Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Publishers prepare for ‘digital destruction’

Matt Salusbury investigates how Apple is set to take a bite out of the textbook industry

(EL Gazette, April 2012)

Soon after the death last year of Apple’s cofounder there appeared Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, which claimed Jobs had identified the textbook industry as ‘ripe for digital destruction’. But the launch of Apple’s iBooks 2 for its iPad tablet in January suggests that the most valuable company in the world wants educational publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to be partners, not casualties, in the new technology.

With an estimated 1.5 million iPads worldwide ‘deployed in an educational setting today’, according to Apple’s senior vice president of marketing Philip Schiller, what are the implications of the new, improved version of iBooks and the Apple–Pearson partnership for English language teaching and ELT publishing?

Simultaneous with the launch of the new iBooks software, publishers Pearson launched digital versions of some of its textbooks for Apple’s iPad. It was announced that ‘most’ Pearson titles would sell in this format for $14.99 or less via an education sub-section of Apple’s iTunes store. A 30 per cent cut of each e-textbook sales will go to Apple, as is already the case with each iTunes music download.

Pearson’s development labs in Chandler, Arizona and Boston, Massachusetts had been working for months in secret to produce all-singing, all-dancing interactive extra digital material for its iBook editions of Pearson’s biology, algebra and environmental science textbooks. Also in Boston, McGraw-Hill had been doing something similar to bring five of its maths and science titles out in iBook versions. Pearson geometry and algebra iBook textbooks are promised soon, as are iBook versions of natural history reference books from Pearson’s DK (Dorling Kindersley) imprint. Production costs for the extra interactive textbook material are believed to be ‘high’.

These new kinds of textbooks use Apple software and work on iPads and some iPhones. The iBooks come with ‘interactive content’ that includes videos, audio material, 3D images, weblinks, flash cards and assessment tools that can generate up to 5,000 test questions to check students’ understanding. While current printed algebra textbooks have a maximum of around 1,000 pages, Pearson’s new iBook algebra textbook has 2,500 pages, and there’s a whole picture gallery where there was once just a single illustration.

There are no ELT titles planned in the iBook format yet, but Pearson’s chief press officer Genevieve Shore told Arizona’s The Republic newspaper, ‘We see enormous potential to create these kinds of programmes for more subjects, more stages of learning and more geographic markets.’

The new format has obvious attractions for the EFL sector, which has long had to face the cost and complexity of distributing most of its physical products abroad. Fiddly and easy-to-lose laminated cardboard flash cards can now give way to digital flash cards. EFL books for beginners can have instructions that are practically language-free, mostly in the form of video animation or with links to a translation.

Apple has also released a new software title, iBooks Author, which lets anyone with a Mac drag and drop material into templates to create and publish their own multimedia textbooks to be sold via iTunes. But technology blog ZDNet has warned writers to beware of the software’s end-user licensing agreement (its terms and conditions), whose restrictions include the statement, ‘Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your work for distribution.’

Apple isn’t the only company trying to crack the textbook market. Amazon recently launched the Kindle Fire tablet device that uses Google’s Android operating system. It can handle colour illustrations and costs about half as much as an iPad.

Universities will already be worrying about the fate of that nice little earner – and source of much-needed student jobs – the campus bookshop. Critics of the iBooks textbook platform note that education providers are ‘locked in’ – the textbooks will only work on Apple products, and small print means you’re only buying a textbook for one course year. Over a four-year course that could add up to more than the print version.

Dr James G Hutton, who teaches marketing and communication at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, predicted that the iPad’s range of distracting bells and whistles would soon mean that ‘many students realise that e-books are not conducive to serious study, and want their paper books back’. And can students really handle at least two and a half times as much material as in conventional textbooks?

Many schools and parents would be nervous at the idea of younger students going to school with a £400+ piece of kit in their bags, although even sceptical techie website the Register praised ‘any effort to lighten the backpacks of students overloaded with hefty textbooks’.

Only time will tell whether iBooks – or other products, which could eventually include ‘open’ e-textbooks that work on any device – turn out to be just a gimmick or will change the face of ELT and its publishing sector for ever.

E-book economics in court - US Department of Justice anti-trust action against Apple and some of its iBooks partners (the Freelance, June 2012)

A forthcoming issue of the Gazette will have an "intellectual property update" of developments in this area of interest to EFL teachers.

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