I predict that there is one demographic that will gobble up Apple's new toy: College students. Here's why the iPad is going to be the biggest campus fad since ... well, the last thing Apple made.
Apple hasn't yet released the particulars of its iBook app, but it heralds a potential textbook revolution for three reasons. First, if the online store allows chapters to be purchased individually, professors and students will enjoy unprecedented freedom to assign chapters rather than volumes. That would be welcome news for cash-strapped students since textbooks can easily run $300 or more a semester, even though much of the content goes unread.
Second, integrated graphics in a textbook will be another education revolution. Physics, math chemistry, economics, etc. -- these subjects are so thoroughly enhanced by graphics that I'm already getting jealous of all the kids who will grow up in an e-textbook age. Imagine a physics app that allows you to learn dynamics by toying with variables and seeing the real-time result, or a biology graphic displaying the mitosis process. It's so much more intuitive than text or a static picture. What's more, e-textbooks can be updated. In 2008, when I was an economics major, the field was being rewritten, and sections of our books seemed almost archaic. Publishers no longer have to continually issue new editions. They'll just upload updates online to be retrieved wirelessly.
Third, beyond graphics, an e-textbook allows yet another layer of interactivity. Students could save their own notes in the tablet, flagged to the relevant passage in the text, while teachers could make available online chapters with the professors' annotations built in.
College students watch a lot of TV (surprise!). What you might not know if you didn't recently graduate is that today they watch nearly all of it on computers, streaming from an online source. Often it's while supine in bed, the laptop precariously balanced on some pillow or edged between their legs. It's not ideal, to say the least. But the iPad allows in-bed TV viewing to be as straightforward as reading a paperback. Students are not going to admit it, but this is going to be a major selling point -- and likely a major boon for iTunes, which rents and sells movies and television episodes.
At $499-829, the iPad isn't cheap. But there's a sort of genius behind the pricing scheme. To the college student, $499 for the low-end model -- which has 16 GB and only wi-fi, no 3G -- will seem like a comparative steal. The extra memory is a luxury, because a lot of college students already have dedicated music players, computers and external hard drives. Moreover, most campuses are entirely wireless, making a 3G connection redundant. If textbook savings are taken into account, and if there's a keyboard dock suitable for longer typing, then the iPad starts to look like a veritable steal.
If history serves as a guide, Apple will market heavily to the college crowd. And if history repeats itself, the college crowd will respond, in droves. Like sweatpants, shower flip flops and meal plans, the iPad could become a college staple. Professors, prepare yourselves for the mother of all classroom distractions.
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