Few groups are more easily persuaded by the allure of eBooks than students. Think about it – having been born in an age of digital and internet ubiquity, young people today learned to read on a computer screen at the same time, or even perhaps before, they learned to read on the written page. Now increasingly faced with the option of consuming content on a digital device, what’s to stop them from preferring slim and digital over bulky old print textbooks?
To date, the biggest barrier has simply been publishers’ willingness to make them available. Whatever reluctance they had before, the emergence of Apple’s iPad seems to have made converts of them all.
Companies like Inkling, headed by a former Apple employee, have stepped up to build an app platform for digital textbooks. In their first year of business, Inkling has converted four of publisher McGraw-Hill’s best-selling textbooks in biology, economics, marketing, and psychology into a digital format – selling them on the iTunes App Store for $84.99. While the high price point is likely to ruffle some feathers, Inkling’s textbook apps boast a number of features that dead-tree publishers can only dream of – videos, interactive 3-D graphical elements, quizzes, and social elements.
While the bulk of the innovation in the digital textbook market seems to be concentrated at the college level, primary school textbooks are also starting to take the plunge. Publisher Houghton Mufflin recently announced a year-long pilot for their first-ever Algebra app for the iPad, called HMH Fuse. More than just a mere textbook, HMH Fuse includes an entire curriculum. Students will get the benefit of guided video instruction, have the ability to write and save notes, and get instant feedback on practice questions.
With publishers finally jumping on board, the other barrier for the adoption of digital textbooks is in the natural resistance of parents and educators, for whom the prospect of digital textbooks seems more a novelty than a practicality. Even those stalwart advocates of dead-tree publishing are starting to dip their toes into the twenty-first century.
Oklahoma State, for instance, is one of many universities running pilot programs on the use of iPads in the classroom this year. “You’ll see this all over America in higher education,” university president Burns Hargis said. “(The University of Oklahoma’s) going to be doing these kinds of things. So everybody’s trying to figure it out. My guess is it won’t be too long before [iPads] are just ubiquitous.”
Other schools like the University of Maryland, are taking a different approach. In addition to running their own pilot program to see how iPads could be a game-changer in the classroom, they’re also making eReader technology the subject of a two-year program in which students themselves examine their impact on the culture of the classroom.
The next fiscal year is a big one for digital textbooks. If the pilot programs being put in place around the country yield positive results, it could signal the growth of a massive new segment in the ebook and eReader markets. Stay tuned!
When Amazon announced the new model of the Kindle, they succeeded at hitting most of the major selling points one would expect from an iterative development in a product line. The new Kindle is more compact – 15 percent lighter and 21 percent smaller. The screen is improved – the contrast has been upped by 50 percent and the page refresh speed has been bumped up a notch. It now holds more books – the on-board storage has been doubled to 4GB. And most importantly, the price was dropped – a 3G version is available for $189 and a new Wi-Fi SKU comes in at $139.
While simply reading this list of facts on a press release is enough to convince most that Amazon has ushered in across-the-board changes, I wanted to actually hold it in my hands before signing off on it. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on one of the new models, and I came away quite impressed with what it had to offer.
Besides just getting smaller, the new Kindle also has lots of little changes that long-time Kindle 2 owners can quickly pick up on. All of the ports and buttons have been consolidated from their haphazard placement on the Kindle 2 and moved to the bottom of the unit. The power slider, the mini-USB port, the headphone jack, and the volume button are all now easily accessible from the bottom of the unit. The face buttons have also undergone a minor revision, with the rocker having been replaced with a more convention directional pad. The home, menu, and back buttons have been moved from the side and are now flush with the keyboard, and the page turn buttons have a different feel to them.
While the change in topography was a bit jarring after developing such a deep level of comfort with the Kindle 2, the tactile feel of the new Kindle is an unabashed success. The Kindle 2 has never seemed bulky to me, especially after a considerable amount of time with the heftier iPad. It seems positively obese, however, once you’ve spent some time with the new Kindle. This thing seems purpose-built for lying on the beach, holding it with one hand and your thumb on the next button. It’s small enough and light enough that you’ll never feel the need to change position.
The screen also delivers on its promise. You won’t really notice the increased contrast or page-turn speed unless you’re really a stickler for such things, but where you will notice it is with the new web browser. The old version was clunky and slow, and the slower refresh rate made it almost impossible to use even for simple tasks. The new Webkit-based browser is about ten times faster, replete with full image support and the ability to zoom in on different parts of the page. Much of that speed comes from the new back-end, but the screens ability to quickly render changes adds some horsepower to the overall package.
In the end though, I have to temper my uniform praise for the new Kindle by saying that there’s little reason for owners of the Kindle 2 to spend the money to upgrade. The Kindle 3 improves on many of the things that has made the Kindle 2 the best dedicated eReader on the market, but in the absence of any real game-changing additions to the hardware, an upgrade simply isn’t necessary. That doesn’t mean it’s not still attractive. I’ve already spoken to several Kindle 2 owners who, based on a brief interface with the Kindle 3, plan to purchase one for themselves and give their Kindle 2 to a friend or loved one as a gift. (In which case we suggest reading our guide on how to successfully part with your Kindle.)
We recommend you at least try and track one down for yourself. You may find yourself falling in love.