Can the iPad Make It as an E-textbook Reader?

Apple's iPad, which arrives April 3 , is already regarded as a high-end, color e-reader and multimedia device. But its potential as an e-textbook reader for students remains debatable.

College students, a prime Apple demographic, might be willing to fork over at least $499 for a Wi-Fi-capable iPad -- at least partly because Wi-Fi is so prominent on college campuses. "The iPad hardware would certainly be a great platform" for reading content over a school's Wi-Fi network, said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"Textbooks may be the initial killer app" for the iPad, said another Gartner analyst, Allen Weiner.

Clearly, the iPad's touch-screen keyboard could be used to create some documents and related content, and the device can be used to view videos and listen to music. College students could also use it to read bestselling books, newspapers and magazines.

But if they expect to be able to read textbooks via the iPad, they're likely to be disappointed -- at least for now, said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc.

While Apple has already announced deals with several publishers, mainly of bestsellers, and with The New York Times for its iBook store, the business model for publishing digital textbooks hasn't really emerged for most e-readers and tablets. "Overall, I'm unimpressed with the value proposition for textbooks on e-readers," Howe said.

He explained his skepticism, noting that digital rights management rules mean that an e-textbook can't be resold, even though college students are accustomed to reselling a used paper textbook for half or less of what they paid. Some e-texts have already hit the market, and even with DRM and a lack of resale value, they can still cost two-thirds to three-fourths of the price of the paper version. For a technical text in the sciences, that could amount to hundreds of dollars.

"Add in the fact that an iPad starts at $500, and e-textbooks are likely to be significantly more, rather than less, expensive overall for consumers," Howe said.

Baker sees it differently. The savings students would see by buying e-textbooks "would easily pay for the price of an iPad over a four-year college stint," Baker said.

Even if e-texts could be resold and were a better deal than printed books, Howe warned that e-readers and the iPad let you look at only one book at a time. In contrast, many students may want to peruse several books at once when doing intense research.

"No matter how good the iPad hardware is, I think most students will find it a poor substitute for paper books in doing in-depth research," Howe said. "Its best application as a textbook reader will be for those courses such as literature, where the focus is on a single book at a time."

When the iPad first emerged, Howe praised it . He still sees it as a "hit," though he added, "I just don't see textbook reading as its killer app."

Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat, sees "potential" for tablets like the iPad to become e-text readers -- as long as manufacturers make college texts and reading materials available the same way they do other books.

McGregor said the iPad, which weighs 1.5 lbs., is probably going to be a little too heavy to rely on mainly as an e-reader, especially if users carry it around a lot. "There are e-readers out there that are a better option [for heavy reading] because they are light and look good in the light," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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