Can Cheaper iPads and iBooks 2 Help Apple Bridge the Digital Divide?

During Apple’s much-anticipated “Education Announcement” today, the technology company unveiled several new publishing tools including an updated chapter in its download marketplace, iBooks 2, an online store for academic textbooks.

While the new option, available for the iPad, offers state-of-the-art technology for classrooms, it also raises questions about pricing and whether digital textbooks bridge the so-called digital divide—or simply make it bigger?

The new digital books are designed to give educators, parents and students an educational boost: the downloadable textbooks will offer numerous interactive features such as searchability, the ability to turn user notes into study cards, text highlighting and additional supplemental content.

The textbooks will cover the range of academics—from K-12 classes through college—and Apple confirmed that it already inked deals with several major textbook publishers including Pearsons, McGraw Hill and DK Publishing.

Although the books can’t be resold or lent, the savings could still add up to significant savings and could theoretically bridge the digital divide—the inequality between economic classes when it comes to access to technology and the wealth of information it can provide.

One of the leading textbook publishers McGraw-Hill will, for example, sell its digital textbooks for just $14.99. That’s a much cheaper option that buying the old-school hardcopy version, which can, depending on the subject, can easily top $100.

Peter Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing called the new offerings a “a more dynamic, engaging and truly interactive way [for students] to read and learn, using the device they already love.” Schiller also declared that the iPad should be at the “center” of education.

“Education is deep in Apple’s DNA and iPad may be our most exciting education product yet,” Schiller said in a written statement.

Exciting, yes—but is it accessible or affordable enough?

Not yet.

While the actual textbooks are cheaper that doesn’t get around the issue of being able to afford the reader needed to use them.

And, realistically, in this age of relentless education cuts, school layoffs and a generally bad economy, how many schools can afford to purchase iPads for their students?

Likewise, how many parents are in the position to buy the tablet for their kids and how many college students can afford to add one to their list of school supplies?

Furthermore, unlike with many of its other products, Apple doesn’t even offer an educational discount on the iPad to students or educators.

Even the base iPad, priced at $499 is, frankly, too expensive for many families.

To truly make a difference Apple needs to follow up—and soon—with a device that’s priced to be competitive. Why not sell something that matches—both in price and functionality—the standard $79 Kindle, mid-range $99 Kindle Touch or fancier $199 Kindle Fire?

There’s long been rumors of Apple producing a mini or scaled-down version of the iPad at a price that would put it head-to-head with the Kindle or Nook.  With the iPad 3’s expected launch this March, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple introduce a lower cost iPad option to complete their “textbook reinvention” strategy.

Now’s the time to do it.

Until then, Apple’s iBook textbooks are truly only within the reach of teachers, parents and students with deeper pockets. State-of-the-art technology isn’t worth much if it’s out of reach for most consumers.

About Rachel: Rachel is a writer living in Northern California. She spends way too much time online; follow her at @writegrrrl

  • Anonymous

    If the books are ONLY text and Apple could afford to sell the devices at a loss, I’m sure Apple would do it.

  • Rick Ludwig

    I think the idea that Apple NEEDS to come out with a device to “compete” is absolutely ridiculous. Look at iPad sales figures – Apple clearly doesn’t worry about the Kindle or any other device. The mistake people make is assuming Apple is competing for market share – it’s not and never has. Apple’s primary goal is to sell products with a healthy profit. It would rather sell 100 devices and make $1000 profit rather than selling 1000 devices and making $100 profit. Most companies operate in the latter area whereas Apple operates in the former (which is why it’s so profitable). 

    Having said that, a smaller, cheaper model probably wouldn’t be able to run Apple’s “textbooks of the future”. Who would want a text book on a smaller device anyway?

  • Wayne Caswell

    I’m glad to see Apple take a lead, but rather than just push for cheaper iPads, I think the iBooks ecosystem should support all major platforms, including Android, Windows and the OLPC ($100 one laptop per child initiative). That would give Apple more leverage within the publishing industry that would probably embrace the iPad anyway as the best platform for eBooks. By creating both the authoring tool and the top viewing platform, Apple could make sure that it keeps its lead.

    Also, an important point missing from most discussions of Apple’s announcement is that eBooks are more ACCESSIBLE. Beyond adding videos, links, and collaboration features is the ability to adjust fonts, font size, brightness and contrast for better readability among people with low-Vision and support of screen readers for totally blind people. Such Universal Design features benefit sighted people by providing a books-on-tape experience while driving, for example.