iBooks has always struggled to find a unique market to help Apple turn it into a unique product. After today’s announcement, I think Apple’s finally found such a market in education.
Education checks all the boxes: it’s a market that feeds Apple’s funnel (students have been very good to Apple in the past, especially between Jobs), is sufficiently valuable (worth billions), and uniquely benefits from digital technology. The last point is especially important, so let’s break it down:
- Textbooks require frequent updates. In most fields print publishing is too slow. My physical anthropology courses had to heavily supplement textbooks as new discoveries refigured evolutionary charts every month. In the computer science field, publishers like O’Reilly have already switched to print-on-demand models to offset these effects. Electronic versions can be updated with relatively little effort, with no additional costs to the student.
- Education is interactive by definition. If you aren’t participating with a textbook in some way, you’re probably not learning. Lectures, quizzes, flashcards, study groups, and walkthroughs both surround and are embedded within textbooks. Novels may slightly slightly benefit from interactivity (a real world map to trace Ulysses, perhaps), but textbooks will benefit hugely as they’ve been demanding interactivity since before the computer. Further, they already rely on different ‘modes’ of engagement (reading, quizzing, reviewing, and indexing) better handled on a screen than on a page.
- Textbooks are expensive and yet their market is cash strapped. To me, the biggest announcements today were that Apple has partnered with 90% of the textbook industry, iBook textbooks start at $14.99 or less, and textbooks can be purchased by chapters. The iTunes equivalent to this would have been launching with every major label and charging $1.60 per album (iTunes did sell albums by tracks, like the chapters of textbooks, but the labels were not happy about it). When the iBooks textbook pricing was announced the auditorium audibly gasped. Do not underestimate the importance of these price points. Textbook purchasing is incredibly bureaucratic, political, and lobbied. Wooing professors is hard and courting the state governments whom purchase high school texts is near impossible. Only at an absurd price point, one which allows governments to significantly cut costs, could Apple succeed. But how did Apple convince a textbook old-school industry (pardon the pun) to hand them the keys to their business???
- Textbooks currently live within confined marketplaces. I think the reason textbook publishers embrace Apple is because iTunes U expands their marketplace beyond pricey college walls. Currently, a coup for textbook publishers is being listed in a 500 person seminar syllabus. iTunes U, with its 700 million downloads, changes the scale. Suddenly, every publisher will be creating content for popular, freely available classes with the hopes that tens of thousands of iTunes subscribers will purchase their wares without having to pay a $30,000 tuition entry fee. Further, such an ecosystem will lessen Apple’s dependence on these publishers: it’s not hard to imagine colleges creating their own textbooks for popular, free online classes to create a new flow of income.
This last point is major. Apple’s educational ecosystem, if successful, could redefine our college system. Free classes will be offered for free in hopes that students will pay $15 for an ebook. Personally, I can’t wait to audit a course from home with materials designed for the experience.
Sidenote: Remember Amazon’s tepid foray into textbooks, the Kindle DX? Heh.