Sorry, Apple's Textbook Killer Isn't Going To Set the Education World On Fire

Apple iBooks 2 Screenshot

Apple unveiled its much awaited “Education Announcement” this morning and some are invariably pronouncing that they disrupted the textbook publishing industry as we know it.  

However, nothing presented at this conference struck us as particuarly transformative or even likely to make a big splash in the massive education market.

First, a quick high-level summary of the announcement:

  • Apple released iBook 2, a free app that lets users download digital textbooks for the iPad.
  • Digital textbooks, packed with multimedia features, will be sold in the iBookstore for $14.99 or less (Apple insists this will always be the price, publishers reportedly view it as a ‘trial run’).
  • Apple has partnered with Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who form a combined 90% of the textbook market.
  • Apple released iBooks Author, a free app that allows anyone to create rich multimedia, digital textbooks out of their content.
  • Apple intends to aggressively expand iTunes U.

Who’s Paying?
The initial thrust of Apple’s education initiative is aimed at high schools, but it’s not exactly clear who they’re targeting. Students? School Districts? We highly doubt that school districts will spend millions of dollars on iPads for dedicated in-class textbook readers, as they surely are not going to let the students take them out of the classrooms. Public school students (i.e. the vast majority) don’t pay for textbooks as it is—the district basically loans them out for the year. 

This raises numerous questions. Are we going to ask them to pay $15 a year per class now? Most likely the district will still cover this cost, but this leads to other questions.  Even if students have a digital ‘copy’ of the book outside the classroom, will it only be available on an iPad? What if students don’t have an iPad? Even if it’s available over the web, will it still have all the cool bells and whistles that Apple touted would transform the textbook as we know it? 

That maths seems a little fuzzy no matter which way you swing it. Yes, as Peter Kafka points out, $15 a year instead of $75 every five years is good economics for the publishers, but from the school’s vantage point that doesn’t even include the cost of iPads and altogether makes this look like an expensive proposition.  Wasn’t this supposed to be about helping the schools and transforming education as we know it? With a significant minority of American high school students on reduced lunch aid and school district budgets taking big hits from cash-strapped states, it’s difficult to see how this is going to make a big dent.

Apple iBooks 2 Screenshot 2

What About The College Market?
Undoubtedly, this experiment will soon be carried into the college market. While there are certainly more college students lugging around iPads than high school students, the path to success is still far from certain.  Will college students buy iPads as devoted textbook readers? Maybe. But one thing is certain: you NEED a laptop in college, an iPad is pretty much superfluous.  While Apple has announced publishing partners for the high school effort, it’s highly doubtful you’ll be seeing an ‘introduction to organic chemistry’ textbook for ‘$14.99 or less’ anytime soon—they usually costs hundreds of dollars.

What are the incentives for the textbook publishers, or even authors for that matter? Is there a mass textbook piracy market that we are unaware of? As far as we can tell, there is no Napster on the textbooks industry’s horizon. Music companies needed iTunes as they were being decimated by online piracy—textbook publishers are hardly coming to Apple hat in hand.

The current system seems to be chugging along just fine from an industry standpoint.  Each time a voluminous college textbook gets updated with some new words and pictures every few years, the industry (and its authors) make a killing as classrooms across the nation switch over because the previous edition has mysteriously been rendered obsolete.   

Bottom Line
Yes, it would be great if high school and college students could get their textbooks for cheap prices, but it’s not clear how, when, or why this would even be possible given the state of the market.  The supply (textbook publishers) still has complete control over the demand (students).  Students need to buy textbook, but publishers are under no obligation to sell them for cheap and there’s no looming existential threat that Apple can use to compel them to do so. We will admit that it’s possible Apple may have released an innovative game-changing education product—but that’s hardly a foregone conclusion given what we’ve seen.

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