on more devices.
Apple's iBooks service is in third place in digital books, behind Amazon and Barnes & Noble Inc.'s, which offer apps for a range of devices, according to Forrester Research.
Discovery Communications Inc., which offers an elementary-school science textbook that is accessed through a Web browser and already works on the iPad, said it isn't likely to start making content for iBooks. "We're not tethered to one company," said Bill Goodwyn, chief executive of Discovery's education unit. "A lot of schools may not have the funding for every student to have an iPad."
Jill Ambrose, chief marketing officer of CourseSmart LLC, a joint venture of five leading education publishers that offers digitized course material, said it was likely that relatively few high school students today own an iPad because of the cost.
The 20,000-plus digital higher-education titles that CourseSmart sells can be used on the iPad and other Apple devices as well as Barnes & Noble's Nook Color and Nook Tablet and Amazon.com's Kindle Fire.
Ms. Ambrose also questioned whether a marketplace where everyone can create and publish a textbook will lead to lower standards. "Our society will continue to need highly curated core content," she said.
The Apple iPad 2.
Schools that already have iPad programs cheered Apple's textbook entrance but said Apple's offerings seemed largely in line with other e-textbook services like Inkling and CourseSmart.
"It's nothing new," said Gonzalo Garcia, director of technology, marketing and communications for the South Kent School, an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, though he said the "shocking news" was the $15 price. Currently, students pay $20 to $60 for a 180-day rental or splurge as much as $100 for a higher-end title. IBooks would also stand out by offering textbooks and literary books in one place, he said. He said the school's iPad program was originally funded by alumni. "It would have been expensive," he said.
Apple also announced an update to iTunes U, its service for distributing college lectures via podcast. The company said it was opening up the program to kindergarten through high school and that it would support full online courses with syllabuses, assignments and lectures.
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Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., said more than 1,000 universities have used iTunes U, producing more than 700 million downloads. Mr. Schiller said educational institutions already have access to more than 20,000 education apps.
The company's new education initiatives follow up on the ambitions of its late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who had long aimed to revolutionize education with technology.