The poor get poorer and the rich get richer with Apple's iPad-based textbooks

Apple's new iBooks textbooks will widen the digital gap between the educational haves and have-nots.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Apple's iBooks2's reinvented textbooks really are something. They're gorgeous, they're fast, they're real-time interactive with up to date information and they'll only cost $14.99 or less. But, to use them, you'll need an iPad--minimum list price: $499.

Can you afford that for your kids? Can your school board? I could, but I've been lucky enough to do well in my career and I only have the one daughter. There's certainly no way that any county I've ever lived in during my life in West Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina could afford to give every student from K to 12 an iPad. They're lucky when they can provide any kind of computer seat for each kid.

That's why there have been programs like the so-called $100 laptop: the OLPC (One Laptop per Child). The OLPC project aimed to put first low priced notebooks, the XO-1.5 and now tablets, the OLPC XO Tablet, into the hands of kids who don't go to private schools.

These XO Tablet is powered by a 1GHz Marvell Armada PXA618 processor, and have a mere 512MBs of RAM. It can run a minimized version of Red Hat's Fedora Linux with the simplified Sugar interface on top of that and it can also run Android. Price: $100.

Compared to an iPad, the XO Tablet is junk. But, they're also much more affordable and isn't getting information into the hands of students what a textbooks are all about? Wouldn't it be great if you could use Apple's iBook textbooks on an OLPC? Or, for that matter, any of the other low-priced Android tablets or tablet/e-book readers like the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet or Amazon Kindle Flame? Don't hold your breath.

Apple seems to have no interest in bringing iBooks to Windows PCs, Linux computers, Android tablets or, for that matter, even its own MacBook Air. Low-end Android tablets? Give me a break!

What's that you say? Why can't you just create an ePub version of your iBook textbook and sell it to whomever? Well, first, iBooks Author can create books in iBook format, PDF and text. The iBook format appears to be a variation of the popular and open EPUB format. Closer examination of the format reveals, though, that it appears to be a proprietary fork of EPUB.

On top of that Apple's author end-user license agreement (EULA) seems to forbid you to sell any formatted book created with iBook Author except through Apple. In other words, Apple iBooks are a closed shop for publishers and author as well as for would-be users.

Apple seems to be doing is creating a high-end, locked box for well-off students. If you can afford to get into it, good for you, if you can't pay the price you can't get in. Maybe Amazon can change Apple's mind by successfully competing with them in the textbook market. I doubt that will change Apple's policies though.

It's a pity really. Students need low-priced computers, tablets, and e-books. OLPC does what it can, but it's not enough. In all too many schools, students have to rely upon corporate hand-me-down technology and antique equipment. As Maria De La Vega, superintendent of East Palo Alto's Ravenswood public school district, within an easy drive of Apple's headquarters said to a MoblleBeat reporter, "We don't really have a technology budget. Most of what we've been able to acquire has been through donations and leftovers from offices closing down." That's often the case.

Linux and open source can, and do, help schools get the most from their older hardware, but it's not enough. The digital gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider every year. Just don't look for Apple to help close that gap. That's not their business.

Revised January 23, 2011 to reflect that the iBook format is a proprietary extension of EPUB.

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