Unless you’re part of the ed-tech community, you might have missed the news from Apple’s product announcement last Thursday. After all, they didn’t have any new devices with i stuck in front of the name1, so most of the popular media didn’t cover it.

But since the event was focused on publishing and electronic books, I was very curious what they would have. The rumor sites had the company bringing a “revolution” to the textbook industry (is that even possible?).

Although not revolutionary, they did have some very good stuff to show, with lots of potential.  And there were also a few disturbing pieces and more than a few questions, especially regarding distribution. If you have time, watch the full presentation on Apple’s site.

Anyway, I’ve had a few days to play with everything and read reactions from parts of my network so consider this post a rambling collection of first impressions.

First the good stuff. The core of the announcement was the release of a major new software tool for creating ebooks called iBooks Author. Watching the demo, my first thought was that the interface was very similar to Pages and Keynote, Apple’s word processor and presentation software that blows away Office when it comes to power and ease of use. Not to mention being much less expensive.

Even better, Author is free and was available that same day2 so I was able to play with the software for a couple of hours this weekend. Not a long time to evaluate a piece of complex software but I’m already sold on the potential for easily building applications (it’s hard to call them books) that seamlessly combine text with images, audio, video, and interactive elements.

Of course creating any worthwhile multimedia project requires a lot of planning and what I was able to put together from disconnected pieces of media found on my computer is not worth publishing. However, the process was dirt simple, offering plenty of layout options. This is a potentially powerful application that I’d really love to get into the hands of some creative students with time to work.

Ok, that’s the good news of Author. The problems start once the project is ready for distribution.

The software allows you to send the final book directly to an iPad but other than that the only real option appears to be uploading it to the Apple iBookstore. There’s no requirement to charge for your work but if you do, the license agreement on the software says you can only sell it through Apple, who gets 30%.

While the EULA seems pretty restrictive (check this post for far more details), it actually makes sense from Apple’s perspective. They view these “books” in the same way as they do apps for their iOS devices. They give away the tools necessary to create apps but lock them into the Apple distribution system. They’re doing the same for the books created with Author.

It’s no wonder the big publishers like Pearson were on that stage in support of their new textbook model. They see an opportunity to continue the traditional school market for their materials, one that doesn’t allow for resales.

However, I think there are several larger problems than locking the documents created by one piece of software to one particular set of devices.

Start with the need for an open format for publishing interactive media.  Most reports say that Apple is using ePub3, a free and open ebook publishing format, but with some non standard markup code that would prevent the documents from opening in other epub readers.

But then there’s the whole concept of “textbook”, which was the primary motivator behind Apple’s presentation on Thursday. Do we really want to lock schools and teachers into more materials over which they have no control? And pay the big publishers far too much for the privilege?

In advance of Apple’s event, some people were writing about how the company was going to “disrupt” the textbook industry the same way they did with music. There are lots of reasons why it won’t happen soon3, although I think iBooks Author is a good start.

1 Anyone else getting tired of i-everything?

2 I know it’s only available on the Mac. I don’t care. Someone else can complain about it being restricted on one platform.

3 I won’t go so far as David Thornburg to say that Apple wants to kill education, but he does make some good points in his post.