Apple’s iBooks Praises Begin To Wither As Skepticism Settles In

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iBooks 2 promises a digital textbook revolution, but it's more mainstream than it appears.

Apple started off 2012 with the $10 billion textbook market in its crosshairs. Last week, the company unveiled iBooks 2, the next iteration of its iBooks software now beefed up for the textbook market, and with it, a Steve Jobs-worthy dose of fanfare for its accompanying authoring software aptly dubbed iBooks Author. While media sources were quick to laud the move as Apple “reinventing” the textbook, concerns began to emerge about Apple’s licensing agreement, which restricts commercial ownership to any textbook developed with iBooks Author to Apple products and a requirement that it be sold through iBookstore (it can be given away for free anywhere). Only time will tell if Apple can defend its license to the tech and educational community. However, while many may look at this move as innovative, the truth is it is a huge step backward for the revolution that Apple was leading in education with the rapid adoption of iPads and apps for learning.

The idea behind iBooks 2 and iBooks Author seems timely. A publishing platform that would embed videos and polls right into textbooks allows them to become more interactive, and since anyone can download iBooks Author for free, educators around the world can start creating textbooks immediately and either give them away or sell them, presumably cheaper than their print equivalents. Pilot programs are already showing student math scores are 20% higher using iPads instead of print textbooks, and the word on the street is that 350,000 textbooks for iBooks have been downloaded in the first 3 days.

See, traditional textbooks suffer a few inherent problems. First, they cost a lot to print, especially when they are chock full of glossy, bright images. Second, information changes over time (though not as rapidly as textbook publishers might want you to think). So new textbook editions are released about every three years, even if the book undergoes minimal changes such as new images and a few rewritten sections. This means that the most expensive part of textbook publishing is launching a new title, and it typically takes years for the investment to pay off. Third, it is a highly competitive market with very slim profit margins, which is why publishers make deals with entire school districts and textbooks come bundled with CD-ROMs and online access to resources (they help with the more-bang-for-your-buck selling point).

It makes sense then that Apple would want  to use the iPad to replace textbooks. The company announced that high school texts will sell for about $14.99 compared to the $60 price tag of print books. These digital books can be updated instantly without the high cost of a reprint as well as the hassle of trying to talk everyone into getting the latest edition. And because the books will be sold in iBookstore, it promotes a free market for textbooks rather than dealmaking between publishers and school districts.

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And this is why the EULA is a problem. By binding textbook authors to selling in iBookstore only, it creates a new kind of bureaucracy for textbooks because it forces schools to have iPads to benefit from the innovation. In other words, it’s a way to force iPad sales. When textbooks are written for future iPads that require HD or more memory, schools will have to upgrade. At the rate that iPad innovations are coming, Apple may be creating their own version of the three-year edition cycle. Apple has already sold 40 million iPads for a whopping $25 billion in sales, but the tablet market is becoming increasingly competitive, especially with the latest success, the Amazon Fire. Because revolutions often inspire more revolutions (just look at the history of France) and Google’s Android is spreading like wild fire, perhaps Apple is wisely jumping into textbooks now before Amazon makes another attempt.

Digital textbook projections look very promising in the next few years, and that was before Apple's iBooks 2 announcement. (from SiliconIndia)

Here at Singularity Hub, we’ve monitored and profiled the amazing sales growth of iPads, how they are changing books, and especially how they are increasingly being used in the classroom with great success to usher in digital education. (TechCrunch has recently offered the alternative view that classrooms aren’t quite ready for digital textbooks). In fact, Apple states that over 600 districts are already implementing one-iPad-per-student programs. So the big questions is: Why on Earth would Apple not allow the quantum-leap-like transformation that began with the iPad to take its natural course of conquering education and accelerating the extinction of the textbook format?

It’s almost as if Apple took something from the automobile industry’s playbook: sell hybrid vehicles to the public in the short term to acclimate them toward all-electric cars in the long term. But the issue is that the iPad isn’t experiencing adoption problems. It seems that more and more schools are using iPads for learning and app developers are coming out with more educational apps to suit the demand.

It may be that Apple’s foray into textbooks is simply a way to penetrate further into the educational market, bring old schoolers into the tablet world, and slowly watch textbooks get smaller and smaller until they are app sized and app publishers emerge as the new educational publishers. In other words, make some money, bide some time, and keep everyone addicted to iPads.

Before his death, Steve Jobs had targeted the textbook industry and dubbed the American educational system as “hopelessly antiquated.” Clearly, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author are part of his legacy and only time will tell if these tools can change the role textbooks play in education, either through transforming  them to the digital age or obliterating them with apps. If he were alive today, he might even be able to give us one last “And one more thing…” that would hint at which way he wanted it to go. But sadly, the future that Apple envisioned for schools seems a lot less spectacular and a lot more mainstream than ever.

[Media: Apple, SiliconIndia, YouTube]

[Source: PC Magazine, Washington Post]

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

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