Amid the suite of new products Apple unveiled alongside the iPad Mini at an event on Tuesday, CEO Tim Cook also brought up Apple’s leading role in education, highlighting the fact that the older full-size iPad had already been adopted by 2,500 classrooms around the U.S. in the two and a half years since it was first introduced.
“One of the things that is so rewarding and so amazing to us is how quickly iPad has been embraced in education,” Cook said. “Administrators, teachers and students have found iPad to be an incredible learning tool.”
But the new iPad Mini and updated full-size iPad may not help schools as much as Apple would like, and may even create some headaches for students and teachers at first, according to an executive at one of Apple’s foremost educational publishing partners, McGraw Hill Education, which has a line of over 50 interactive textbooks for the iPad that it developed with another company, Inkling.
“The almost instantaneous obsolescence of the new iPad was a bit of a surprise,” said Vineet Madan, senior vice president at McGraw Hill Education, in a phone interview with TPM. “If I were a teacher who had spent the last pennies of his or her budget buying new iPads for students a few months ago, I don’t know if I’d be too happy waking up and finding out that there’s a new iPad with a completely different connector cable now.”
Madan was referring to the fact that the iPad Mini and new full-size iPad “fourth generation” both use the new charging and sync cable Apple introduced earlier this fall with the iPhone 5, the Lightning connector.
“If you’re operating in a classroom that has iPads, now if you want to upgrade or replace a device, you’re going to have to maintain multiple chargers,” Madan noted.
Like numerous other analysts and tech writers, Madan was similarly confused what Apple was attempting to do in pricing the 7.9-inch iPad Mini at $329 to start, a 65 percent increase over its similarly-sized competitors, the $199 Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7 tablets.
“On the one hand, you look at $329 and you think that’s better for schools and college students who weren’t able to afford the previous versions,” Madan said. “But it’s only $70 cheaper than the full size version. I don’t know why you wouldn’t just pay the extra $70 to get the full size version, which is going to provide a better, richer experience.”
Madan also acknowledged that at 0.68 pounds, the iPad Mini is easier for students to haul around in their bookbags and that the smaller screen size (7.9 inches versus 9.50 inches) would be easier for smaller fingers to tap.
Apple’s effort to ensure that the iPad Mini screen was the same aspect-ratio (4:3) as its larger counterparts is also beneficial for digital interactive textbook publishers including McGraw Hill, as it means that their current offerings will display correctly on the smaller screen.
However, he noted that display and interactivity properties were two different areas, and as far as user-interaction, the iPad Mini may present McGraw Hill some challenges.
“Everything we’ve made for the iPad 2 will work fine on the iPad Mini, but the controls will also be shrunken too,” Madan pointed out. “Just because you can see everything the same doesn’t mean that it’s going to be as easy or enjoyable to interact with. There may be some work that needs to be done on the user interface, but we won’t know until we get some devices in hand.”
Overall, while Madan said that McGraw Hill Education was looking to take advantage of the new template for digital textbooks offered by the iPad Mini, he thought the product was one in search of a need.
“It’s almost like a ‘Jeopardy’ question,” Madan said of the new device. “If you said ‘iPad Mini,’ I don’t know quite what the question would be that I would buzz-in. Is it education, enterprise, something else?”
More broadly, Madan revealed he thought that Apple had entered a period of “incremental improvement” rather than “breakthrough innovation” when it came to its products and software, while other companies — namely Google with Android and Microsoft with Windows 8 — were pushing the boundaries of their mobile software even further.
“[Apple’s] iOS is still pretty much the same as it was when it was introduced six years ago,” Madan opined. “It’s still built around single-tasking…What we’ve seen on the Android and Windows side is a push to supply more live information on the front screen, without even opening apps, through widgets or tiles.”
Madan elaborated on just how and why something as seemingly small and subtle as having live information displayed on the front of apps was so important to mobile device users, especially from an educational standpoint.
“The society we live in increasingly time pressured,” Madan said. “Seeing a little red icon in iOS telling me ‘7’ doesn’t really tell me much. In an education context, I’d like to know I have 3 homework assignments, for example, rather than just 3 random alerts. I think theres’s an opportunity to really look at iOS again and come up with next big leap forward. Until that happens, we’re probably not going to see anything earth shattering on the Apple device side.”
Madan said that although McGraw Hill Education had already invested heavily in Apple digital texbooks, it was also eyeing the competition.
“We’ve always been platform agnostic,” Madan told TPM. “We’re happy to work on whatever devices school districts and college students choose to use. If they start to choose more of the new Windows 8 devices, we’ll respond appropriately. We’ve seen a much more aggressive uptake on the Android side recently and we’ve appropriately devoted engineering resources to develop for Android. We’re also working on more cloud solutions delivered through a browser.”
Madan pointed to McGraw Hill’s CINCH project, a secure online learning platform that connects students and teachers, as one example of a cloud-based, platform agnostic solution the company already offers.