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Overhyping Apple’s iBooks Textbooks

23 Jan

Apple held it’s much hyped education event on January 19 in NYC. “Digital destruction of textbooks” and “Garageband for ebooks” were two of the many rumors floating around in the tech blogosphere. Apple announced a simple and easy-to-use tool for ebook creation and a simple distribution system through its iBooks store. The initial products are available only for the school market. Similar to Apple’s other integrated product offerings, will this e-textbook model succeed?

The Good

  • The price is the best part – only $15 for a textbook compared to the more common $75
  • Interactive (and possibly engaging) content
  • Easy-t0-use device (iPad) with a touchscreen that kids love
  • Easy to create an ebook using the iBooks Author and distribute an ebook
  • Ultra-portable, kids don’t have to carry heavy textbooks
  • Tens or even hundreds of books on one device
  • Internet connected for easy access to the Web

The Bad

  • Public schools buy books in volume and distribute them to the students. The average cost of a book is $75 that they use for about five years. A $15 ebook will be tied to individual student accounts, which means every year, the school has to pay $15 per ebook. The total cost in five years: $75. And an additional $500 for each iPad. Where are the savings? Our public school systems are in disarray. The budgets are cut every year, teachers and staff are laid off, the number of students per teacher increases. Do the schools have enough money for an upfront investment in iPads for every student?
  • Book publishers have been developing interactive ebooks for a few years now. Those ebooks can be used on any computer using a Web browser and are not tied to a single device from a single company. Making the same content available on an iPad instead of a laptop is not going to improve learning.
  • An iPad might increase engagement in the beginning, but once the novelty wears off, the kids will be more interested in playing Angry Birds. Pedagogy is more important than the device and this initiative doesn’t enhance the pedagogical value of the books.
  • The books can easily be created by anyone and distributed through the iBooks store. But schools don’t use books written by anyone. They want books from reputed authors and publishers. It will be a low-margin, high-volume game, and hyper-competitive as well. Creating an interactive ebook means investing more on developing multimedia content. High cost of creation and low margins. Will the publishers come along?
  • Nothing is more distracting than an internet connected device, which opens a portal to all kinds of information. Will the kids read the books or surf the Internet, play games, or visit Facebook? Learning is more influenced by people’s motivation than anything else. And the iPad cannot do anything to increase the kids’ motivation to learn. Today’s kids have a thousand other things to do than study, as indicated by the school and college dropout rates and falling behind of the US on PISA tests. The No Child Left Behind Act has made the situation worse.
  • The downloadable ebooks will take up about 1 GB each. Which means it can store only a limited number of books. Buying the higher-capacity iPads would cost even more. If the books are not downloaded, they will not always be available, given the state of our broadband connections.

The Ugly

  • Apple’s End User License Agreement (EULA) for iBooks states that the authors are free to provide the books on their Web site if its free. However, any ebook created with iBooks Author software that the author wants to sell can be sold only through the iBooks store. And Apple will set  the price and take a cut from the sale. The author works hard but apple limits the market. Apple is not working to improve education. The only things it wants to do is sell more iPads.
  • The books must be approved by Apple. This means any book can (and often will) be rejected by Apple for arbitrary and unexplained reasons. What if Apple doesn’t like the content in a history book? It will have the power to alter history. I wonder if schools will allow Apple to set their curriculum.
  • If the schools don’t have money to buy iPads for their students, can they make it mandatory for the parents to buy one for their kids? This would immediately lead to a class-action lawsuit against the school. Many people can’t afford an iPad, or in my and several other cases, will not be willing to buy one. How do you create equality in the classroom?
  • It’s morally irresponsible. A great book should not be the sole preserve of rich school districts. It might create a 1%-99% situation and increase inequality instead of bridging it.
  • A closed system will stifle innovation. An ebook that’s available to everyone on any device opens up a huge market that further incentivizes innovation.
  • One drop and the iPad is gone. Who replaces the iPad? The school or the parents?

Related Readings
iPad a solid education tool, study reports
Why the iPad Won’t Transform Education — Yet
The Unprecedented Audacity of the iBooks Author EULA
iPad Textbooks: Reality less revolutionary than hardware
Apple Textbook Controversy Isn’t About Books—It’s About Teaching

Brainstorming Or Blamestorming?

7 Nov

Blamestorm – I learned this word (it’s actually a dictionary word!) today in an article I was reading on why brainstorming doesn’t work in organizations. In the article “Why brainstorming doesn’t work“, the Washington Post journalist argues that brainstorming generally doesn’t yield expected results because people have a misconception of how it works. A large group is gathered and asked to present, brainstorm, and come up with creative ideas. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and I have seen it plenty of times to believe it’s true. It has also been proved by recent research.

