Apple heeds old lesson with iBooks 2 for schools

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COMMENTARY Apple (AAPL) announced iBooks 2 this morning -- the company's latest take on electronic textbooks. That includes new tools to create and public interactive textbooks that would run on an iPad. But the subtext is an old story. Apple is using what may be its longest-running marketing program: seeding education with hardware and software in hopes that students will graduate and push for Apple products in the workplace.

In this case, the goal would be three-fold. First, get students accustomed to using iPads in an attempt to crowd out competition from Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) before either can begin to make up for Apple's head start. Second, get those students looking for e-books, not paper, and focus them on iPad versions, which could help Apple make headway against Amazon (AMZN) and Barnes & Noble (BKS) selling that particular type of medium. Third, make the publishers dependent on Apple.

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Years ago, going after the educational market had limited short-term benefits for the Mac, as PCs continued to take over the corporate market. And yet, over time, it has been a smart move. Go to any campus and see how many students use a MacBook to take notes, gain access to school resources and do homework. The marketing halo effect of the iPhone is one reason why Apple Mac sales had grown in the U.S. while PCs sales have flattened. But getting students used to Mac portables didn't hurt.

Look at the sales data from the quarter that ended in September 2011 (the more recent available data at the time of writing), and you see that year-over-year unit sales of Macs were up by 26 percent. However, desktop sales grew by only 3 percent. It was 37 percent growth of portables that provided most of the increase, and Mac portables outsell desktops by nearly three to one. And now, GE lets its employees choose Macs instead of Windows desktops or laptops if they wish.

Apple hopes to continue furthering its future by using education today. The iPad already owns the lion's share of the tablet market, and Apple wants to keep it. One of the best ways to maintain its edge is to get those about to go into the workforce (and become a tablet-purchasing consumer) use nothing but iPads for their reading. 

The tricky part is getting publishers to buy into Apple's plans. Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt -- three major textbook publishers -- are partnering with Apple. Overall, the industry has been wary, particularly because Apple wanted a cut of all subscription revenue. That's why free tools that would allow relatively fast and easy creation of e-textbooks were important. Furthermore, Apple is appealing directly to teachers by letting them create courses for Apple's iTunes U and to writers with tools to create their own titles.

There are some potential problems with the company's approach. The educational segment is significantly different from other parts of the publishing industry. Schools often don't have the budget to buy new books every year, so they want textbook copies that can get used one year after the other. Educators also look for vetting of their book choices, so independents might have a difficult time breaking in.

For all that, though, it's a smart move by Apple that should continue paying benefits over both the short and long runs.