The Digital Textbook Opportunity

I’ve got a new column about tied to Apple’s e-textbook initiative arguing that the real game-changer here would be for some of the players in the hundreds-of-millions of dollars a year education philanthropy game to just make some free textbooks using the iTunes Author software. If you give the books away for free you escape the clutches of Apple’s EULA and you solve the main real problem with the existing textbook market which isn’t a lack of snazzy digital effects so much as it is exorbitant costs.

Anyway, read the piece. A larger point here is that America’s philanthropic sector, which is enormous compared to what you see in any other country, often strikes me as pretty uncreative in thinking about what the low-hanging fruit is. The digital realm is full of spaces where efforts to do things at a profit necessarily end up entailing lots of inefficiency, but where the extremely low cost of production and distribution means that non-profit dollars can have enormous influence. Wikipedia is the great example of something with enormous social benefits and relatively low but distinctly non-zero costs. But the same logic has broadly applicability. In a traditional service provider model, a finite sum of charitable dollars provides services to a finite number of people—you build the new wing of the museum, and some people see it if they manage to pay the cost of transportation, accommodation, admissions, etc. In the digitial world, there are opportunities for a finite sum of money to offer services to a potentially unlimited audience—you build an online image library and, in principle, everyone who owns a computer or a smartphone (which will be virtually everyone within 10-15 years) can see it as many times as they want.