Why Apple’s iBooks initiative brings the company back to the future

January 19, 2012

Apple’s roots are deeply tied to the education market, and the rise of the iPad appears to have given the company’s efforts there a booster shot. 

The company's digital textbook initiative is far from the final or even the first word in the effort to bring down the skyrocketing cost of the books students need to get an education. Other companies have been taking on the challenge, including a non-profit called Curriki that has the backing of Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy. Curriki uses an open source model to make education material free online. 

The growing popularity of the iPad and iTunes distribution gives Apple a unique opportunity to tackle the problem. As my colleague Doug Drinkwater reported earlier today, Apple’s iBooks textbooks announcement includes the participation of well known educational publishers as well as an easy way for educators to publish their own courseware.

Apple is making the tools, including an iBooks2 digital textbook app for the iPad, available for free. Another free app in the announcement was iBooks Author for the Mac. 

These digital textbooks won’t be free (these publishers still have to make money) but the prices are well below traditional bookstore costs. Apple said new high school textbooks, er iBooks?, will cost around $14.99 instead of the $60+ cost of print equivalents. 

This all smacks to me of Apple at its best, disrupting and reinventing markets, just as it did with the Mac, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. 

The Kids Can’t Wait

In its early years Apple made huge investments in education, giving schools big discounts on Apple IIs and computers that followed.

In my first year as a tech reporter I wrote about a young Steve Jobs traveling to Washington D.C. to personally lobby Congress as part of his company’s The Kids Can’t Wait program. Jobs was pushing Congress to pass the Technology Education Act that would have given computer makers like Apple a big tax break for donating computers to schools.

Although the bill didn’t pass, similar legislation was passed in California and Apple readily took advantage of it. 

When Jobs was forced out of Apple in the mid-1980s, he recruited a few key execs to join him in a new venture called NeXT. The idea was to build a “scholar’s workstation” that would be the ultimate educational computer, letting students in higher ed, for example, simulate biology and physics experiments on the desktop. 

You can see a fascinating video of the NeXT team, led by Jobs, discussing its plans for the design of the NeXT system on YouTube. Although the cutting hardware was universally praised, NeXT failed as a hardware company and transitioned to  a software-only venture focused on enterprise customers. Ironically, Apple ended up buying NeXT which ultimately led to Jobs returning as CEO. 

Fast forward to 2012 and Apple’s stock and value is at all time high, making it one of, if not the most valuable companies in the world. 

Consumer and business/enterprise sales have been the engine driving Apple’s enviable profits, but education has always been a key cog. The early Apple IIs and Macs helped get generations of students used to Apple products they would later buy as consumers or recommend to their companies. I recall Jobs once saying it was in Apple’s “enlightened self-interest” to support education. 

The payoff for Apple would come later, as I’m sure it will with iBooks 2 for iPad.

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