About that Impending Amazon-Apple Digital Textbook War
The launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Textbook Creator a couple weeks ago has caused a flurry of speculation about what this could mean for digital textbooks.
Many have mistakenly looked at the vaguely similar uses for iBooks Author and Kindle Textbook Creator and concluded that a great textbook war is about to commence.
I don’t see that happening.
While the edtech market is going through a period of upheaval and that is affecting digital textbooks, I think it’s wrong to frame the upheaval in terms of digital textbooks, as Flavorwire does here:
Enter Amazon. It announced this week that it will launch a new arm of its Kindle Direct Publishing service, one that will “help educators and authors easily prepare, publish, and promote eTextbooks and other educational content for students to access on a broad range of devices.” Amazon’s new service, which will also help “turn PDFs of their textbooks and course materials into Kindle books,” is meant to compete directly with Apple’s iBooks Author platform. Now, in other words, we have two behemoths competing to allow for the publication of textbooks outside the purview of Big Publishing.
After having read the Flavorwire piece a couple times, I believe there are a number of flawed assumptions.
To start with, anyone who foresees an impending textbook war between Amazon and Apple mistakenly assumes that Apple gives a toss about content sales. As I pointed out in July 2013, Apple’s profit is in hardware, not content.
This is where Apple makes its money:
Case in point: The LA school district’s 2013 plan to give iPads to every student actually paired iPads with Pearson curricula, and not content produced through iBooks Author and sold in iBooks. Apple’s profit was in the iPads; Pearson was making bank off of the curricula.
Speaking of hardware sales, that brings me to the next point which Flavorwire missed.
Apple can’t fight, much less win, a digital textbook war because they’re already losing the hardware battle. Apple’s ebookstore is irrevocably tied to Apple hardware, which means that the digital textbooks sold there cannot be read on Windows or Android devices, or Chromebooks.
Guess which devices are outselling iPads in schools?
Windows PCs still make up the bulk of the devices going into computer labs, obviously, but for the past couple quarters Chromebooks have also been outselling iPads in the 1:1 device category.
I first noticed the trend in July 2014, and analysts reached a similar conclusion in December 2014: Chromebooks are outselling iPads in the academic market. While this trend might not continue, it has to reverse before you can make a plausible claim that Apple could win a digital textbook war.
Speaking of "war", exactly whose content would Amazon and Apple be fighting with?
As Flavorwire pointed out, there’s a lot of money in textbooks. But what they missed was that little of that money is spent through retail ebookstores like iBooks and Kindle; in fact, as Kno (bankrupt), Coursesmart (failed), and Inkling (pivoted to serving publishers) have shown us, there’s not enough of a retail digital textbook market to support even small startups.
Sure, money is being spent on textbooks, it’s just that much of it is spent by school districts. And that is why the major textbook publishers spend 15% (or more) of a textbook’s sale price on marketing; they want to keep it that way.
And the major players in the edtech device market, Apple and Google (and to a smaller extent Dell, Samsung, HP, et al), are fine with that.
All of the companies besides Google are in it for hardware sales, while Google is interested in, well, I don’t understand what Google wants. They keep releasing free services and apps (Classroom, Apps for Education, etc), and encouraging hardware partners to sell relatively cheap laptops and tablets.
If anything, folks, the major war right now in edtech is being fought between Apple and Google, and textbooks are only a tangential front.
The war is actually being fought for platform dominance, and so long as Google’s platform pairs platform-agnostic services with cheap hardware while Apple’s platform pairs expensive hardware with services which are exclusive to Apple hardware, Google is going to win.