Friday, January 20, 2012

Apple iBooks Hangover

Today we all wake up with an Apple hangover from yesterday’s iBooks Education announcement. We all will now face a bombardment of commentary on whether it is good, bad or ugly. Opinion will be divided. Technical detail on file constructs will loose all but the die hard techie. The commercial rights and wrongs of the restrictions Apple have built in to contracts, their pricing vision and much more will be heatedly debated. Finally, we will face the reality that we are now entering a significant escalation in the Gorilla wars between the big four technology media reading platforms that stretches far past learning and is fundamentally coming down to which player is smartest in capturing our attention and creating the groundswell to lock out the others. The war win not be won by the smartest technology, the most open technology but by the smartest marketing and PR programme.

Last night we participated in a debate on Litopia After Dark. It was good and at a high level. It was also strange in that we all appeared to be struggling to form an opinion either for or against and found ourselves asking for more clarification. This is not a case of glass half full, versus half empty, it is about getting common understanding on a wide range of social, commercial and technological issues as they relate to the offer presented and forming an opinion based on what we know and not on what we don’t know. We recommend you to listen to the Litopia Broadcast.

Today we can look at the high level issues and then drills down to further clarify points.

It is a given that learning can benefit enormously by universal access to technology to assist students of all ages to engage and develop. This is not just a US or even developed world issue and is truly global. However, at a time when spending everywhere is tight, we must ensure that choice prevails, in such a manner that it drives down cost and is inclusive and not divisive. Our thoughts are not about Apple versus Amazon but about Apple versus initiatives such as OLPC.

It is important that choice is available such that we avoid adding more fuel to the educational divide of those how can afford and those who have to learn without. Yes textbooks are expensive today, but replacing them with expensive technology that has an equally short shelf life, may not be the answer.

Finally, we must also consider who is the creator, who is the packager, who buys, who adapts and who users the content and context that supports learning. The value chain in one learning community or geography, doesn’t always prevail in another.

We have long recognised that we now live in a world where we no longer listen, read and watch, but were we increasingly write, produce and repurpose, or ‘mix’ our own media. The iBooksAuthor toolkit looks to fit this bill perfectly and acts as one would expect. It enables multi media to be packaged to explodes and enriches today’s flat content.

It is reportedly aimed at publishers but is it really aimed at them, or to undermine them?

Irrespective of the technical issues of the tool, we see a potential groundswell of self publishing authors taking to the tool to create their works and enrich them. Is this restricted to education – no. Is it restricted to educationalists even within the learning environment – no. Some would suggest that it has the power to help further democratise writing.

Why would large publishers then be standing next to Apple and supporting the launch? Some would suggest that these same publishers are backing not one but many horses and spreading their bets widely. Will they shift from their other investments in the likes of Coursesmart or fledglings such as Inkling?

The challenge that publishing and learning now has is identifying who the author in the ibookauthor world is. Is it the traditional author, the publisher, the education board, the institutional library, the teacher, the parents ot groups, or the student? Some will say all of the above.

Publishers today add more value than just producing a textbook and paying the author. They ensure quality, conformance, provide supplemental learning aides and content for the different stakeholders. The more complex the work, the more collaborative the workflow and the wider the participation of creating and producing it. Does ibookauthor support collaborative works, or is it simply focused on the single creator?

Will textbooks have to be created as is today and then enriched after the event, or enriched at concept and flowed into varies renditions?

If we move to a ‘cut and paste’ world of self authoring, not just of text but media, who will act as the gatekeeper, who will ensure rights are not infringed, who will ensure ‘fair use’ doesn’t become open piracy? It is one thing to democratise creativity it is another to try and control abuse. Yesterday we talked about the lack of a rights registry tomorrow we may now have to accept plagiarism as a given.

The commercials disclosed at the event and on Apple would appear to be divisive. They have plucked a price point of $14.99 out of the sky and whether we all agree or disagree, that like mud will stick. Does this include or exclude any tax and Apple’s 30% commission? How is the pie divided up and what is the expected cut for all parties? Some will suggest that it is aimed at increasing volume sales, but others will suggest that the market is finite and in some subjects areas, very finite. Some suggest that it will lead to more smaller works. So instead of one textbook, you could now have four richer ones. Will buying more twxtbooks still add up to the same cost to the student as the one textbook today and so defeat the argument of affordability.

There are many potential issues for ‘authors’ and publishers to consider in the terms published. Obviously these may not be applied to those Apple want on board, but we expect that there will be much written on this subject and it impact on whether the platform is open or closed commercially.

Some would talk about technology first, but It is interesting and fitting that we find ourselves bringing it up last.

Already the debates are raging across the internet as to the level of openness Apple has adopted with their new tool. Yes it is compliant with ePUB3, but with extensions and those would appear to be more in the CSS style sheet end and could prove a challenge to unlock for many. It make it a close format, merely hiding behind an open standard.

It would also appear that ibookauthor is free, open, but only available in Appleworld and on Apple devices. Good for Apple sales and domination, not so good for many others outside this community with sunk investment.

What we don’t understand today is how these new textbooks will work with the LMS environment and whether they will sit outside, inside or create new ones of their own called iBookstore?

For just one take on some technical aspects read this early paper by Baldur Bjarnason. There will be many more over the next few days.

Some have questioned the size of the files and the devices ability to accommodate them but these issues can be overcome. We await the next Apple launch.

There are many who recognise that all technology doors can be open and issues overcome. To many self publishers and small publishers, app developers etc these lock-ins may not matter as much as getting their creation published and in the one store.

We were asked last night what we thought the impact would be 5 years out.

We think:
  • it will change self publishing of rich material, be it reference, learning, information etc.
  • the take up in education will be slower that Apple would like as the beast is cumbersome and change is not overnight.
  • Google, Amazon, Adobe, Facebook all have to respond and these will heavily impact the coming platform wars and not just in learning
  • Governments and those holding the purse strings will decide some battles and with the budgets for content and technology starting to blurr in the US, this may be the start of a huge platform war

Today the dust is far from settled and some would suggest that anyone who is today either 100% for or against the initiative is not going to change their opinion whatever comes to light. The presentation and hype certainly drives a stake in the ground and made messages which are hard to disagree with, but it is not those but the Apple execution that we must focus on and decide if it works as delivered, needs to be adapted or doesn’t fly.

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