Apple's New E-Textbook Platform Enters an Already Crowded Field

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Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, announced his company's new e-textbook products Thursday in New York.
January 19, 2012

Apple made a splashy entrance into the digital-textbook market on Thursday at an event here at the Guggenheim Museum, but its new build-your-own-textbook tool is likely to lead to more fragmentation in the market rather than becoming a dominant new model.

During an hourlong presentation, officials from the tech company known for shaking up music and other industries used sweeping language to describe the changes they believed their new products would bring. The company is "reinventing the textbook," said Philip Schiller, a senior vice president, and "as students are introduced to iPad, remarkable things are happening." Apple's leaders identified high schools as the biggest initial market for its new books, though they mentioned potential in higher education as well.

The most unusual offering was iBooks Author, a free book-making program that lets anyone build a rich-media textbook that can be displayed easily on an iPad. Professors can drag in images from their iPhoto libraries, video clips from iTunes, and lecture slides from Apple's Keynote program (a competitor to Microsoft's PowerPoint).

A key drawback, however, is how much the new program relies on professors and students adopting Apple products. The book-building program runs only on Macs, not on PC's, and the resulting textbooks work only on iPads, not on competing Android tablets.

When Apple first released its iTunes software and music store in 2001, it set new standards for digital music that led to the slide of CD's in favor of 99-cent-per-song downloads. There was nothing else like the iTunes music store at the time, and the company was able to cajole music publishers into accepting lower prices than they wanted to ride the digital-music wave.

When it comes to e-textbooks, though, Apple is hardly the first mover, and it does not seem to have the muscle with book publishers that it flexed with music executives. A handful of textbook publishers participated in the Apple announcement—mainly McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But those publishers have formatted only a handful of titles for Apple's new iBooks2 app, and they have not pledged a low price beyond those initial titles (which are $14.99 each or less).

Genevieve Shore, CIO and director of digital strategy for Pearson, said in an interview at the event that Apple's platform was just one of many the publisher was using to distribute its e-textbooks. "We kind of call it 'flat content.' It will go to whatever channel students tell us to go to," she said. "What Apple brings to it is it's beautiful," she said, referring to the slick look of the book-building tool and the resulting iPad books. (Apple staff members at the event refused to answer reporters' questions.)

Does she worry that professors could use the new free book-making software to put publishers out of business? Not at all, she insisted. In fact, she pointed out that Pearson has offered a custom-textbook service in print for 30 years, and also offers a digital build-your-own textbook system. Other major publishers already offer similar services as well.

In that way, Apple has simply thrown another platform into a crowded and incompatible market. That diversity seems to have helped slow adoption of e-textbooks, because students and professors have to learn new interfaces for each publisher's offering.

A separate product announced at the event may end up being more widely adopted than the textbook software. Apple announced the first major upgrade to its iTunesU service since it opened four years ago. The changes make it easier for professors to use the company's free multimedia service as an alternative to a course-management system, grouping syllabi, lecture videos and podcasts, and textbooks in the same virtual folders that can be loaded in iTunes or on an iPad.