Why the Apple textbook program will never work

The Apple textbook initiative announced recently is dead in the water due to one condition hidden in the details.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

Apple stirred up a lot of folks with the recent entry into the school textbook business. The combination of the new iBooks 2 app for the iPad, the iBooks Author app to create interactive textbooks, and partnership with major textbook publishers have cemented Apple's foray into the major publishing venture that handles textbooks. A lot of analysis has already examined this effort to determine how likely it might be to become a major factor in the textbook industry. All complicated reasoning aside, there is one simple detail that guarantees school districts cannot ever participate in the Apple textbook program.

My colleague Ed Bott has done a thorough job tearing apart the Apple licensing agreements and technical details that turn the iBooks textbook program into a "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil license agreement". He's also looked into the overlooked fact that Apple has quietly shot down the defined ePub standard through its implementation. It is worth checking out the following coverage to get a thorough understanding of what Apple has undertaken, and how it affects all of those participating in the new textbook business.

I am not an expert on the complicated textbook industry in the U. S., but some research into Apple's terms and conditions of the iBookstore/ textbook handling turned up what I believe will prevent it from going anywhere. Textbooks will be sold to individual school districts through a volume purchase program from Apple.

The school district sets up a volume account with Apple, and purchases "volume vouchers" to handle textbooks for the organization. These vouchers can be in whatever amount desired, and are not tied to any particular textbooks nor volume of books. The definition of volume vouchers from Apple:

Volume Vouchers are physical cards in denominations of $100, $500, $1000, $5000, and $10,000 that can be used to purchase apps and books in the Volume Purchase Program Education Store. They cannot be used to purchase apps or books directly from the App Store or the iBookstore. The cards are shipped via Federal Express or UPS, so they can be easily tracked. You should receive your Volume Vouchers three to five business days after ordering them.

If I was an administrator of a school district looking into the Apple textbooks, this would scare the hell out of me. Thousands of budget dollars are tied to what is basically an open credit card for buying stuff from Apple. The accounting nightmare to protect district assets is tremendous.

Once the school district purchases a volume voucher, the real fun begins. While the purchase pool is intended to sell textbooks, they are not sold to the organization that funded the voucher. The purchasing organization is given codes to distribute to end users for purchasing textbooks from the district pool. According to Apple, each textbook purchase is handled individually, and is between Apple and the end user making the purchase through a private Apple account.

In the case of books, the student as the end user must redeem the book using his or her own Apple ID, and the student owns the book.

This alone is a deal breaker with federal and state funding that goes toward funding school districts, and removes any overseeing organization from ownership of any textbooks, even though they are paying for them all. Apple has created a system that cannot fly in a world where everything must be accounted for to the penny, and school districts are trying to stretch budgets to the limit. The system pays for everything, but the end user/student "buys" it from Apple. This will not fly on any level, as it means that purchased textbooks cannot be reused from year to year. They "belong" to the individual student, forever.

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