Why textbooks of the future are not books

As we predicted, on Thursday, Apple (s AAPL) introduced a new toolset for publishers and authors to create and distribute digital textbooks. That wasn’t too much of a surprise. But what’s become more clear after hearing Apple’s pitch, which is aimed at K-12 school teachers, school districts, homeschooling parents, publishers and students themselves, is that the future of textbooks isn’t a book at all.
Apple has updated the iBooks app, now called iBooks 2, and with that comes a whole new category on the iBookstore for textbooks with material from the big publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson, as well as other authors who want to sell their textbooks and learning tools there. And the really killer part of this is the easy publishing tool, iBooks Author, which is free and replicates an iWork experience, like building a presentation in Keynote, into a click-and-drag method of building a textbook. It’s not just for compiling material from scratch though; it’s very clearly tailored for already published material to be imported and easily formatted as an iBook.
But what you make with the authoring tool isn’t really a textbook. It’s an interactive learning experience. You have text, of course, but you can drag in image galleries, embed videos, 3D models, presentations and slideshows. You can touch and swipe and watch instead of just reading and taking notes. (If I was in high school today, I might actually find chemistry class as interesting as history with these very tangible, engaging tools.)
When students are interacting with these books, they can also touch to highlight, look up information, search, take notes in the margins and compile instant flashcards for studying. You can do all that with a physical book, but not with a couple of touches and swipes.
Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling, which makes similar digital interactive textbooks, but for the higher education market, says this is the reason his company doesn’t call them textbooks. They use the term “smartbooks.”
The traditional textbook “is going to have to go away,” he said in an interview last week. “The future of publishing is learning software and analytics and feedback and rich technology.”
For a generation of students that grew up using the web and social networks and is addicted to a constant stream of information, the interactive part is what makes learning something that grabs students’ attention. The feedback part is also really important. Apple hits that note with its study guides and review sections at the end of iBooks chapters.  Along with the standard questions, there comes the instant feedback of answers, so the learning process is immediate.

Joining a crowded field

Apple is certainly not the only company working on interactive textbooks or a digital education platform. Kno is one of the largest providers of textbooks for the iPad. Chegg just introduced a really nice e-book reader for a variety of platforms, and Inkling has been making interactive textbooks (and cookbooks) like this for a while — but has a number of books that’s only in the triple digits. What Apple is offering is a platform that lets anyone make these interactive books. There are already 20,000 textbooks on the iBookstore. Adding tools and important partners is guaranteed to increase that number.
So despite not being first, Apple is a force to be reckoned with in whatever industry it directs its focus on. And in this case, I think what they want, rather than disrupt the whole industry a la music and video content, is to be an assistant. The authoring tool, the distribution platform, can help drag the biggest players of a very old-school industry into the present (and hopefully, future).
And more importantly, what Apple is offering is a way to change the conversation about textbooks and bring that dialogue into the mainstream. We don’t know a lot of things yet: how many school districts can afford hundreds or thousands of iPads or how the textbook publishing industry at large will react. But we do know one thing: textbooks don’t have to be physical, expensive, static or boring.