Has iBooks 2 Cracked the Textbook Puzzle?


After Apple’s big iBooks 2 announcement, I went hunting for more info on prior digital textbooks; it occurred to me that most of the pilot programs and digital textbook stuff are aimed at college level students and up, with the most famous/infamous being Amazon’s Kindle DX experiment with several universities. This makes sense, since college kids foot their own bill for hardware.

So why is Apple targeting high schools? Did no one point out that schools are so poor they are firing teachers left and right? A class of 500 freshman starting high school would cost a district $250,000 before textbook costs just to get each kid an iPad, plus ongoing book costs each year. For college this is brilliant because college kids are footing the bill either way, and frankly with the cost of higher education rising at 6%+ per year, $500 is a rounding error. But high schools are funded publicly, and budgets are getting tighter and tighter. Realistically, even a school looking to implement this won’t have the budget reset for the costs before the 2013-2014 school year.

My theory on how they will get around this is that they will announce an ePad (remember the old eMac?) and sell them for $250 each to schools. It is more cost effective, they can use iPad 2 components cheaply, and an ePad can even sport a more rugged/plastic casing, making it more durable and affordable. But why not just roll iBooks 2 into that announcement with the iPad 3? It’s likely Apple just wanted to stake their claim to the market and scare off competitors, but the glaring lack of an explanation about how hardware will be handled is a huge issue. As I said before, budgets are probably set for the next 12-18 months, so there is no reason the announcement could not be rolled into a larger iPad presentation.

And hardware is the definitive factor here. Digital textbooks haven’t taken off because hardware and software haven’t worked well together. Kindles failed miserably due to hardware, and the current digital textbook crop are pretty heavily dependent on full computers, making them clunky.

The iPad has a shot, but its price is a pretty honking big obstacle. Remember when eBooks absolutely exploded in late 2009/early 2010? It coincides with when prices on hardware dropped, down into the $249 range and then down to $199 by mid 2010. Hardware prices are a big factor here, especially when you are up against textbooks that can be slammed in lockers, dropped in puddles, dragged in backpacks and used as makeshift seats without breaking. Not to mention that a textbook can be purchased once and used for several students. It’s not ideal, but, again, we are talking about cost-sensitive public schools here. iBooks 2 needs to be decoupled from hardware price burdens if they expect this to succeed.

My fear is that iBooks 2 is aimed at high school because someone looked at market share penetration and said “hey, we are big on college campuses, but we should expand to the high school market” without considering how impossible it will be to get schools that are already struggling to keep the lights on to buy fragile and expensive tablets. My hope is that this is part of a long game, like Dan theorized yesterday. Only time will tell, but if the iPad 3 announcement comes and goes without a significant price drop on some variation of the iPad … well, iBooks 2 is going to be about as impressive as the original iBooks (all style, no substance, need a microscope to find the market share).

Categories: eBooks, Editorials


4 replies

  1. You focus on the cost of equipment but I’d like to also point out the cost of the books themselves. To use your 500 freshmen class, if Apple allows a school to buy 500 digital copies of “English 9” for, say, $15 and then use those copies for the next ten years of freshmen classes, great. If Apple licenses the textbooks year by year, those digital books are now $150 each which is more expensive than a hardcopy book (which will be used for ten years or more).

    • Very true! I wasn’t totally clear on that (and it is possible Apple/the publishers aren’t either) but that’s a very good point.
      Basically this only works out as a cost savings if the hardware is next to nothing in terms of cost.
      If Apple focused college, post-college and distance learning this would be a home run. But for public schooling I can’t wrap my head around where it benefits the bottom line of a school.

  2. The last four years have been a huge struggle for funding in our regional school district. The high school building is aging badly and the district cannot get funding from the state or the towns to build a new one, and the towns keep pushing for a “level-funded” budget – i.e., for four straight years, they want the spending per pupil to remain the same, despite greatly increasing health insurance costs for staff.

    If Apple is playing a long game here, maybe, but in this environment, unless they are planning to spend some of their $90 billion in cash as grants to local school districts, this will not be happening anytime soon.

    One should also look at the state of the average high school backpack and they way it is generally handled to understand that Apple will need to come out with a line of iPads that resemble the Casio G’Z One smartphone, and not the current design.

    College – you bet. This is coming, fast. My daughter pays hundreds of dollars a semester on books, and that’s trying to buy used. I could see an iPad purchase paying for itself quickly.

  3. I don’t know of any kids who want to keep their pre-college textbooks. You would hope that with some time on the market, publishers will be okay with rental for K-12 students. Otherwise, I don’t see how this model is sustainable for schools. I’m still a fan of the idea, though. The interactivity of the books is impressive.

    One concern I mentioned in Dan’s post was correct, unfortunately. You cannot export the book in ePub format. You can only export in PDF or text, or upload to Apple for sale. That’s a shame. iTunes and other apps Apple makes at least import/export/create standard formats. (e.g. – iTunes, iMovie, iCal, Address Book, Mail, iPhoto) Why can’t they do the same with iBooks Author?