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Will Apple's iBooks Experiment Lower the Price of College Textbooks?

If Apple becomes the iTunes of the digital textbook world, will college students be able to save some cash?

With schools investing millions toward MacBooks and iPads for every student, Apple is already a major player in the education-technology market. But Thursday's announcement of a slew of new education apps made clear that the company is positioning itself to become the iTunes of the digital textbook world.

Apple executives announced details of a revamped iTunesU, the new iAuthor app—which will allow educators to create their own books—and iBooks2, a partnership with the nation's biggest education publishers. iBooks will produce electronic texts for K-12 schools starting at the uber-affordable price of $14.99 each.

Some states are already mandating that public schools shift to a digital textbook format, so now is the perfect time for Apple to get into the elementary and secondary education market. But it's almost guaranteed that the company doesn't plan to stop there. Expanding to the lucrative college textbook market is undoubtedly on Apple's to-do list, too.

Will Apple's expansion into college textbooks help lower prices for cash-strapped students? Nicole Allen, the textbook advocate for the Student PIRGs—a national network of nonprofit, non-partisan student advocacy groups—warns that "if current e-textbook prices are any indication," the $14.99 price announced at Apple's press conference probably won't apply at the college level. Whether hard copy or digital books, publishers maintain the power to set the base cost. Currently, Allen says the average e-textbook costs 48 percent of a new hard copy and is more expensive than renting or buying used copies, so digital versions aren't always a deal for students.

On the other hand, Allen says, the iAuthor app could become a promising resource for the open-source textbook market by making it easier for individual educators or small businesses to writer their own texts or modify existing ones. Bringing more players into the marketplace will result in more competition—and that, Allen says, will be "the key to driving down prices long-term."

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