Apple’s new textbook offering and book-authoring software are attractive, and the idea of digital textbooks makes sense, but they are both locked to Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem. That may be fine for music and movies and games like Angry Birds, but is it appropriate for educational material?


Apple’s launch of a new suite of textbook-related services for the iPad is being widely celebrated, and with good reason. The ability to have beautiful, interactive and easy to use e-books on the tablet makes a huge amount of sense — as startups like Inkling have been arguing for a while — and Apple’s new book-authoring software could open publishing to a much broader market. But as usual, all this great design requires a major tradeoff: namely, that schools and publishers agree to be locked inside Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem. That might be fine for music and movies and games like Angry Birds, but is that really appropriate for educational material?

My GigaOM colleague Darrell Etherington has written about both the launch of the new iBooks2 — which includes thousands of interactive textbooks from some of the publishing industry’s major players, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill, for $14.99 or less — and about the new book-authoring software Apple also launched on Thursday, called iBook Author. The latter allows for drag-and-drop creation of books, including embedded Keynote presentations, videos and other interactive features. And Erica Ogg of GigaOM has written about what this evolution of the book means, in terms of how that interactivity can improve textbooks.

Digital textbooks have benefits, but should Apple own them?

There’s no question that digital books have plenty of benefits: Not only can students carry more of them in electronic form, but they can also be distributed more cheaply (one of the reasons why publishers are likely willing to accept a much lower price point) and they can be updated if the information changes — something that’s impossible with printed textbooks. Plus, Apple’s books have 3-D interactive illustrations and the ability to create study notes automatically, and the launch of an expanded iTunes U allows teachers to connect their curriculum directly to those digital textbooks in interesting ways.

But where do these new, fantastically interactive books live? Only on iOS devices like the iPad, of course. Although the new iBooks software Apple launched appears to be based on the open ePub standard for e-books, it has enough proprietary tweaks in it that it likely won’t be compatible in either direction (at least not without a lot of effort). Once you create a book using the publishing software, you can save it as a PDF and send it to someone — but if you want to sell it, the end-user licence Apple makes you sign (or click on) says you can only sell it through the Apple iTunes store. Even the usually-supportive Apple blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball says this is “Apple at its worst.”

The same thing goes for the textbooks that are going to be supplied by Houghton Mifflin and McGraw-Hill for $14.99 or less per copy: They will only live on iPads, which cost $500 or so each — unless Apple plans to offer some kind of educational bulk discount or special version of the device, the way it did with the original iMacs, but there was no word about that kind of program in Thursday’s announcement.

Do we want to give Apple control over the curriculum?

As one writer with some experience in the educational system pointed out at Cnet, as appealing as it might be, the kind of cost and investment involved in rolling out digital textbooks would be beyond the ability of most schools, even if they were to somehow land a major educational grant for such a purchase. And if a school buys books in bulk, according to a Wired magazine description of the program, they would have to repurchase new versions of all those textbooks for every new school year.

But the biggest criticism of Apple’s attempt to co-opt the educational system doesn’t have anything to do with costs: If its digital textbooks became the standard in schools, it would commit those institutions to a much broader — and theoretically much more dangerous — relationship with a technology provider than we have ever seen. Apple’s iMacs may have made their way into every school, but they didn’t control a key part of the curriculum. Every textbook would effectively have to be approved by Apple, and the software that controlled them would belong to Apple alone.

It’s possible Apple is planning to open up its new iBook textbooks, either by embracing the ePub standard or making it easy to move texts out of its system and into another, so iBooks can live alongside Inkling textbooks or CourseSmart books or Kno books — but if it’s planning to do that, we didn’t hear anything about it on Thursday. All we heard was how Apple wants to do the same thing to the textbook market as it has done to recorded music and mobile gaming: that is, own and control it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and Jeremy Mates

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  1. Public school systems should avoid iBooks *at all costs* until Apple fixes these problems. You can’t hand control and approval of most educational materials to any private company. The format it uses should be open source and that absurd clause must be removed from iBooks Author’s EULA.

    Apple can easily win this market by continuing to produce awesome, highly-usable software and devices. There’s no reason for these stupid legal grabs and walled garden infrastructure.

    1. I agree, Marc. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Why don’t you write an article whining about Amazon’s walled garden with the proprietary Kindle ebook format?

        Funny how we never see articles warning about how we can’t open our Kindle books in the iBooks app or export them to a Nook.

        “Walled garden” is the argument of lazy thinkers. You might as well give up your Wiis, your Xboxes, your Playstations, your Windows-only games, your Nespresso machines that only take Nespresso coffee cartridges.

