Apple today announced what it calls a reinvention of the school textbook, a digital initiative involving its popular iPad devices, a new version of its iBooks ebook reader app that's optimized for iBooks textbooks, and a new iTunes U app that provides educators and students with everything they need to teach and take entire courses, respectively, using, of course, Apple's devices. I'm very curious to watch the forthcoming video of the announcement, but would like to offer up a few early observations based on the company's press releases (here and here).

First of all, this is smart: Education was and still is a key and core market for Apple. And its devices, especially the iPad, are both popular with young people/students and provide an excellent canvas for interactive books. There is some evidence that digital books, at least for now, provide an incentive for reading, especially among those not normally inclined to do so. But there is also evidence that Apple's partners' factories are doing more to harm the environment than the traditional, paper-based book industry ever did. But if anyone can fix that latter issue while delighting a core market, it's Apple. So let's just look at what was announced.

iBooks 2. The latest version of Apple's iBooks app for iPad (and iPhone and iPod touch) features iBooks textbooks, which Apple describes as "an entirely new kind of textbook that's dynamic, engaging and truly interactive." Compared to regular paper books, iBooks are interactive, colorful, can include videos, and can be updated again and again. They don't weigh down a backpack as do heavy, normal books. (This is something I can attest to; I can't believe how many books my young kids cart back and forth to school each day.)

Leading educational publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson have pledged to deliver textbooks and other educational titles to the iBookstore, with most costing $14.99 or less. This, too, is an improvement over traditional textbooks, as any student or parent of a student can tell you: There's a huge market for used textbooks specifically for this reason.

The new iBooks 2 app is free and available today from the iTunes App Store.

iBooks Author. Apple is additionally offering a free Mac application, from its Mac App Store, called iBooks Author. This allows you to create your own iBooks "textbooks, cookbooks, history books, picture books and more," according to Apple, and then publish them to the iBookstore. It's unclear at this time whether this will entail the same overly-strict and non-transparent policies as does the App Store, however. And I'm not yet sure how this is better/worse than similar self-publishing services from companies like Amazon.com.

iTunes U app. For the past few years, I've been talking up and recommending Apple's unique iTunes U service on the Windows Weekly podcast. There's simply nothing like it on rival devices, and if you're interested in essentially taking college classes for free--yes, really--you need to check it out. But now all of this content is available through a new iTunes U app--for iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch--which is interesting. Looking at iTunes, i can see that the iTunes U content is still available normally--similarly to the way it provides podcasts--but I wonder if this is the first step in "locking" the iTunes content to iDevices. (Today, you can download an iTunes U audio or video class from iTunes but play it back on an Android or Windows Phone device if you want.)

According to Apple, the new app "lets teachers create and manage courses including essential components such as lectures, assignments, books, quizzes and syllabuses," assuming of course all their students have iOS devices. Students, meanwhile, can "access new books right from within the app, and any notes taken in iBooks are consolidated for easy reviewing. In addition to reading books, viewing presentations, lectures and assignment lists, students can receive push notifications so they always have the latest class information."

Given this, I'd have to guess that the iTunes U app is for students actually taking the class, whereas the iTunes U service, through iTunes, is for anyone outside the school who wishes to enjoy the class separately. Hopefully that doesn't change.

Interesting stuff regardless.