Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Will Joel help sell tablets?

Since the past month (if not three years) for Apple watchers has been uninformed speculation about the iSlate/iTablet/jumbo iPhone, I figure on the eve of the (speculated) announcement I should add my own 2¢.

A little over a year ago, sociologist Joel Podolny quit as dean of Yale’s business school to become “Vice President and Dean of Apple University,” as he self-reports on his LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

At the time, I offered my own speculation on the sketchy information about Joel and his new role, but effectively he’s been in stealth mode ever since. I have a hunch that his role may become more clear after the iTablet is announced.

Apple’s plans seem to be leaking out because of all the content relationships that it is negotiating. Speculation is that it’s a device with a 10" screen that (for reasons that were obvious a year ago) will run the iPhone OS.

Since this is only the first device of many, the more interesting thing is the content/ecosystem strategy. Apple is building a supply of content to compete with Amazon’s Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and everything else out there.

That’s where I think Joel Podolny comes in. An obvious use for an e-reader is for college textbooks: a $200-400 toy (uh, e-book platform) is not implausible for a college student, and e-books would help textbook publishers kill the scourge of used textbooks (while reducing distribution and inventory costs). Amazon has conducted demonstration projects with e-textbooks to disappointing results.

In fact, CNET reports that McGraw-Hill’s CEO Terry McGraw decided he wants to be on Steve Jobs’ dirt list by pre-announcing the tablets Tuesday on CNBC:

Yes, they'll make their announcement tomorrow on this one. We have worked with Apple for quite a while, and the tablet is going to be based on the iPhone operating system, and so it will be transferable.

So what you are going to be able to do now is, we have a consortium of e-books. And we have 95 percent of all our materials that are in e-book format on that one. So now, with the tablet, you're going to open up the higher-education market, the professional market.
I assume Apple has solved the format problem: Windoze notwithstanding, universities are not going to mandate the use of a proprietary format (like the Kindle AZW) which implies that the textbooks will be distributed in something like ePub or PDF. (As with the iTunes Store and music files, Apple may end up using a proprietary DRM system if not good alternative exists.) This is something that has been holding back e-book sales for a year.

Which brings me back to Joel. Apple has the iTunes Store for entertainment, and iTunes U for video (or audio) course lectures donated by universities. Once it has textbooks, what’s missing?

One possibility is to negotiating the content relationships with textbook suppliers — but that doesn’t sound like a “dean” to me.

The other possibility is a new modality of delivering instruction: not just hypertext books and linear lectures, but a more interactive and engaging experience. (Jobs’ nemesis John Sculley was demonstrating this with the Knowledge Navigator vaporware video more than 20 years ago).

This would mean that the tablet would be more than an e-book reader, just as the iPod was more than a music player and the iPhone was more than a phone. Apple is a systems company that new platforms to enable creation of new markets.

This self-image is illustrated by the tagline at the bottom of every Apple press release:
Apple ignited the personal computer revolution in the 1970s with the Apple II and reinvented the personal computer in the 1980s with the Macintosh. Today, Apple continues to lead the industry in innovation with its award-winning computers, OS X operating system and iLife and professional applications. Apple is also spearheading the digital media revolution with its iPod portable music and video players and iTunes online store, and has entered the mobile phone market with its revolutionary iPhone.
I'm betting that tagline will be different next week, and not just because Apple has a 10" iPod Touch.

1 comment:

Kenneth M. Kambara said...

I just blogged about this on ThickCulture, focusing on the implications for magazines, newspapers, and journalism.

If the videoconferencing capability rumours play out, the higher education angle makes a lot of sense. The content of a Yale, Stanford, or Columbia lecture isn't, in my opinion, the real value added. It's the student-faculty and student-peer interactions. A new multimedia content platform could and should be a really big idea for education, publishing, and entertainment, but the devil's in the details.