Sunday
Jan222012

It's all about selling more iPads

On Thursday, January 19 Apple held an event in New York City to unveil their vision of the future of textbooks and learning. Phil Schiller took the stage and showed off iBooks 2 with some app-like interactive textbooks on the iPad, unveiled a free tool to create textbooks for the iPad, and finally demoed a new “iTunes U” app that incorporated both the existing iTunes U lectures as well as the ability to manage additional course material on the iPad.

See the pattern? No, it’s not that everything was about education, it’s that everything was about the iPad. As someone that owns a Mac and an iPhone but not an iPad, I was surprised and a little frustrated that I have no way to download and view the new textbooks, nor can I preview the books I create with iBooks Author on either my Mac or iPhone - the app insists that I connect an iPad to do it.

There doesn’t seem to be any technical reason why iTextbooks can’t be used on a Mac - newer MacBooks have a multitouch trackpad that can be used to simulate all the necessary gestures that an iTextbook expects, and most of the demoed interactions with the iTextbook were done in landscape mode, so it’s not the orientation of the screen either. Also, and this might be a personal thing, but I hate typing on touchscreens - it’s tough to position the device so you can type on it, and there’s no tactile feedback, so in some ways iPads are worse than MacBooks for interacting with these textbooks. Even in the demo video Apple made1 the typing seemed like something that most people, students included, would rather avoid.

It’s also interesting to note that this is the first real case of something that can only be done on an iPad. In all other use cases from Apple (mail, calendars, videos, etc), the iPad is a bit of a compromise between the portability of an iPhone and the screen real estate of a MacBook. This event shows that Apple is eager to start making the case that there are some things that can only be done on an iPad.

On the most recent Hypercritical episode, John speculates about ways that textbook and education markets could actually be disrupted, saying that black text on a white page would be sufficient provided that Apple creates an infrastructure so that teachers, administrators, and school boards could monitor student progress from a centralized system (I’m paraphrasing). He also says that a key weakness of the dominant player in the ebook market, Amazon, is their proprietary book format and that a smart move for Apple and other competitors would be to standardize on an open, interoperable standard that cumulatively has more users than Amazon’s.

Yet this presumes that Apple’s primary goal is to grow the iBookstore, and have it make inroads into the education market. However, I suspect that Apple’s primary goal is instead to sell more (a lot more) iPads. The reason why they demoed fancy videos and interactive graphics is because that’s a clear differentiator between the iPad and the smaller, less capable “tablet” products on the market. And the textbooks on the iBookstore and those created with the iBooks Author app are being used to leverage platform lockin - once you make the expensive choice to invest time and money into textbooks that can only be used on iPads, you’re guaranteeing a steady revenue stream from schools that adopt the platform for years to come.

Of course, it isn’t exactly a huge revelation that a company that’s made its money for the past 35 years by selling hardware is going to want to pursue that same strategy. But it’s worth bearing in mind that despite the lofty, philanthropic goals in the presentation and the marketing of these services and software, that all they want is to sell more iPads.

1: At 6:52 there is about a second of students furiously typing away on iPads. Maybe it’s possible to type that fast, I don’t know, but I doubt most people can be as fast with a touch screen as they can with a keyboard.

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