A few hours ago Apple held its much-anticipated education event in New York City, and as expected, announced a new offering that seeks to reinvent the textbook around the iPad.
Seeking to make textbooks more interactive, more durable, more searchable and more easily refreshable, iBooks 2 offers a "new textbook experience for the iPad." And boy is it pretty.
But putting looks aside, there is one big question everybody will be asking in the coming hours and days: does iBooks 2 really have the potential to revolutionise the textbook, making Apple the future of education in the process? The answer: probably not.
There are several key problems with iBooks 2:
- Not every student can afford an iPad, and schools are broke. The iPad is an incredible device for students, and 1.5m iPads are currently used in education. But not every parent can shell out hundreds of dollars or pounds for an iPad, and not every school has the funds to equip their students with them. Dead trees aren't dead, and cheaper tablet devices (likely based on Android) will have a big role in this market.
- iBooks 2 harks back to the CD-ROM era. Make no mistake about it, Apple is not "reinventing" the textbook. Rather, it is trying to take us back to the future, specifically the 1990s when interactive CD-ROMs were the next big thing in education. iBooks Author, which is used to compose iBooks 2 titles, is little more than HyperCard for the e-book/mobile app generation.
- iBooks 2 won't really make textbooks less expensive. This isn't about greed. Apple taking a double-digit percentage cut of gross revenue increases pressure on margins, and authoring interactive content is not cheap. The output from the iBooks 2 authoring process isn't reusable anywhere else (as in, you can't sell an iBooks 2 title through non-Apple channels), producing a less-than-optimal investment scenario for publishers.
- Publishers already offer app-like versions of textbooks. Initial textbook publishers on board for launch are Pearson, McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is for good reason: being seen as jumping on the Apple bandwagon is usually a good thing. But it's worth noting that most of these publishers already offer app-like interactive versions of their textbooks directly to schools. In some cases, their licenses for schools cost less than the texbooks in the new section of the iBookstore, which are $14.99. Selling app-like versions, whether through Apple or other channels, is only possible of course because of the revenue from physical textbooks. So if iBooks 2 (or any other digital format) killed off the hardcover textbook, producing these apps and selling them on the cheap at a profit would be impossible.
- Apple doesn't seem to understand publishing. During its announcement, Apple kept referring to the fact that authors themselves can create interactive titles using iBooks Author, which is available for free download. But the authors of textbooks published by the big publishers don't compose their textbooks - the publishers do. Pointing this out may seem like nit-picking, but it hints at a fundamental naivety about the textbook publishing process on Apple's part.
- Apple is but one channel. iBooks 2 is specific to one channel/device - the iPad. An important channel to be sure, but publishing is a multichannel world. It's hard to see the education industry standardising in any meaningful way around Apple hardware and software, meaning that publishers will be certainly be investing in making sure their content is available through all emerging channels, such as Android-based tablets.
At the end of the day, Apple's success with iBooks 2 will not be based on how "gorgeous" the texbooks on the iPad can be. It will be based on the ROI it delivers to publishers.
The iPad is an attractive channel for textbook publishers (as it is to all publishers) but you aren't going to see major textbook publishers putting their eggs in one basket.
From a pure product standpoint, iBooks 2 may be impressive, but from a commercial perspective, in a few years it will probably still be remembered as one of Steve Jobs' last pet projects.