Educators expect the Apple tablet screen to be much larger than the iPhone display.

Educators expect the Apple tablet screen to be much larger than the iPhone display.

Can the release of Apple’s eReader tablet do for textbooks what the iPod did for music: combine an online store for purchasing books with sleek hardware that holds every text a student needs?

That’s the question many educators are asking as anticipation of Apple’s new tablet mounts.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is widely expected to unveil his company’s eReader Jan. 27 in San Francisco, and industry insiders expect the product to have a large touch screen that is smaller than a laptop screen but larger than an iPhone.

Education has yet to warm up to the eReader format in recent years, although some colleges and universities have launched pilot programs using Amazon’s Kindle DX eReader, which has a 9.7-inch screen compared with the original Kindle’s 6-inch screen.

The Kindle lets readers download books wirelessly and has appealed to a larger audience since trimming its starting price of $400 to $260, and Amazon officials confirmed last month that customers bought more digital books than physical books from Amazon’s online store for the first time ever on Christmas Day.

eBook companies have trumpeted recent sales reports showing that digital books might be entering the market’s mainstream. Sales reports from the Association of American Publishers show digital books sales have risen sharply since the beginning of 2008, just after the Kindle’s release.

Education technology advocates say students’ allegiance to Apple and the familiarity of buying music or applications from the company’s online store and downloading those purchases on an iPod or an iPhone could make the new Apple tablet an instant hit on campus.

“This is huge for electronic print,” said Scott Testa, a business professor at Cabrini College near Philadelphia who tracks campus technology trends. “Ten years from now, the idea of having a physical textbook is going to be very limited. … I really think just having the ecosystem in place for content delivery will be a very appealing aspect for consumers.”

In what technology analysts say is a response to the buzz about Apple’s tablet, Amazon recently announced that developers outside the company could begin making programs for the Kindle—the same way Apple officials encourage outside development of iPhone apps.

Testa said even if the Apple tablet is similar to the Kindle DX, college students could flock to the product simply because it sports the largely beloved Apple logo.

“I think from a marketing perspective, Apple is a spiritual brand,” he said. “Students will buy it based upon their prior experience with Apple. … That can’t be overstated.”

Jobs’ announcement has digital book companies planning for what’s next in higher education and how to distribute their content among Apple tablet users.

Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart—the country’s largest provider of electronic college textbooks—said company officials would meet shortly after the Apple press conference to discuss how they can capitalize on the new product.

If the tablet uses the iPhone’s operating system, Lyman said college students could have immediate access to CourseSmart’s 8,700 electronic textbooks. The company designed an iPhone application last summer in anticipation of an upcoming Apple eReader.

“We have to be prepared for this,” Lyman said. “I think that [the Apple tablet] will really capture the imaginations of students who haven’t really considered switching to eTextbooks yet. … I think it’s going to generate a lot of excitement for students and institutions alike.”

And the number of students who consider eReaders for classes is increasing, Lyman added.

“We know that there are more and more students looking at [eReaders] as a reasonable solution,” he said. “And that notion of not having to lug books around will have a lot of utility for college students. It won’t move everybody, but it will move it to a larger customer base.”

Creators of educational iPhone applications said the tablet could offer a wider format that would remove space restrictions imposed by small screens on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

“Logically, if we were to take this project to the next level, a book-like form factor [such as] a tablet would be beneficial,” said Steven C. Mitchell, owner of Componica, an Iowa-based company that developed an iPhone app called Memorize Words for Spanish. “We’re interested in expanding to other languages and eventually including grammatical training, sentence synthesis, and comprehension, but physically a person can only stare at a tiny screen for so long.”

Developers of Memorize Words for Spanish, which features more than 6,300 commonly-used Spanish words, had to eliminate parts of the iPhone app because space was limited, Mitchell said.

“Many features didn’t make the final cut because we ran out of screen,” he said.

The reputation of eReader devices took a blow last June when the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind joined a blind Arizona State University student in suing the school, alleging that the Kindle’s inaccessibility to blind students constituted a violation of federal law. A settlement was announced Jan. 11.

The university, which denied the pilot program violates any law, agreed that if it decides to use eBook readers in future classes over the next two years, “it will strive to use devices that are accessible to the blind,” according to a statement.

Although the Kindle has a read-aloud feature that could help the blind and the visually impaired, turning it on requires navigating through screens of text menus. The federation has said the device should be able to speak the menu choices.

Blindness groups said another impetus for the settlement was the fact that Amazon and other companies were already working to improve the accessibility of eBook readers for blind and visually impaired people.

If Apple’s tablet propels the popularity of eBooks the way iPod did for online music, Testa expects illegal web sites for downloading textbooks to proliferate.

This would follow a pattern established with the rise of illegal music downloading sites on campuses to avoid the costs of the iTunes store, and it could create more headaches for university IT officials who have struggled to stop illegal downloading on campus.

“The Limewire of books is coming,” Testa said, referring to the popular illegal music site. “You can count on that.”

Links:

CourseSmart tablet concept

Amazon Kindle DX