      2. Mr Lava –

        If Amazon is a “walled garden” then Apple is a Fort Knox as far as im concerned.

        Ibooks only work on IOS. This is far worse than kindle ebooks that can be accessed on most other ecosystems.

        Apple might make great products, but i loath them for their totalitarian ecosystem and attitude.

    2. Is there no one on this entire website who is aware of the current mess we have in education? At this point, handing the whole thing to the Microsoft of 1998 would be an improvement.

      Also puzzling why people who hate Apple keep repeating this “walled garden” line when they didn’t seem to have any problem with Microsoft and Intel owning PCs over the past 20 years, or Google owning web search for the last ten, something that has dumbed down Internet journalism (with its click bait business model) and causes more issues than any possible threat related to Apple providing educators with free tools that work.

      Also note that Amazon recently floated out a very similar textbook solution without providing good or free authoring tools and without providing good or low cost hardware, and nobody flipped out on this level.

      Perhaps this message board of irate commenters can form a socialist supreme soviet and decree that Apple’s resources be confiscated and devoted instead toward the production of iPad knock-offs from China running “free” software from Google. Would that destroy the walls and the garden sufficiently to cause all you Apple foeboys to settle down?

      1. They forget how Texas controls the textbook market because of the costs involved in print production. The forget how the publishers create garbage, and charge $80 or $100 a copy.

        The publishers also forgot that outsourcing development to India and such, makes the job of undercutting publishers completely feasible.

      2. Agree. I have made some points about this on my Google+ page. People are approaching this problem from a hardware or a programmer / developer’s perspective. Maybe you’d like to listen to my rant about how the issue is not about how the curriculum is provided, it’s about how we can continue to keep teachers engaged with student learning: https://plus.google.com/110075254641670883556/posts/LCZgiFsW3EJ

      3. Great post Daniel – my sentiments exactly!

      4. Interesting perspective on “socialist supreme soviet” where you only get one choice, rather than an open system where people have to compete solely on the basis of having good products.

        No one suggested that Apple’s resources be confiscated and distributed for free. If that is what you got from the article, you completely missed the point.

        Apple “supports” epub, but that is not the format they are promoting. They create iAuthor, but require a version of their OS that someone who purchased a Mac less than one year ago would not have received. These are completely artificial limitations put in place to intentionally stifle fair and open competition, and to force people into buying an upgrade they don’t really need.

        If you honestly believe that Apple’s actions are fair, open, and honest business practice, you really don’t understand how competition is actually supposed to work in a free market.

        Apple does, mostly, make good products. That should be sufficient for them to compete. If not, then that is what the market dictates.

        I fail to see the relevance of your attack on low cost devices running Android, short of it being your own “Google foeboy” nature.

  2. I would think that most publishers will create versions of their books for other e-book readers also. It will just be more difficult without the Apple software.

    1. Yeah, the book industry will embrace digital. Apple sets the trend, but someone else could bring in the masses. Kindle, Nook, Droiders of all hues, are you listening ?

      1. Cheese, this is exactly what will happen so to me why would you get your panties in a bunch at Apple for being the 800lb Gorilla that can afford to throw its weight around to get the ball rolling on this new paradigm?

        Dont look the Appled gift horse in the mouth, just wait for the inevitable bandwagon jumping on!

      2. Right!

        So some wonderful corporation will soon bring us this level of authoring tools with an integrated publishing platform so we can all use it for free at their expense ? ? ?

        Maybe Google will build us a free version with embedded advertising that makes them billions and everyone else nothing ? A solution like the Android based Kindle Fire which is so standardized and open that you can’t even read their books on another Android reading platform like Nook!

        Nothing is free at this level of software effort.

  3. Zzzzzzzz wall garden bla bla bla… until someone else can come up with a better ideal let APple improve society (and let Samsung copy them)

    1. Ignorance is bliss

      1. Ignorance is not bothering to make your case yet still thinking you have added something to the conversation!

  4. Yup – the open source crowd, state school boards, traditional publishers are doing such a terrific job with digital tech.

    Sorry, Charlie – just the usual what-if whine. Meanwhile, Apple will charge ahead producing successful products as judged by the marketplace – not pundits.

    1. Thanks, but you didn’t answer the question. Should Apple have that much control over such a key part of the educational system just because the marketplace thinks it is better?

      1. They wouldn’t have that control if others would step up to the plate, invest the time, energy & resources to also produce a “free” creation tool and a massive, easy-to-use distribution system.

