Apple made several announcements yesterday which can drive the textbook’s digital transformation — or, in Steve Jobs’ more colourful phrase, its “digital destruction”. My pick is that this will  be the tipping point for educational publishing, its ‘iPod moment’ or ‘Kindle moment’ when the market suddenly takes off. But Apple’s moves will go much further than textbooks.

While the technology is important, Apple has a unique combination of assets to pull off a home run in the education market. Unlike major rivals such as Amazon and Google, which are consumer-focused, Apple has deep roots in education. This includes a large, highly-skilled direct sales force with strong relationships in schools and universities around the world. It has big support in education where Apple regularly jostles for top spot in market share around the world.

Before looking at the implications of its announcements, here’s a brief summary.

  • iBooks 2.0. This is a rich media ebook format for Apple’s iBooks e-reader app. Apple’s move follows the release of Amazon’s KF8 format for the Kindle, and EPUB3 which is the rich media upgrade to the industry’s own EPUB standard. While iBooks 2.0 is based closely on EPUB3 (as is Kindle’s KF8), it’s not compatible. Unlike the Kindle KF8 and EPUB3 announcements, which were primarily focused on the general consumer ebook market, Apple chose to launch its rich media format with textbooks as its main target. But the format can, and no doubt will, serve as a general purpose ebook format.
  • iBooks Author is a free — and impressive — tool to create rich ebooks in the iBooks 2.0 format. Author is aimed at regular users, like teachers and self-publishers. What is especially interesting is that Apple’s concept of a textbook production tool shares a lot in common with elearning rapid authoring tools such as Articulate and Adobe Captivate, with their quizzes, interactions, and Powerpoint/Keynote integrations.
  • Apple’s iBookstore gets a textbook category to sell textbooks in the new iBooks 2.0 format.
  • iTunes U gets some major changes. In many ways, iTunes U is likely to be the biggest part of Apple’s play, even though it’s received less attention. iTunes U is the free educational podcast section of iTunes which  has more than 1000 universities from 20 countries including Australia and New Zealand who provide some great educational content. Apple’s changes will open it up to schools as well (US only for now). A new app, the iTunes U app, lets teachers create courses and students access them. And the new web-based iTunes U Course Manager provides the sort of course creation and delivery features found in a full-fledged LMS (learning management system) like Moodle, the widely-used open source LMS.

Apple’s moves have been met with a great deal of publishing industry scepticism and disquiet. Critics of iBooks 2 have focused on two main areas:

  1. Its format ties it to Apple devices: You can’t read iBooks 2.0 on anything but an Apple device, and Author is Mac-only.
  2. Its distribution is tied to Apple’s iBookstore, unless you want to give your textbook away. The terms of use for iBooks Author, the tool for producing the new format, prohibit paid sales from anywhere but Apple’s iBookstore.

Neither of these is a good thing for the industry. But focusing on these areas is likely to throw publishers off recognising what is fundamentally right about Apple’s strategy. Apple can, and probably will, open up its platform when the time is right, just as it did by making key applications like iTunes available on the Windows platform.

Apple’s strategy is very smart and potentially very big. Here’s why.

The thread that runs through these announcements is the convergence of ebooks and elearning. Elearning and ebooks have followed parallel paths but seldom intersected. Apple sees that most textbooks, once digital, will be closer to elearning courseware than ebooks. With iTunes U and iBookstore, Apple has cleverly opened two distribution channels for digital textbooks.

And guess what? In spite of its partnerships with major textbook publishers at the announcement, Apple doesn’t see them leading this convergence. With its simple-to-use tools and distribution channels, Apple (rightly) picks that packaging and distributing educational content is something teachers and students, not publishers, should do, just as they do with classroom learning. A deluge of free content, neatly packaged and easily shared among teachers, will be a powerful incentive to buy into Apple’s ecosystem. And those users will in turn make Apple’s ecosystem an essential target for publishers’ paid content.

Apple’s move will boost the nascent open source content movement by providing high quality tools and extensive distribution for sharing educational content. This attacks the heart of traditional publishing but for Apple, what it loses in iBooks sales it more than gains from hardware and services.

There will certainly be a place for publishers, but it’s going to be quite different from providing today’s static, uniform textbooks. And it’s more likely to be based on selling specialised services or licensing quality content elements for digital mashups. Expect to see iTunes U adding a content licensing repository at some point in the future with educational terms more liberal than today’s contracts offer.

While publishers like to focus on the importance of great content as a value-creator, it’s going to grab a smaller chunk of the educational value chain in future.

Most of the textbook market has so far resisted digital transformation. It’s been fragmented with no effective solution. Unlike the simple narrative ebook sold by Amazon, the digital textbook market is complex in structure, content, sales process, and delivery. It’s lacked a standard technology with easy-to-use tools to produce interactive, rich media ebooks; and a distribution model that is scalable enough to reach deep into education. Apple’s latest package of announcements, combined with its unique assets, is big enough and good enough to fill that vacuum.

So whether Apple ends up dominating educational publishing or being one player among many, the path it set out with yesterday’s announcements will define the way educational publishing heads into its digital future.