Regarding the Scope of Apple’s Education Initiative

Philip Elmer-DeWitt, in a piece headlined “Apple’s Education Event Is Getting Seriously Over-Hyped”:

We interviewed MacInnis over the weekend, and as near as we can tell, Foresman — and the 18 other reporters who followed his lead — got it wrong.

“Apple is not trying to kill the incumbents,” MacInnis told us. “They’ve learned their lesson from upending the music industry.”

I don’t get the logic here. What about Apple’s success in the music industry does Apple regret? I can see how the music labels resent Apple’s rise to dominance, but I can’t see how Apple does. So maybe (actually, almost certainly) the established textbook industry does not want to see Apple do to textbooks exactly what Apple did to music. But why would Apple not want to do to textbooks what it did to music?1

The other factor here is Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. It’s quite possible that Isaacson and Steve Jobs have already spoiled tomorrow’s announcement.2 At the very end of chapter 38 (p. 509 in the print edition):

In fact Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. “The iPad would solve that,” he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,” he said. “But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.”

Now, it seems like quite a trick to me how Apple could both hire its own writers to create free-with-the-iPad textbooks and at the same time partner with traditional textbook publishers, who presumably want to sell, not give away, their digital editions. But it’s not like there isn’t a damn good source that suggests Apple’s plans for K-12 textbooks are anything short of ambitious and transforming. I’m guessing Apple’s pitch to the textbook companies is something like this: “Digital transformation of your industry is inevitable. Here’s our plan; we’d like you to come along for the ride. But if you choose not to, we won’t hesitate to leave you behind.”

  1. Also worth noting that in music, Apple didn’t kill the incumbents. The major music labels are still around making money from sales on iTunes. I think you can argue that Apple saved the major labels — that without iTunes, bootleg filesharing would’ve put them under. It’s true that the labels resent Apple, and dream of a hypothetical world where they make money as they did during the CD era. But people in hell want ice water — that doesn’t mean they can get it. ↩︎

  2. It would be rather ironic for the first post-Jobs Apple announcement to have been spoiled by, of all people, Steve Jobs. ↩︎