History Won’t be Kind to Apple & Textbooks

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” — Robert Frost

Apple has entered several publishing markets where the company takes its 30 percent. Textbooks are one market where, for the sake of good image and an endowment for children, the company should have backed off and made a contribution to human history for all time. But Apple is thinking small, not big.

I have been thinking about Apple’s foray into textbooks, announced last week. I note that some authors are outraged that Apple is trying to take 30 percent of textbook revenues and lock authors into their system. Others are suggesting that the market needed some leadership, and this is the price to pay for Apple bring coherence and good development tools to the education market.

When you see that kind of division, it’s a healthy sign. There are people who don’t care for the way Apple does things, and there are people who praise Apple for just about anything the company does. Meanwhile, Apple just runs its business.

I think there’s a bigger problem that isn’t being addressed, namely, Apple’s focus on the big picture, what they might have achieved this time with a different approach. But Apple seems nearsighted, bound up in the nightmares of Steve Jobs when he was alive.


Save Apple First

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company was bleeding money. The company was not far from not making payroll. A shrewdly managed investment from Microsoft and the development of a new money making product, the iMac put the company on the road to recovery. But along the way, everything, and I mean everything, that wasn’t generating revenue was axed. That meant both products and projects, like grants to schools and the Apple Masters. Everything.

The mantra for Apple has been, for 15 years, if it doesn’t make money, kill it. As a result, Apple has become insanely wealthy. Tim Cook and the executive team are enormously well compensated.

However, with great power and great wealth comes great responsibility, and Apple is now missing a huge opportunity to demonstrate attention to that principle.

Giving Back to Education

When Phil Schiller came on stage last Thursday, he was a serious man. He said, “Education is deep in our DNA.” His somber and thoughtful approach suggested that Apple intended to make things different and better in education. Apple is in a position to call some shots in the industry, and that kind of power should not be taken lightly. Mr. Schiller behaved, on stage, in accordance with shouldering that burden.

Only later did we find out that it was going to be the same old line; Apple gets its not inconsiderable piece of the action, 30 percent. And, as we know, the lock in with iBooks Author to the iBookstore.

The effect of the subsequent discoveries was to sully the importance of Mr. Schiller’s presentation and give us a bitter pill to swallow. No matter what Apple does for us, there are always insidious strings attached. This is what got Microsoft into trouble.

iPad textbooks

Now I can already hear you thinking. But Apple is a company that’s designed only to make money! They have an obligation to their shareholders! It takes time and resources to build these tools, and Apple isn’t a charity!

I will submit to you that that is generally the case, but with Apple the most valuable company on the planet and annual revenues of US$140 billion, it’s also time for Apple to wisely reflect on when they will, for the sake of social responsibility and their public image, judiciously decide when to relax that principle.

In other words, Apple has far more to gain as the undisputed champion of children and learning (and iPads) than they have to gain on five bucks per text book. After all, even if they sell a few million textbooks in the coming months, the revenue is peanuts compared to what they make with iPhone and iPad hardware.

And that brings up an important second point. Apple is in the business of building great hardware driven by great software. Customers not only want to buy great hardware, but they want to buy that hardware from a company they love. That’s why companies that have great power and wealth find that they must pick and chose what extra-curricular activities to focus on when it comes to creating a warm fuzzy on the part of the customer.

Children, learning and textbooks would have been a great candidate.

I Can Hear You Now

Again, I can hear you thinking. But then nasty book authors, those scoundrels, would use iBooks Author to write their books and submit them to Amazon! Yes, they probably would. But they’d be doing it on a Macintosh and OS X. Want to sell more Macs? Keep creating those great tools.

Of course, what will happen now is that a few companies and authors will estimate that they can make money with Apple’s plan. Others, Amazon included, will take another path. The industry will be just as fragmented as before. Apple, thanks to its obsession with every small piece of the action, will have missed the opportunity to truly change the industry. And because there will be those who dearly want to bypass Apple in this education endeavor, Apple won’t make the money it could have with iPads. A new cottage industry for tablets and textbooks that bypass Apple will surely emerge and be championed.

That Sour Feeling

Apple doesn’t have an absolutely flawless reputation. Many, many Chinese workers slave away to make these iPhones and iPads. Apple does its best to make sure those workers have decent conditions, but the stories we’ve seen don’t exactly make us envious of those Chinese workers. Plus, Apple has a lot of money and investments and doesn’t seem to be doing anything productive with it. It’s all part of that legacy of Steve Jobs, his paranoia about Apple failing in the 1990s: Hoard cash. Axe projects that are unproductive. Nickel and dime every project to death.

Apple wasn’t making money on personal Web sites. So the company axed iWeb and Web hosting. Apple does make money on musics, books and apps. Now textbooks. Okay, we get it. Apple is rich and getting richer.

Every once in a while, I propose, Apple should sit back and reflect on its great wealth and influence, and what it wants to do with it. Will Apple be remembered as the company that, early in the 21st century, revolutionized textbooks? The company that used its talent for the sake of all our children forever more? Or will they simply be remembered as the company that looted everything it touched?