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What Steve Jobs Thought About Textbooks

Earlier this evening I posted about Apple’s digital textbook announcement. I don’t know much more than you, but Mike Cane responded to the post with an interesting quote from the Isaacson biography on Steve Jobs.  I think it might give a couple major hints into what next week’s announcement might be. From the Isaacson biography:

Most of the dinner conversation was about education. Murdoch had just hired Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, to start a digital curriculum division. Murdoch recalled that Jobs was somewhat dismissive of the idea that technology could transform education. But Jobs agreed with Murdoch that the paper textbook business would be blown away by digital learning materials.

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.”

So it looks like Jobs was planning a little creative destruction. What this means is that he wanted to replace this $8 billion industry in the process of creating a $2 or $3 billion industry that also provided textbooks to students. Apple would of course have a solid chunk of the new industry, and anyone who depended on the old would either have to adapt or die.

And if that’s how Steve Jobs was thinking years ago then Apple probably did find a way to pull this off. Whether it will work (and how it works) is a whole other question.

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Mike Cane January 12, 2012 um 7:09 am

Your free agricultural textbook will be sponsored by Monsanto through iAd.

Your free geology textbook sponsored by Exxon-Mobil.

Your free textbook on why freedom is terrorism sponsored by Department of Homeland Security.

It’s a great world, eh?

Sherri January 12, 2012 um 12:12 pm

Jobs was mistaken if he thought the reason textbooks had to be certified is because they cost money. Textbooks and other instructional materials have to be certified because of standards, both academic and community. Free doesn’t change that.

Technology doesn’t eliminate the need for politics. The political process is how we reconcile the different values we in the community bring to the problem. Too many of the tech billionaires want to solve problems by ignoring the messy people problems.

Logan Kennelly January 12, 2012 um 1:22 pm

Apple does have a huge advantage in good will and public perception that will continue to help it cut through the social issues, but you are completely correct.

Perhaps we will live to see a day where "reference" textbooks are certified at a national level, and the local communities essentially adopt the reference book without modification because it is the easier approach…

Sherri January 12, 2012 um 1:35 pm

That’s already mostly true – California and Texas drive the textbook market because of size.

It’s not about good will; it’s about competing ideologies. Think about how differently South Carolina might want to portray the history of the Civil War compared to Massachusetts. Creationism vs. Evolution. Even "fuzzy math" vs. "kill and drill". These are not technological problems that can be solved by free textbooks on iPads from Apple, no matter how wonderful Apple’s public perception is. (And Apple’s public perception will take a drastic hit the minute it is perceived as pushing a textbook "advocating a homosexual lifestyle" in some areas of the country, especially with a gay CEO.)

Apple to Launch Garage Band for Ebooks on Thursday – The Digital Reader January 17, 2012 um 6:05 pm

[…] digital textbooks. I had ignored that part because it didn’t really make much sense for (and this is from the biography) Pearson to be involved in an end-run around […]

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