Last week Apple announced a new tool for content creation — iBooks Author. The free software was part of a broader mid-January event heralding Apple’s new thrust into education. The Cupertino-based company also unpacked deals with major K-12 textbook publishers including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw Hill Education and Pearson. As well, it introduced a revamped iTunes U, which will allow university and K-12 instructors to provide full, rich-media courseware for free through iTunes U.

But, as a journalism instructor, it’s iBooks Author that has me most intrigued. This is software that those of us with iPads have been craving since the device was in our hands. Using interface tools familiar to anyone who uses the software Pages and Keynote, you can easily create an interactive book and publish it for free (or sell it through Apple’s iBook Store). Once published, anyone with an iPad can swipe through your new book, open picture galleries, play videos, take quizzes, follow hyperlinks, rotate 3D objects and interact with whatever embedded Keynote presentations you include in your book.

So, why am I so taken with iBooks Author? Because it’s not just for textbooks, and not just for textbook publishers. It is a fantastic tool for communications professionals, including journalists.

Let me cut to the chase: I think iBooks Author could be the platform for a whole new form of rich-media, long-form journalism.

We now have, for free, a tool that lets us tell stories and present stories that combine all the interactivity and engagement we could dream of. In a single tool, I can combine what would have been done via video clips, feature stories, podcasts, photo essays, study guides and polls. I can then publish that “book” online for my iPad-owning potential audience (coming up on 55 million) to enjoy, experience and engage with.

The software is easy to use. I had my first two-chapter sample product completed and installed on my iPad in less than a half hour after the tool was available for download. To create a book you need a Macintosh computer running the latest version of OSX (Lion) and an iPad to preview and test your book on. While the finished iBook is based on the ePub3 standard, Apple has added its own functionality that means that the finished work is only playable on iPads. There is nothing in the licence agreement that would prevent you from using the source content for your book in other formats (Kindle, print, PDF, etc.), but the iBooks Author product, in all its interactive glory, is locked to the iPad.

So, step back from what that means to journalists and magazine and newspaper publishers. Here’s a free tool that’s a better alternative than an ad hoc paperback, or special section, as a way to package a multipart series. Here’s a platform that encourages readers to touch, listen to, watch, engage with and learn from your story. Here’s software that gives anyone the opportunity to tell great stories, in new ways.

Trust me, the experience of engaging with an interactive iBook makes a web page feel like a blued Gestetner copy.

By marketing iBooks Author as a textbook publishing tool, Apple has, really, hidden its core value. It’s not for textbooks, it’s for interactive storytelling.

Now, you might think, “Well, that’s great, but not all my readers have iPads.” True enough, though if your readers have tablets, there’s an excellent chance they’re iPads. And, if you rode the GO Train car I do commuting from Hamilton to Toronto, you’d wonder who doesn’t own one. But, most importantly, I think we have yet to see the other shoe drop here.

In order for Apple’s textbook strategy to work, especially in K-12 classrooms, iPads need to get into the hands of a majority of students. Come March, by all rumours, we’ll see an iPad 3, a faster, higher resolution tablet from Apple. But, iBooks Author books work just fine on the original iPads, and, of course, iPad 2s. So, I expect we’ll see deep discounts on iPad 2 prices when the iPad 3 hits the stores. We might also see a rugged educational version of an iPad, based on original iPad specs, at volume prices that might give the Kindle Fire a run for its money.

Right now, newspapers and magazines should be figuring out how to turn their best long-form work into iBooks. They should be considering doing iBook-only special projects. And, you can bet my journalism students at Western are going to be all over this when my online journalism class starts next month. Apple’s timing couldn’t have been better, nor its tool more appropriate for young people wanting to learn the shape of stories to come. I just hope the older people, who are in charge of traditional media, are paying attention.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

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Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...