        You’re (and Dan Gillmor) beef shouldn’t be with Apple, it’s producing in spades. Your beef should be with all the other less creative slackers out there that aren’t moving the space forward. Where’s Amazon, where’s Google, where’s Microsoft, where’s Adobe, where’s the publishing houses? Absent without leave.

      2. If not Apple, then no company should provide ebooks for education? It sounds like you’re suggesting that any company that provides ebooks for education must be state owned?

      3. Mathew,

        Apple will transform education by setting the new std; everyone else will copy them; Apple will not have that “much contr

        Apple leads, controls for quality, sets the stds. Google, Amazon, News Corp. will follow and compete.

        What’s wrong with that? Nothing but the truth.

        You’re interest in link bait leads you to miss adding something intelligent to the conversation.

        Stop doing link bait. Do smart.

      4. What are you talking about!

        “Should Apple have that much control over such a key part of the educational system just because the marketplace thinks it is better?”

        They have just put the product out!

        As of yet they have absolutely no control over any such imagined marketplace.

        Bring on the competition.

        Let the winner earn such control.

        That the way the marketplace works.

        Now if Apple is a big winner that not fair!

        But where have you been defending against the outrageous over priced walled garden traditional publishers have been maintaining for years.

        Thats right they don’t garner such easy link bait ?

      5. that ‘much control’?

        Although Apple has set the std model, Msft-Nokia, Google-Moto, Amazon, and Samsung will copy and follow. They’re very good at that – see Android Takes Over the World, for example.

        What’s wrong with being the ‘killee’ so that you and everyone else can write ‘iBooks Killer’ articles?

    2. Hi Matthew,

      I am a recovering Appleholic from years ago.

      Since transitioning to a more open source ecosystem, I can safely say with no regrets, that Apple’s highly concentrated vertical integration practices should be left far from controlling our educational accessibilities.

      Education should be open as possible. Students learn by involving themselves into what are uncharted waters to them. Accessibility to such a vast scope of documented facts and opinions of every aspect, is what shapes our future advances, findings, creations and structures. Apple’s DNA has always been control. Do as we say and when we say. Is this what we want implemented into our valued educational scholastics? People are so in love with Apple’s products, that they don’t stop to think whether they should be in this case. Apple has already started creating the issue that if you don’t own their product, you will have limitations due to Apple’s dominating presence and their proprietary offerings within schools or businesses.

      Consequently, this has the adverse effect and creates the ultimate limitation due to only having access to Apple’s offerings. We all know that an open source should be better left in place under these circumstances.

      Today’s generation has created a monster that us older generation left for dead because of Apple’s wish to control our every experience.

      John B.

      1. It’s not open now, Texas pretty much controls the textbook industry and what gets into textbooks and curriculum. Even though Apple is an integrated system, it might just offer more variety.

      2. Apple does not control any major experiences. They are a strong but proportionately small player in the music, mobile phone and computer marketplaces.

        Microsoft and Google own and control much larger portions of the computing experience within the areas that they dominate.

        You just don’t like Apple and that is your prerogative.

        But why do Apple haters feel such a driving need to share their dislike for Apple with the rest of us!

    3. It’s not a what-if line. Textbooks do not HAVE to be digital. Digital is a “nice to have.” And as long as it’s a “nice to have,” our tax-dollar-financed public schools should not be handing over exclusive control and approval of educational materials to any company…Apple, Amazon, or any other company. Public schools shouldn’t be helping any company “lock up” knowledge.

  5. thanks for the heaping dose of knee jerk paranoia.

    just like iTunes, there will competing alternatives from other companies, both hardware and software. in a year or two, or can’t you wait?

    most likely they will all be some kind of proprietary package deal too. you probably don’t know anything about the huge market for business software, but that is typically how it works there. e.g., if you are set up with Oracle’s, it is not readily interchangable with Microsoft’s competing software/services.

    Apple has a big advantage as first to market with a well done product. but it will not translate into a monopoly. calm down.

    1. I’m not saying it will be a monopoly, I’m just saying that giving Apple that much control over such a key element of the educational system raises some questions — more so than with business software. Thanks for the comment though.

      1. Apple will control Apple’s system. Google will clone, so will Amazon, and Microsoft.

        That’s all that’s gonna happen. Apple invented a breakthrough in education and you’re whining about an imagined Apple control.

        Come back in 2 years and see how much control they have.

      2. Maybe you could put off writing this panic post until such time that any imagined Apple control actually starts to materialize!

