To hear the Apple marketing team tell it, this move was made in an effort to revolutionize education by bringing textbooks into the present day, and it certainly has that potential. But, we wouldn't be fair if we didn't talk about the other half of the reason Apple is doing this, which is of course to sell more iPads, and it will certainly do that, but it may be a pretty long road for Apple.
Education is one of the most stubborn sectors around, especially in America. Teaching methods can be archaic and uninspired, and it can be difficult for schools to hire better staff or purchase adequate supplies because of low funding. Unfortunately, while these schools may be in the most dire need of the potential of new iBooks textbooks, they will also be the very last to benefit from this updated medium. And, when they finally do benefit, it will most likely not be with iPads.
The new iBooks textbooks are almost everything that teaching materials should be. They are interactive, multimedia, annotatable, and best of all updatable. These are the first textbooks that can teach no matter how you tend to learn best. If you are a visual learner, there are images, and interactive models. If you are an auditory learner, there are movies. These books can also never go out of date, because they can be updated with corrections, and new information. Of course, this leads to the first roadblock to adoption.
Roadblock #1: Textbook pricing
One of the most impressive announcements today was that textbooks would be priced at just $14.99 or less. As anyone who has gone to college knows, that price point is absolutely absurd. Textbooks is an incredible racket both for publishers and schools. Used book sales are huge money makers for every university and college bookstore, and updatable digital books are going to throw a huge wrench into that scheme. Textbooks are also notoriously expensive, which is good for publishers, but the cost has been offset by the relatively small market for textbooks, and that's where Apple has created a unique opportunity here, but it's unclear what market Apple is aiming for.
Textbook publishers have had a relatively perfect system, because they knew what universities were offering classes which required certain textbooks, and knew the maximum number of students potentially in the market for certain books. This meant that textbook publishers could be far more accurate with printing amounts and not be left with many extra copies of books. However, the savings from being able to avoid overprinting is often offset because the market for the books is relatively small from year to year. $14.99 is not only an insane price cut from what publishers would normally charge, but it is a one time fee, not a subscription model. One theory is that colleges usually buy one copy of a textbook every 5 years at an average of $80 per copy, so the iTextbook pricing is on par over the same time period. It's an interesting theory, but we're not sure it completely adds up. Still, the pricing could be a benefit to customers, but may alienate publishers who want to stick with the older system which allows them to charge far far more. We say this "could be" a benefit to customers because there's no guarantee that publishers are going to be creating full digital copies of those $200 college textbooks just to sell them for $15. There is a possibility that the iTextbooks may not be as comprehensive as we would normally expect from something labeled a "textbook".
It also presents a new challenge for publishers who do adopt the platform, because they will be looking to make up for the price difference through selling in volume, which may be Apple's overall strategy anyway. Apple has already been targeting a more casual education market with its iTunes U offerings, and the additional features connecting iTunes U to new iTextbooks makes it seem like that is still at least part of the plan. However, a more casual audience is relatively untapped territory. Given the current economic climate and the number of people who could use some cheap education to help in transitioning into new job fields, it is certainly a territory rife with potential, but one that has never been tested before. Not to mention, in order to reach this new territory, we hit the second roadblock:
Roadblock #2: iPad cost
The option of cheaper access to college courses and education materials definitely looks like it would lend itself to aiming at a transitioning work force, but cheaper textbooks are only one side of the coin, and the other side is not cheap. Not surprisingly since this is Apple after all, the only way to get the benefits of new iBook textbooks is to own an iPad, which is still a sizable investment for many people. As we said, the market is there for textbooks to hit a more casual market outside of the collegiate system because many people are looking to learn new skills in order to find jobs, especially when combined with the new tools available through iTunes U to be able to access college courses at your leisure. But, a market of individuals looking for jobs is probably not the best market to tap when a requirement is to buy a $500 device to use the new education system.
Really, it may not be the best option overall for schools either. Sure, iPad adoption is on the rise in school systems, especially on the collegiate level, but iPads are still just too expensive for many primary and secondary school systems where the benefits of these new educational tools would be far more impactful than at the collegiate level. The far lower cost of textbooks would offset those costs to a certain extent, but it is still a pretty big investment that will be needed by schools and students. And, as we mentioned before, given the price that publishers will be forced to charge, these new textbooks may not be comprehensive enough to be used for many classrooms, although this concern shouldn't extend to primary and secondary schools, and would likely affect the collegiate level more.
