With its usual bombast and superlatives, Apple recently announced it would “revolutionize” the textbook industry. Like most announcements, hype and reality met somewhere in the middle — what Apple released is essentially a suite of tools to author, distribute, and read textbooks.
As one who schlepped around 15-pound Chemistry tomes during a good portion of my formative years, the thought of a slender tablet device replacing those heavy pages certainly holds immediate appeal. Apple also had the foresight to release authoring tools for the Mac platform, potentially capturing the attention of that segment of university professors who would formerly “author” a stack of photocopies and a couple of essays and peddle it in the campus bookstore for $40. Like all things Apple, behind the slick software and distribution system is a steep 30% nut on the textbooks sold through their system, plus a tightly controlled collection of systems and standards that are Apple-only.
While the overburdened student, professor-cum-publisher, and even green advocates may see Apple as a white knight, cynics might regard Apple’s move as an attempt to corner that most idealistic and open environment: the educational system. Apple’s textbook product uses core Apple technologies — iPads, Mac-only authoring tools, iBooks, and iTunes-as the distribution system. This is obviously a closed-source system, but it’s also one of the most ambitious and complete textbook solutions thus far, one that has the potential to return Apple to its dominant position in the education market.
Open vs. closed
The core concern about Apple’s textbook offering is one enterprises have faced for years: open vs. closed software and hardware. Superficially, it looks like a closed platform came to dominate enterprise computing in the guise of Intel/Microsoft offerings, but at a conceptual level, the answer is far less clear. While Microsoft’s operating system products are most decidedly closed-source, their ubiquity and near-universal compatibility have created what looks and feels a lot like an open standard. Nearly any word processing software developed in the last dozen years features MS Word compatibility, just as Microsoft now supports most open Internet standards — from email to web rendering.
The hand-wringing debates from decades ago over open vs. closed operating systems now seem a bit quaint, as most key corporate applications and data are stored on local or cloud-based application servers and accessed through multi-platform client software or that most ubiquitous of clients: the web browser. The operating system has essentially been pushed to the background of the modern computing experience, the Internet and web browser effectively breaking Microsoft’s hold on the end-to-end computing experience.
With its textbook foray, Apple delivers a completely closed ecosystem once content leaves the publisher. While the quality of the learning experience may be worthwhile, this vendor lock-in affects a wide variety of constituents, from the university bookstore to parents who must buy a $400+ device from a single private company in order for their child to access textbooks. Few who have experienced the chaos and costs of buying college texts on the first day of a new semester will shed any tears for the university-owned bookstore. And quite honestly, well-intentioned educators foisting a particular device on young children from a variety of economic backgrounds should be a cause for concern.
In the grand scheme of socioeconomic concerns, Apple attempting to corner the educational textbook market seems to rank fairly low. However, enterprise technologists who deeply understand the pros and cons of vendor lock-in and closed systems should help their local schools understand the issues behind a decision that has repercussions beyond getting a few books out of a child’s backpack.