    2. The difference is that Apple doesn’t claim exclusive seller’s rights whenever somebody uses Garageband.

      1. GarageBand isn’t a free app.

      2. GarageBand is effectively free. It’s $5. GarageBand is a complementary loss leader for the profitable iPad.

  6. The biggest threat to textbook education isn’t Apple, it’s the Texas State Board of Education, who pretty much has a monopoly on textbook content. That’s a much bigger concern than monopoly of textbook distribution. If Apple can disrupt Texas control on content I’ll be happy. I’ve got issues with Apple, but I trust them more than I do Texas.

    1. Exactly – Most people don’t realize this.

  7. Matthew, the answer is simple: No walled garden should be built around any product related education.

    1. You mean!

      Other than all the over priced monopolies that presently rob the educational system.

  8. Matthew, never mind the insults, your concern is reasonable.

    What’s needed is software that makes it easy (as easy as possible, anyhow) to create to create beautiful, interactive book-like web applications usable through any modern browser. (Anyone who doubts such applications are possible hasn’t been paying attention to the rapid progress of frameworks like Ext JS and Sencha Touch. Note that local storage can be used to mitigate problems with network connectivity.) What’s also needed is an online marketplace or marketplaces through which authors can sell such works, with or without sponsorship by conventional publishers.

    1. If pigs had wings they would fly!

      The magic free solution is a pipe dream.

      To be realistic major software efforts cost serious money!

      Companies compete and if we like their products we buy them with cash or our eyeball advertising attention.

      1. It appears that I have touched a nerve with one of my other posts.

        The problem as I see it, is that Apple is a 30 year old company that almost went belly up. It is a company that has not wavered from their direction even today. They believe in proprietary ownership which exceeds the normality of other companie’s governing. Apple does not like third party unless it meets their standard and reels in some sort of financial concession and then charge it back to customers at a premium rate perspectively. It was Steve Jobs and only Steve Jobs that took his eloquent marketing persona and leveraged it to create hype.
        Apple is all about profits. They don’t care how they make it nor who suffers to get it. Apple is only concerned about putting as many ipads into as many hands they can. What better way to do this than take advantage of the current trendsetters which is predominantly high school and college age groups?

        The arguments of Microsoft, IBM or other’s indigenous software offerings Vs Apple are different. While each company thrives on trying to remain proprietary to their ecosystem, they are at least “Open” to less control and the allowance of third party offerings to retain free trade of information or programs.

        Apple is not. Nothing gets to Apple’s consumers unless Apple approves them and it is done through the paid itunes or ibooks reference. Have we not witnessed enough denials of apps or programs from Apple? I will ask again. Is this how you want our education?

        I will also return the favor and ask why Apple supporters feel compelled to shove Apple’s controlled environment down our throats. We lived it and supported it until we realized their MO. This company has gone from almost extinction to getting very rich in a short time off of consumers that think with their lower extremities.

        People need to stop viewing these pretty little Apple things as God’s gift. They are not out to save education. They want students to use ipads. That is it. If people want to save the literature of education, write to congress on the problem with Texas. Don’t salivate over another win for Apple. Because this leads to a loss for consumers wishing to have choice through open access.

        John B.

  9. People complain about Apple’s walled gardens all the time citing “choice” as the major reason. But this is a choice… it’s one more choice that we didn’t have yesterday. Without Apple we would have less choice. Apple is creating a lot of free tools and an eco-system because they want to make money and they do that from the hardware. I think it doesn’t matter where the textbooks come from as long as they are factual and better than the ones that came before. And if someone wants to take them on then they should step up to the plate and make new textbooks too (for $15 a piece or less). They are not a not-for-profit company and those companies are clearly failing. It’s time to let the private sector do what America won’t give it’s “social sector” the power to do. American’s won’t go for a European styled school reform so it will either continue on in its zombie form or private will take the lead.

    1. Sure they’re not a non-profit org but this is just going too far. What do you think of this comment from Daring Fireball? I think it’s valid: “Apple, in this EULA, is claiming a right not just to its software, but to its software’s output. It’s akin to Microsoft trying to restrict what people can do with Word documents, or Adobe declaring that if you use Photoshop to export a JPEG, you can’t freely sell it to Getty. As far as I know, in the consumer software industry, this practice is unprecedented.”

      1. Gruber has another post with further thoughts – And a concession that without the restriction, it could be used as an authoring tool for Amazon or Google. And, it’s a free tool vs paid so the same rules don’t necessarily apply.

    2. Restrictions are Choice Ram Kanda Sunday, January 22, 2012

      “Without Apple we would have less choice.”

      Orwell rolls in his grave.

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