Today’s announcement by Apple of the new iBooks 2 & the iBooks Author app were interesting in that it seemed a very high-level, long-term look by Apple at how they can disrupt the educational & textbook industries. I don’t believe that the textbook industry, as large as it may be, was truly the target here. Getting iPads into schools, replacing the 1000s of cheap, aging Compaqs and Dells that still litter public schools, getting kids to be using iPads for all sorts of educational-related activities is the goal. That they may well completely overhaul textbooks as we know it is just an added bonus.
But! and of course there’s a but or why else would I be writing this? Apple’s major competitor in this endeavour as I see it is not the traditional text book industry (and the crazy regulatory machine that exists around it), but Amazon. Amazon is likewise targeting publishing in all forms. And I’m not convinced that Apple can, as it currently works, “beat” Amazon.
When Apple first introduced the iPod, it was Mac-only. Sales of that device really didn’t take off until it a)introduced a Windows version of iTunes to sync with and b) added USB support. Like many people, I came back to being an Apple user after years of being a Windows user in part because I got an iPod, which led me to using iTunes, which made me pay attention to Apple, until I finally switched back.
The iPad is expensive. the iPod/iPhone is not terribly expensive (but they’re not really the targets for iBooks, despite support, I believe). While other tablets may not be as good, the Kindle Fire costs less than half as much. More importantly, the Kindle app is device-agnostic. I currently have it installed on my Mac, my iPhone, my iPad, my Nexus S AND my Kindle. I can buy a book in 1 place and use it in many different places, easily. when I buy an iBook, I have to use one of my iPhone or my iPad. And as I learned in the Caribbean this spring, while I can use my Kindle just fine on the beach, I can’t use either of my iPad or iPhone. I’m not saying that education takes place on beaches, but I sure spent a tonne of time as a teenager and in university doing my reading outside, in the sun.
So here’s why it feels like a mistake to not release an iBooks for Android, Windows Phone, Mac, Windows, whatever: Sure, there’s 10s of millions of iDevice users out there. But theres 100s of millions more who aren’t. Many of those will simply use what’s given to them, not choose (because they receive gifts, or school policy, or whatever). Why the iPod was so successful, was that it was a glimpse into the world of Apple without being a major investment in infrastructure. Want to help schools shift to be using iPads instead of books? Let them all load iBooks onto their computers, whatever they may be so that kids start to use the books on whatever they already have. Apple should be confident enough that the experience will be good enough to drive many of those kids to get an iPad for an even better experience. And if not? Hey, at least they’re hooked on iBooks. If they want to create their own, then they need a mac to do so with the iBooks Author app. Which is fine.
When iBooks was first announced, it felt a lot like a “pet project” for Apple, not a major push. But this announcement changes that. In the same way that I think the decision to make the iPod windows compatible is a major reason Apple is the $400B company it is today, I think iBooks could, and should be the same sort of push for ebooks & digital education materials.