Coming to a Campus Near You…

To be perfectly clear, this blog is not sanctioned by, endorsed by, or even remotely associated with Oxford University Press, my fantastic employer. What I say here is my opinion and my opinion alone.

The preview of the Kindle DX on May 6th was a smart tactical maneuver in the preparation for the next front of the ebook reader wars.  Even though Amazon invited the NY Times to the stage to help pump up the volume, newspapers are not the primary raison d’être of the new Kindle.

The university or higher education market is the Holy Grail for the ebook reader market for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a huge, global, highly important market that has consistently rejected all previous digital attempts. It’s made up of the most wired, wireless, trend setting, trend following, advertising influencing, advertising target audience in the world. They are the next generation of spenders and influencers and everyone wants to be the brand that this group enters the working world carrying in their pocket or bag.

Currently Apple is the reigning champion in this space. The iPod/iPhone hegemony is impenetrable and awe inspiring. The sheer influence of the iPhone and iPod has turned Apple into the most powerful PC maker in the world – selling 9.7 million Macs last year alone. And if the word “million” isn’t impressive enough – try “billion” on for size. A few weeks ago some iPhone customer somewhere in the world downloaded the billionth app from App Store. That is 1,000,000,000 downloaded applications for the iPhone in just under 1 year.

And though the audience for Macs, iPhones and iPods extends far beyond the ivied walls of campuses, the supremacy of the Apple logo on campuses is untouched by any other brand. Apple is to the higher education market what Amazon is to online retailing, not the only game in town, but by far and away the most powerful. I believe Amazon’s surprise preview of the DX was a preemptive strike against Apple.   If you look at the two previous Kindle press conferences, both were held at the precise moment of release. The events were announcements of a product that was ready to ship, not, as with the DX, a preview event. Amazon made a premeditated change in their strategy… but why?

I come back to Apple. For over a year now there have been rumors of Apple building netbook (mini-laptop) and/or a Large Screen iPhone. The rumors have focused on this coming fall as the release date. Furthermore, there is a growing team of folks at Apple who are focused on the university market.  I believe that Amazon previewed the Kindle DX because it sees Apple as the player to beat in the university marketplace, and the last thing Amazon wishes to be is also-ran news after Apple launches a device for this market. By jumping to the front of the line in the race to conquer this market, Amazon hopes to establish its interests as aligned with universities.

Furthering this effort is the fact that Amazon seems to be pointing toward an institutional orientation for the device. While they announced that 3 of the big 4 U.S. college publishers are “involved” in the usage studies that will be happening at five campuses, the details of how they would be involved were missing. Even though Amazon announced the DX testing program on campus, we have no idea what they are testing.  Are they testing the Kindle as a textbook reader, as a print course-pack reader, as something else? Further complicating this issue is the fact that Princeton University announced it is NOT testing the Kindle as a textbook reader but as a green initiative… they hope to reduce their printing costs across campus by having students and faculty move files to the Kindle, rather than print out and read. (There are so many issues in that one that I will leave it for a future post.)

The Kindle’s pricing also seems to me to be tipping Amazon’s hat toward an institutional model. It’s hard to envision many students willing to spend $489 on an ancillary learning device (on top of a laptop and iPhone). But one can see the how a school like Ohio State University, with nearly 60,000 students on its Columbus campus could easily see a purchase price of $300 per device and bake that into the tuition, or charge it directly through its billing. For Amazon, such a sale would be worth $18,000,000!

Amazon isn’t just trying to combat future threats from Apple, as other players will be entering the space that offers additional challenges to the DX. I have seen some of these devices – one is a dual screen netbook that has two screens, a large e-ink screen on one side, an LCD screen on the other, and runs on the Google Android platform. This clever device offers a significant upgrade on the limitations of e-ink, true interactivity, rich-color, fully functional Internet browsing, and perhaps most importantly, video. This device (which I am not allowed to mention anything more about), and the likely fact that many similar devices will follow, points to an issue that is key to conquering the education market.

While it’s widely agreed that ebooks have been a complete failure in the education market, there isn’t wide agreement as to why. Some think it’s the devices, other think the textbook companies are at fault, still others find the notion of reading a textbook in electronic form the problem. My view is that like all problems, it’s a bit of everything that conspires against electronic textbooks. I believe it’s part device, part content appropriateness, and part inertia by the content providers. However, I truly believe that the device is the biggest part of the problem, like it was with standard ebooks. Build the right device, add the content, and you will have success. Amazon proved this with the Kindle, just as Apple proved it with the iPod.

Meeting the needs of the market is key – and the need in higher education is for a device that can be used for BOTH immersive reading and multimedia interactivity. The device that will win the hearts and minds of students and educators cannot ONLY be great for just one of these features. The DX is a killer ebook reader, but lacks the multimedia functions. The iPhone (even a large screen version) is a killer multimedia device, but immersive reading on a backlit LCD device will, in the long run, irritate even the most avid iPhone zealot.

This leaves a huge market gap that I foresee being filled by dual screen devices (one side e-ink, the other LCD) for the time being – until a breakthrough comes in technology that enables the best features of both. Last year Sharp announced that it had created a full color LCD screen that could hold an image without any power being used – much like e-ink. This screen, if fine-tuned and developed for a device like a Kindle or iPhone, could be the silver bullet that conquers this market.

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