Many educators are pointing to Apple Computer's recently announced iPad as the prototype for an   e-reader that will be able to hold all the textbooks a student needs. Its color touch-screen, interactive-video capability and virtual keyboard, they say, give it greater potential for textbook users than monochrome readers like Amazon's Kindle. 

While some students may be using notebooks or their more portable cousins, netbooks, to read textbooks, some experts predict that within the next 10 years, most U.S. college, high school and elementary shcool students will probably be reading course materials on an electronic device instead of in a paper book.

If this is, indeed, the future of textbook publishing, a key question remains unanswered: Is it economically sustainable? Almost every industry -- from travel agencies to newspapers -- that has moved to a digital model has seen its profits decimated and some existing participants bankrupted.

Within days of the iPad announcement, a group of major educational publishers announced that they would all use technology developed by ScrollMotion, a New York-based content technology company, to transfer textbooks to the iPad. The group includes McGraw-Hill Companies; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt K-12, which is a unit of Education Media & Publishing Group; Pearson's Pearson Education, and Kaplan, the test-prep unit of The Washington Post Co.

Educators and book publishers are also predicting that eTextbooks will change the way teachers teach, students learn and textbook publishers sell their content -- often in unexpected ways. Yet while students eagerly anticipate lower costs and lighter backpacks, teachers remain wary and some publishers still question the model.

Indeed, approximately 88% of college students own laptops, according to a study by EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, a Boulder, Co., think tank. But so far, few of them download electronic textbooks, even though they could save money. The National Association of College Stores estimates that less than 3% of textbook sales today are digital versions, although many paper textbooks are sold with supplemental materials on CDs or web sites.