Textbooks on the iPad

The iPad has been a product in search of a market to revolutionize.  The iPod revolutionized the music market.  The iPhone revolutionized the communications market.  The Mac never revolutionized anything, and gained only a cult following.  Today it is the most popular peripheral to iPods, iPhones and now iPads, which keeps it selling, but it will never break through in a big way in the PC  market as long as its competition persists in putting out more powerful computers at much cheaper prices. But the poor iPad has not found a market to turn around, until, Apple hopes, now.

Yesterday Apple made a big deal announcement at the Guggenheim in NYC, no less, where they staked a claim to the textbook market.  Although it is a bit confusing, they announced three things:

  1. Textbooks for iPad, and to support their sales, an upgrade to the iBooks app called iBooks 2.  The books are sold through iTunes in the new Textbooks category, and the beginning offering is slight indeed from Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and HarperCollins.  The books feature embedded multimedia, quizzes, and dazzling graphics and ease of navigation.
  2. iBook Author, an app for the Macintosh  which allows authors to create ebooks for the iPad that can only be sold through the iTunes store.
  3. iTunes U can now be used as a platform for delivering academic content to be consumed on the iPad.  Apple released a web-based app, called iTunes U Course Manager, for creating this content, and the iTunes U app for iPad to consume it.  Only official representatives of iTunes U institutions can distribute the content created through the web-based tool.

Is it a revolutionary announcement for education?  Hardly.  What do these three announcements have in common?  Yes, the iPad.  While a certain percentage of the upper classes own iPads, joined by their gizmo-loving friends who can afford them, it is hardly the universal platform of the 99%.  This is a really big problem for these initiatives.  It is an all-too-obvious ploy to force the educational community (as if there were such a unified thing and it could be forced to do anything) into a closed, non-competitive market system owned by Apple and their legion of lawyers.  It is just another attempt by one of the largest corporate entities to seize control of an essential American enterprise that should be free to all, or at least fair and open, if not free.

If you create books with iBook Author, Apple owns them, and only Apple can sell them, and they can only be read on the iPad.  Why is that?  Shouldn’t ebooks be viewable on any computing platform?  Shouldn’t the format be non-proprietary?  Not the way Apple sees it.

If you adopt a textbook created for iPad for your class, your students, all of them, must have access to iPads to use the textbook.  How is that going to work in the real world?  Since the devices are so costly (the base-model iPad is $499 and these books are really, really big, taking a lot of storage), does it mean that classes need to be advertised only for the wealthy or fortunate?  At a community college?  It is true that there are some really small liberal arts colleges that distribute iPads to all students, but that’s not the world we live in.  So does the institution buy them for a certain professor, or program, or discipline?  And then what, distribute them to students to take home?  It would have to be that way, because what textbook is used only in class?  And what happens when it is stolen from the student, or lost, or damaged?  Where do the costs end?  And is there any proof that this will result in better learning outcomes in the first place?

The eTextbook market is all over the ballpark on proprietary formats and DRM lockdowns that restrict reading to a very limited number of “devices,” and its going to stay that way until the publishers/copyright holders of textbooks can adopt a common platform for distribution.  Apple’s announcement yesterday does not advance that agenda.  The problem is structural in the textbook market, since there simply are no economic motivators for them to do so, quite the contrary, in fact, since their market is not traditionally competitive, the situation will not change unless some enormous external pressure is applied to it, like government over site, which also is not about to happen.

Don’t get me wrong about the iPad.  I think it is a great device, superlatively engineered, useful and beautiful, and I am fortunate enough to have one through my job, and even bought one for a family member, but I’m not typical.  A typical family who sends their children to a community college should not be expected to have to purchase an iPad in addition to a computer in addition to the textbooks that are not available on the iPad, which is 99.99999% of them, in addition to all the other related costs.  If Apple were really serious about revolutionizing education, they would offer an open platform that any eTextbook could be read on, and an open source tool that could be used by anyone to produce eTextbooks for any platform.