Apple Textbook Controversy Isn’t About Books-It’s About Teaching

I don’t think there’s ever been a textbook that made it this easy to be a good student. —Roger Rosner, vice president of productivity applications, Apple

Whenever a company as powerful as Apple, Facebook, or Google announces a big new product push, it evokes wonder and acclaim from some observers, head-scratching and horror from others, and the usual FUD from competitors. So I wasn’t surprised when Apple’s press event last week at the Guggenheim Museum—where it said it will sell low-priced iPad textbooks to high-schoolers through its iBooks store and give away the software needed to make them—was followed by a flood of criticism. But I was definitely impressed by the range and vehemence of the objections. I’ve spent part of this week trying to figure out where all the discomfort is coming from.

Here are a few of the reasons Apple’s textbook plans are doomed, misconceived, or just plain evil, in the eyes of the blogosphere:

A page from E.O. Wilson's "Life on Earth" for the iPad

This is all about one media giant trying to grab market share from other media giants. Education publishing is the most profitable part of the book business these days—maybe the only profitable part. So experiments with digital publishing have been cautious, and hampered by the lack of a great delivery device. Apple thinks it can hasten the technological transition, just as it did with music on the iPod, and grab a big slice of the profits in the process. The only difference this time around, say some observers, is that giants like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson have decided to join ’em rather than fight ’em.

This is all about selling iPads. This point of criticism has two variants. The first says Apple’s textbook push will fail because it’s insincere: the company really just wants to hook teenagers on Apple hardware, so they’ll buy the iPad 7 (with direct neural interface!) when they grow up. The second says it will fail because iPads are too expensive: schools can’t afford to supply every kid with a $499 gadget that they’ll probably just break, lose, or misuse.

Schools will never buy e-textbooks if they can’t own them. Apple’s textbook program is dead in the water because the company wants schools to purchase books using “volume vouchers.” The vouchers would come with codes that students can redeem in the iBooks store; the textbooks would then be placed into the students’ personal iTunes accounts. The objection here is that schools won’t be able to grok the accounting math or the concept that the books will actually belong to the students, rather than being passed along from year to year.

Authors will never write textbooks for iBooks if they can’t sell them elsewhere. The biggest post-announcement hullabaloo has been over the terms of the end user license agreement for iBooks Author, the free program Apple built to help authors, publishers, and teachers create their own multimedia textbooks. Under the agreement, iBooks Author users who want to give away their textbooks free can do so by any means they like, but those who want to sell their books for profit may only do so through the iBooks store, where Apple gets its usual 30 percent cut. That might seem like simple business logic—there’s no reason Apple should help authors create content for competing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle. But critics screamed bloody murder about the provision, saying that it was like Microsoft taking a cut for every novel written using Word.

Nothing new here—iBooks textbooks are an inferior ripoff of existing technologies. Apple is obviously late to the consumer e-book party, where Amazon still has a commanding lead. The criticism here is that Apple, despite its boastful press releases last week, hasn’t really reinvented anything about e-textbooks. Companies like Inkling, Kno, Chegg, Vook, Flatworld Knowledge, and Cengage Learning already offer systems for creating and publishing multimedia textbooks, and most of these books work on multiple platforms, not just the iPad.

Apple is trying to kill open e-book publishing standards. Ahh, standards. Few debates are as bitter, partisan, and unending—it’s the tech world’s version of “The Blue and the Gray.” Apple is an ongoing supporter of the open ePub format. Books using this format work on devices from a variety of manufacturers (one exception being Amazon, but that’s another story). But critics are incensed that e-textbooks created using iBooks Author are … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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