10 years ago, I was researching some of the new capabilities of the Xbox and PS2, which seemed poised to reinvigorate interest in console games, and generally change the way people behaved in their living rooms. At the time, I asked several of our TV-related clients if they were thinking about developing video games. They gave me a look like I was slightly batty (a look I’m familiar with) and said no. My logic was this: if we assume the business of a cable company or TV network was to entertain you in the living room, the mode of that entertainment was about to shift and it would be logical to shift with it. Perhaps first person shooters are not the core competency of a cable operator, but evidence suggests that their core competency is getting fewer and fewer eyeballs every day.
Fast forward to today. The change in the TV space has been slow, but I still hold to the questions I was asking at the time. Also, I now can make similar observations for other industries. The other day, I was asked to say something about how devices like the iPad would affect large textbook publishers. As a fanatical Kindle owner, I remarked that books, and especially textbooks would certainly move to the digital format very quickly. When the choices are a heavy backpack or a slim device, the choice seems obvious. This led me into all sorts of theories about how the business model would change when books no longer wore out, or when the books themselves were not limited by physical factors. One day, I might say more about that, but in the meantime, I want to focus on another aspect of the shift to digital. I started to ask “once textbooks are digital, should they even be books at all?”
The idea of a book is very old. Printing data on a sheet of rock, papyrus, or paper is where it started. Soon those sheets were put into stacks, and then those stacks were bound into books. Knowledge or any importance was put into a book format because, well, what other distributable format would they be in? However, once I put that book on an iPad, why do I need pages? Why do I need chapters and “books”? Physics “textbooks” should be interactive sets of experiments and observations. Biology “textbooks” should allow me to virtually dissect a frog or watch a plant grow. Of course these books will have text, but they don’t need to be a book. Also, “Pride and Prejudice” will still be in book form for an English Lit class, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. Even history books are arguably better done as multimedia experiences. Omar Bradley’s “A Soldier’s Story” is one of the many good books that show that war is as much a matter of logistics as about fighting. A good WWII book would include interactive graphics showing troop movements, images from the battlefront, audio from propaganda broadcasts, and much more than text. If you’re going to talk about the Battle of the Bulge, show the Bulge.
This leads me to ask: If I’m a textbook publisher, how quickly should I be shifting to become a software company? Probably pretty quickly. It might take the world some time to catch up with the technology, but in the meantime, I need to figure out how to write software for iPad, Kindle, and more. I have to figure out how to design experiences and rich UIs for devices like the iPad. I need to select a business model (subscriptions instead of sales?), and a DRM scheme that I’m comfortable with. I need to hire interactive designers and 3D artists. There’s a lot of work to do, and it needs to start now.