Apple’s Textbook Announcement: One Week Later

January 26, 2012

Last Thursday Apple announced a big textbook initiative. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the major products are:

  • iBooks 2, a K-12 e-textbook store (Apple is shacking up with the Legacy Publishers.)
  • iBooks Author, an application for writing interactive textbooks

Those looking for more detail should consult AllThingsD’s liveblogging of the event.

We hadn’t intended to weigh in on this topic; so much has already been written, and we were fine with sitting out the PR battle. But last night I was at a meetup where over a dozen people asked for our thoughts, and I decided it’d be simpler if I just wrote them down here. So here we go.

The mainstream press is wrong: Apple is not ‘throwing out the rulebook’.

There is a compelling narrative that’s repeatedly employed the mainstream press: “Tech people are smart. Old Industry people are dumb and slow. Tech people will blow up Old Industry.” Amazingly, this story works even when the tech company is partnering with the incumbents, as is the case here.

Apple’s presentation was fantastic: it was full of simple, plausible, appealing statements that help tell a great story, but fall down under analysis. Exhibit A:

'Great content'? That's an exceptionally generous assessment of todays' textbooks. Audrey Watters called it 'completely silly and wrong-headed.' This image is (obviously) from AllThingsD.

A side note: Regardless of how pretty it is, any textbook that costs $10 million to make is insane and archetypal of what is wrong with the industry, not a “stunning accomplishment”.

The mainstream press is right: This is going to be huge because, hey, it’s Apple.

Apple has done OK with taking existing concepts and polishing them.

This announcement sucks the oxygen out of the room. From now on, Apple factors into every conversation about the future of textbooks. Companies without sufficient differentiation are toast.

Sure, there are tons of e-textbook stores out there, and iBooks is a me-too product. But it’s the slickest me-too product around. Apple’s presence will weed out the weak players and elevate the game of those that remain.

The edtech press is disappointed, but only because expectations were so high.

Audrey Watters has written an excellent—and very thorough, if not quite Unabomber-length—blog post dissecting the announcement. Her take: “What was missing was vision, ambition, ‘this changes everything.’”

Apple doesn't do social anymore.

Educators’ criticisms are valid—the $15 price point is a Kafkaesque joke; the reader is gorgeous but oddly lacking in social features; the EULA for iBooks Author is an abomination; and much of this looks uncomfortably like a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990s—but that doesn’t change the fact that these are solid products. Apple has long been the education community’s favorite son, and the edtech press expected Apple to reveal novel insights and demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the space. Instead, they got the platitudes that the mainstream press adores.

Other firms that rely on the Legacy Publishers are scared.

The existing e-textbook storefronts attempted to get out in front of the story; in the days prior to the announcement, they acted as pundits, speculating about what Apple would release. The more that the iBooks bookstore encroached on their turf, the more distraught they were. (While iBooks textbooks are currently only for K-12, nobody is so naïve to think that Apple will remain there.) CourseSmart—a company that uses the word “Chillax” on its homepage without any sense of irony—issued a panicked, snarky press release titled “CourseSmart Welcomes Apple to the Party!”

What About Eleven Learning?

All companies, even ones as large as Apple, need to focus. In targeting the textbook space, Apple zeroed in on content creation and content consumption. In other words, the absolute beginning and end of the process. What’s missing is everything in between: editing, peer review, revisions, versioning, market awareness, adoption, and so on.

There are a few ways to handle the remaining tasks:

  1. Don’t do it. These books are doomed to only be used in the author’s own classroom.
  2. Spend a jillion dollars and do it the old-fashioned way, like the Legacy Publishers do. It’s been suggested that Apple’s app store approval team will vet the quality of textbooks. Depending on their sense of humor, educators will find this either hilarious or horrifying.
  3. Build tools that enable a community of academics to make their own superior materials. Wait, that’s what Eleven Learning does!

At Eleven Learning, our authors can write their books in our editing tools, or they can use Word, or LATEX, or heck, even iBooks Author. And students are welcome to read their textbooks in our Reader, or on a Kindle, or on a Nook, or, yes, in iBooks. Those aren’t our differentiators.

What separates Eleven Learning from everyone else is our laser focus on building a community that makes better content. That’s what we mean by “community-powered textbooks”, and it’s how we solve the Textbook Problem.

2 Responses to “Apple’s Textbook Announcement: One Week Later”

  1. Steve Elliot Says:

    Andrew-
    I agree with your comments for the most part, this is a lot of hype.
    Most technology companies when approaching the building of an educational tool look at the challenge as how to build a better gadget and why not that’s their strength. Apple realizes that they are not experts in the development of content or textbooks for that matter, so they are partnering with educational publishers. To me this makes perfect sense, time will tell if the venture will be a successful one.

    There was an interesting take on the future of Digital textbooks on NPR’s On-Point last week please see

    http://onpoint.wbur.org/2012/01/24/future-of-textbooks


  2. I think one major point to re-emphasize is Apple’s “lock-in” content model. One can build a textbook in ibooks author, but one cannot sell it in any other distribution model. I am surprised more mainstream educators are not speaking out about this. This model will be great if the author, reader only swim in the streams of Appleville with an IPAD or other Apple device. Once you seek to walk out of the water, you have no content to take with you. This reminds me more of Amazon with its insistence on publishes using MOBI files and the files not being exportable to any other source. Universities and their teachers and students should expect to be in an open sourced river, flowing into all steams. Enjoyed the blogpost.


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