This reality is something we see with all technological advances and really isn't avoidable, but it's more difficult to watch when the impacts could be so positive. Any time we see a technological bump, the richest are the first to gain access to it, and the poorest (and usually the most in need of the benefits of the new technology) are the last to see the benefits. As Kevin Kelly has said, this creates a system in which "the rich early adopters 'subsidize' technology development for the less rich and poor who adopt it later." Or, at least that is the normal cycle outside of Apple's walled garden.
The problem is that no amount of early adopters are going to bring down the price of the iPad if Apple doesn't want to lower the price; and, because publishers are going to invest so much into creating these textbooks for the iBooks platform, it may mean that we see slower adoption of alternatives on cheaper platforms. Even assuming these textbooks will be complete enough for use in actual classrooms, many schools would be far more willing to buy Amazon Kindle Fire tablets with comparable ebook options for textbooks than to buy an iPad because the cost would be so much lower.
Of course, this is Apple, so it goes beyond locking the software to Apple devices:
Roadblock #3: The Apple lockdown
The new iBook Author software will not only make it easier for textbook publishers to create books for Apple's platform, but it will create an interesting option for amateur authors looking to self-publish their works. So far, Amazon has dominated this market by allowing authors to bypass the traditional publisher system and create ebooks to be listed in the Kindle store. The iBook Author software gives Apple a horse in that race, but it's a horse with some dangerous tricks.
The End User License Agreement for the new iBook Author program includes a passage, section 2b, which states that work provided free of charge can be distributed wherever you'd like. However, if you want to charge for said work the EULA says, "you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution." This means if you want to charge, you will effectively be barred from selling that work anywhere but Apple's iBookstore.
It is unclear how different a work has to be in order to avoid this condition, so it may just mean that publishers could have special versions of textbooks on iPads and different, but comparable, versions on other platforms. But, that is merely a workaround for textbook publishers and not a solution to the basic problem for all other authors, which is that Apple as a publisher is a bad thing for books. Books need to have wide reaches, and limiting the reach of a book to just the Apple platform is something of a travesty in our opinion.
iMovie has been a revolutionary product not because it feeds back into the iTunes store, but more because what you create in it can be put anywhere like YouTube or Vimeo. Garage Band has certainly added a lot of content to the iTunes store, but creators are not locked in, and can put that music anywhere. Sure, iBook Author is a different beast than either of those, but that's the problem, not an excuse. iBook Author should be a way for amateur authors to create their works and then distribute that work anywhere to get the most exposure just like they can with any of Apple's other creative programs. Apple could easily add in extra features to incentivize authors to publish in the iBookstore, but to mandate it is an awful thing to do.
All of this adds up to exactly what you would expect from Apple: an amazing set of products that has the potential to revolutionize an industry which is desperately in need of revolution, but will be held back by the fact that it is Apple. E-textbooks with full multimedia and interactive elements is the logical progression for textbooks, and putting better authoring tools has been proven as the way forward in self-publishing to electronic devices, but Apple's need for control means that we won't be seeing the most from these great new tools until competitors catch up.
Perhaps, the other shoe just needs to drop, and Apple will announce a $300 iPad mini at some point this year, but until then this great new system will be in a relative limbo. iPads are huge sellers to be sure, but the cost is still prohibitive for those who need access to these new textbooks the most. Many high schools and elementary schools won't be able to take on the cost of buying iPads, and neither will the students' families. Additionally, while universities will see higher adoption rates for iPads and iBooks, at just $15, it's unclear if the textbooks offered will be university-grade books. And, even if you were hoping to just get your great novel off the ground by self-publishing, you have to lock yourself into the Apple world to do so.
As anyone who has published in the Kindle store will tell you, better creation tools for ebooks is definitely a great step forward. Just looking at the demos of new iTextbooks, it's easy to see the educational value there, but it's hard to see these amazing new tools creating the revolution that Apple always promises. At least, we may not see that revolution until the competitors make more accessible options.