Apple, which changed music with its iPod and mobile communications with the iPhone, said today it was offering software that would reinvent the school textbook. It was a project inspired by Apple's late co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs.
"There's a lot that's talked about that may be wrong with education. One thing we hear louder than all else and where we can help is in student engagement," said Phil Schiller, Apple's marketing chief, at an announcement at New York's Guggenheim Museum. "That's why we get excited when students get their hands on an iPad."
Schiller and his Apple colleagues showed off two new applications to take the information in textbooks and put it, in interactive form, on iPads and computers. One is called iBooks 2, a free download for iPads, available from Apple's app store starting today. The other, iBooks Author, is a tool he said authors and publishers - as well as students and others with an interest in education - can use on a computer to create interactive iPad lessons.
"The textbook is not always the ideal learning tool," said Schiller. "Yet their content is amazing."
He showed how different lessons - in biology, math, literature and other areas - could play on an iPad. The new interactive books would cost $14.99, far less than most of today's paper textbooks. They could be updated continually, said Apple. And it will not take a programming wizard to create one.
Students will be able to "mark up" their iPad books electronically, creating the digital equivalent of note cards as they go through lessons, said Apple. And they will be able to keep the iBooks, since they are digital files, after the courses are over.
Schiller said Apple was forming partnerships with three of the biggest publishers of school texts: Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which are responsible for 90 percent of the textbooks used in the U.S. today. DK Publishing, which publishes vividly-colored books for younger kids, is joining in as well. Apple said a first offering would be an iPad-only book, "Life On Earth," by E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist and professor emeritus at Harvard.
"With the iPad, we're making textbooks so much more engaging," said Roger Rosner, the Apple executive who has led the project.
Additionally, Apple said it was expanding iTunes U, a project it has run for colleges several years, to include elementary and high schools. Professors use iTunes U to put their lectures online.
There are major questions still to be worked out, the largest being whether schools will generally be receptive to the Apple initiative. There have been online textbooks for years, but they have not often been interactive. And the retail price for the iPad 2 starts at $499, so some educators asked if disadvantaged students would get a chance to use the new technology.
Gene Munster, a senior technology analyst for Piper Jaffray, said his firm surveyed school officials and found the major barrier to new technology was not the cost of new hardware such as iPads. Instead, he said in a phone interview with ABC News, it was control over where students went online when using school computers. At a school, an I.T. department can put up a firewall to prevent students from going to websites unrelated to learning. If students are taking school iPads home instead of books, the schools worried that they may wander around online.
Also, textbooks today go through detailed certification processes, something that is intended to ensure that they are accurate, but which also drives up their cost. Apple's initiative would broaden the number of people who can create online lessons, and some school systems may be wary.
"We hope that educators are going to look back on today's announcement and see the profound impact on education," said Schiller.
ABC News Aaron Katersky contributed to this report