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Commentary & Analysis

iPods and Textbooks, Part 2: A Broken Product Ripe for Disruptive Innovation

By Michael Josefowicz January 17,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: January 17, 2006

By Michael Josefowicz January 17, 2006 -- I've spent the last couple of weeks informally asking every teacher and student I could corner whether they thought textbooks was useful. I couldn't find anyone who liked textbooks. And no one who thought they were an efficient or convenient, let alone elegant way of getting the job of education done. In light of public schools desperately fighting to do more with less, and college education costs soaring, is anyone getting their money's worth? The students in upper-middle-class schools hated how heavy and quickly outdated they are. While useful for reference, they couldn't understand why they aren't delivered directly to their laptops, where they could be searched, annotated, have links to the web, and most importantly for the students, have access to all of the content without having to carry 10 to 20 pounds of books from home to school and back again. The teachers I've talked to in inner city schools hardly used them. From a teaching point of view, it's almost impossible to make "the one size fits all" approach of a static textbook useful for the particular group of students in their classrooms. To complicate matters further, students can't take them home for study because of concerns that the students wouldn't bring them back. And they are expensive. A friend who is on the board of a charter school of 125 students, K-4, told me they spent $22,000 for textbooks that will be outdated in 2 years. In the context of a public education system that is desperately fighting to do more with less, and college education that is getting more and more expensive, are these consumers really getting their money's worth? But we've heard all this before. What's different now? In addition to the expensive problem of getting a digital reading device into the hands of every student, print is, and always has been a much better content delivery mechanism in situations where you can't pick and choose your customers. Print is still by far the best push medium for communicating with everyone. This was the essential problem that killed e-textbooks last time around. Now with affordable digital printing available both on site and through networked outsourcing, this problem has been solved. Sooner or later, someone is going to do for textbooks what Steve Jobs did for music. A classroom teacher or school-based educator can decide what sections of a textbook might be useful for their students that month. Sometimes the electronic version, sometime the print version, or some combination of both. The teacher could download the electronic version, print out 30 copies for their students. Or a pre-assembled book, compiled by the school's currriculum coordinator, is made available on a website for order, printing and two-day delivery. Intellectual property is of course, an issue, but the DRM software is out there; it just has to be implemented. The Enabler Combining Internet-based content management and digital printing is the enabler. Content can now be developed, customized, and transmitted at minimal cost. Printed products can be created on an as-needed basis with no storage or shipping logistics required. At last, the implicit capability of the ecosystem exactly matches the needs of a large under-served market. The only thing left is the business model. Sooner or later, someone is going to do for textbooks what Steve Jobs did for music. Maybe it will be someone in the publishing industry. Perhaps it could even be a forward-looking book printing company. Although the latter would be nice, based on recent history, it's not likely. It takes a lot of courage, confidence and capital to cannibalize a large and profitable business. The more likely suspects are Google or Yahoo. Or perhaps it will be BN.com or Amazon. Or possibly a network of non profits --like a consortium of the teachers colleges-- or a private foundation or the big public education systems or a large University. Or maybe Sony--who has lots of $200 e-readers to sell. Or maybe Apple or Dell or Gateway will bundle it with a hardware purchase. Or perhaps Zinio or Adobe. Or perhaps it will be Xerox or HP. Or there might be two grad students at Stanford who are already doing it. The victorious challenger can come from anywhere. When will it tip? The game will change on the day a substantial school district, being pressured by their mayor or governor for further cuts and better results, issues an RFP for the e-delivery of textbooks, a web-based ordering system, a library of standards-based teaching texts that can be combined to meet the needs of their students that month and the license and ability to print hard copy as necessary-- with very aggressive pricing. My bet is that it will not be a day before that happens. But probably not one day later.



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