Apple Education Event - January 2012

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Forecasting next week's Apple education event

All we know for certain about Apple’s upcoming press event on January 19 is what it says on the invitation: It’s at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and it’s focused on education.

Sure, an education event doesn’t have the same broad appeal as one with a teaser like “Let’s Talk iPhone,” but still—this is an Apple event. We’re all eager to learn just what Cupertino plans to announce, but in the meantime, we’ll prognosticate about it instead.

To discuss the many and varied possibilities, we assembled a crack team of experts. Sadly, they declined to contribute to the article, and so it was left to us to stroke our chins and pontificate on what Apple might educate us about next week. Then we released each other’s chins and started writing. And, as you’ll see, we kept interrupting each other.

iBook ’em, Danno

Apple already offers an extensive amount of education content, as anybody who’s ever delved into the iTunes U section of the iTunes Store well knows. There, you can find lectures and classes from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, including Oxford and MIT.

But as the old rhyme “No more pencils, no more books” suggests, books and learning go together like James Bond and vodka martinis. Which, coincidentally, go together like learning and vodka martinis—which is to say, quite well. And while Apple’s iBookstore offers plenty of educational books, the company to date can’t rival the breadth, depth, and rental-based affordability of Amazon textbook offerings. Plus, in a day and age where even pilots are replacing heavy binders of paper with iPads, shouldn’t we try to save the perpetually bowed backs of students everywhere by according them the same option?

So, among the most prominent announcements next week, we’d bet on some sort of deal struck between Apple, textbook publishers, and colleges and universities—call it an education à trois. Apple has strong links with higher education institutions already—see the aforementioned iTunes U. If it can find a way to leverage those relationships to make it easy to distribute electronic textbooks to students, it could get a leg up on Amazon’s current model.

If indeed Apple plans to announce not just more affordable textbook options for students, but also more interactive, immersive ebook experiences, that may well suggest two companion announcements to go along with it: iBooks for Mac (the ebook-reading application, not the long-discontinued laptop line), and new tools for creating ebooks.

Dan: But why would Apple introduce iBooks for Macs now, Lex? The company has shown little interest in letting people read ebooks on their computers so far, and it seems like the iPad and iPhone would be much more intuitive platforms for e-reading.

Lex: It’s a great point, Dan. But my thought process is this: If publishers start taking the time to create unique, custom books for iBooks, colleges may feel that Apple should make those books available to everyone—even folks who (for some reason) went the Xoom route instead. Students who stick with Amazon’s ecosystem can read their textbooks on iOS and Android devices, on the Web, and with dedicated Mac and PC software. To date, Apple’s been largely unsuccessful at unseating Amazon as the king of the ebook market; I think it would be a mistake for Apple to continue its strategy of limiting iBook consumption to iOS devices only.

Dan: You have convinced me, Lex. Vive la iBooks for Mac!

Lex: And how do you feel about our ebook-creation tool prediction? A new tool from Apple, available to all? Freely? Or what? Tell me, Dan!

Dan: Thanks for the prompt, Lex. I’d almost forgotten. Because if there’s one thing ePub creation isn’t right now, it’s elegant. And Apple loves elegance like Joanie loves Chachi. While Pages can be used to create ePub files, it’s a cumbersome process, and professionals—including those on our staff responsible for the ebook versions of our Superguides—often turn to other tools. Which, if you can believe it, are even less user friendly. By creating its own set of ePub creation tools, Apple would not only find themselves in the good graces of all of those folks, but would also be able to promote the innate charms and abilities of iBooks as an e-reader client, such as making it easy to create interactive content. ePub is an open standard, but iBooks’s enhanced capabilities can go above and beyond mere text, as long as book creators can easily develop titles with those features.

Lex: Wow. I hope Apple offers such a book-publishing tool, because that last paragraph is nearly as long as a novel. But thanks for reminding me about Pages’s ability to create ePub books; that makes me wonder whether an update to Pages and/or the entirety of the iWork suite may be in the offing. We should write about that, too.

iWork it

The desktop incarnation of iWork—Apple’s Microsoft Office-compatible trio of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—is getting a bit long in the virtual tooth, the last major revision having arrived in 2009. Plus, the suite still doesn’t integrate directly with its iOS counterparts via iCloud, a development that Apple has previously promised.

But even though it’s clear that iWork is due for an update, a question remains: What, exactly, could Apple add to it—besides iCloud support—that would merit such a formal announcement? And why at an education event?

Lex: Dan, we’re raising hypothetical questions that I’m not confident I can answer. My gut says that iWork alone wouldn’t merit an event, but as an add-on to an education event, it could fit right in. Besides iCloud support, I wonder if we might see some “Back to the Mac”-style iOS influence on the apps, like one of those popular “focus” modes that hides everything else on your screen as you write? I imagine we’d converse a lot less as we wrote this story if we had one of those.

Dan: You might be right. In addition, I think Apple might feel that it’s let Microsoft rule the education market with Office for far too long now. And as Cupertino has increasingly made inroads into education via its compelling hardware, it seems only fitting that it reassert its software products in that market as well, harkening back to the glory days of the Apple II. So, perhaps we’ll see some education-specific upgrades to iWork that will merit attention during the event.

Apple pie-in-the-sky

Beyond a splashier textbook offering, iBooks for Mac, an ebook publishing tool, and minor iWork updates, we can’t really imagine any major announcements at this event. Still, we haven’t forgotten how to dream.

While we don’t think it’s even remotely likely, this could be just the event to unveil, say, an “education-only iPad”—a cheaper, student-focused, 8GB edition with a price meant to target Amazon’s successful Kindle Fire tablet.

In fact, though, we probably won’t see any hardware at next week’s event. While Apple has in the past offered some models specifically for the education market, such as the eMac, or low-end versions of the iMac and MacBook, those days seem to be long gone. If anything, the company would probably be best served by deepening the discounts it offers on its existing product lines, and forging deals that make it more affordable for educational institutions to outfit their students and faculty with Apple devices.

Still, if there’s a $300 8GB iPad, we’ll be first in line. Especially if it supports Siri. Who, frankly, would make a more interesting teacher than many of the lecturers we had in college.

Lex: Zing! I think we end it there. Going out on a high note.

[Dan Moren is a senior associate editor. Lex Friedman is a staff writer. They managed to write this bio without interrupting each other.]

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