Why brainstorming in the traditional sense doesn’t work? Because people fixate on others’ ideas. They focus too much on what others are saying, they are led in a particular direction by the most vocal members, and they are scared of presenting radical ideas. We are social in nature. We prefer to be in groups where we belong, and we don’t want to do anything that goes against the majority. In his excellent book “The Wisdom of Crowds“, James Suroweicki argues that diversity and independence are very important for a group to come up with wise decisions. Tom Kelly of IDEO, in his book, “The Art of Innovation” (one of the best books I’ve ever read) , has also written about the prerequisite of having a diverse group for generating innovative ideas.

So what works? One, have a small group of people with diverse educational backgrounds, work and life experiences, areas of expertise, cultures, etc. because they bring a unique perspective to the table. And two, give them freedom and let them work independently, generate multiple, diverse, radical ideas, and then bring everyone together to brainstorm and build on each others’ ideas. However, most of the times, the opposite happens. A large group meets to brainstorm. Some people dominate, in order of corporate hierarchy, and the focus is on building consensus instead of encouraging dissension and lateral thinking.

But this is not the only way brainstorming works. A wide body of research proves that brainstorming can work if there is a trained facilitator to guide the session, enforce some ground rules, and elicit ideas from the participants. “Trained” is the key word here.

Related Articles:
Forget Brainstorming
Don’t forget: Brainstorming works!
The Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It?
Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here’s How To Argue Productively

Secrets Of Success

11 Oct

TED talk by Richard St. John.
Author of The 8 Traits Successful People Have in Common: 8 to Be Great

Related readings:
The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives

The Crazy Ones

6 Oct

The essence of Steve Jobs, captured in this video (narrated by him).

Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address, 1995

… and a creative visual design.

Related articles

25 Steve Jobs Quote You Should Stick (NOW) On Your Office Wall

Start With Why (TED Video)

23 Sep

Very inspiring video by Simon Sinek. Start With Why book available on Amazon.

What Does it Mean to be an Entrepreneur?

1 Nov

An article written by my wife, Bhawana Srivastava.

What Does it Mean to be an Entrepreneur?

There are thousands of people in the world who come up with thousands of great ideas every day, ideas that could potentially solve many of the small and big problems faced by us. Many people are very enthusiastic when they talk about their ideas, when brought to fruition, would change the world.

However, not all ideas see the light of the day; some for a very long time while others never. It’s not that those ideas are poor and should not be developed. Rather, the people who think of these ideas lack certain qualities that prevent those wonderful ideas from getting executed. Although those people have a vision for a great product or service or business model and they have the skills required to develop that product or service, they lack the attitude of an entrepreneur and the conviction of a believer.

I believe that entrepreneurship is a state of mind. It, more often than not, takes all a person has, at the professional as well as personal level.

Some of the primary qualities of an entrepreneur are listed below.

The most important quality of an entrepreneur is the attitude. The attitude to take risks, lead, listen, plan, execute, and last but not the least, the attitude to accept failure, learn the lessons, and move on. Entrepreneurship cannot be a part-time vocation; it requires a person to make the sincerest form of commitment and 100% of his time, effort, and dedication.

An entrepreneur must have a vision — of a product or a service – that he is willing to work on to develop from scratch or improve. He identifies a problem that he sees around him and devises a solution that addresses this problem. He envisions a solution, clearly communicates his ideas to others, and brings his ideas to completion. It can be a new idea, or a better implementation of an existing idea.

There should not be an iota of doubt in the entrepreneur’s mind regarding whether his ideas will work or not. There are always moments of self-doubt, which every successful entrepreneur overcomes, driven by conviction. If he doubts his ideas and vision, he will not be able to devote all his energy on the venture, and will start to lose focus on the first signs of difficulties. When Google launched in 1998, it was the thirteenth search engine in the market. Yet, it became a phenomenon because the founders believed that it was the best search engine available at that time.

An entrepreneur must have the skill to lead a venture — whether the skill is technical (for example, software programming) or business-related (for example, forecasting revenues and growth). Most of the companies’ founders possess expertise in their area of endeavor. Many research projects in graduate school result in successful products; for example, Research In Motion and Google. The co-founders usually have complementary skill sets, the most popular example being Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Enthusiasm oozing from an entrepreneur is the most visible sign of his attitude, confidence, and conviction, which helps the team members trust their leader’s vision and show their enthusiasm towards the work they are doing.

All initial ideas are not always the best ideas. An entrepreneur develops an early version of his product or service, takes it to the users, listens to them to collect feedback, and makes appropriate modifications to the product or service. An entrepreneur who is rigid about his ideas and unwilling to adapt will lead the product or service to fail. An example of flexibility is the founders of Flickr. They were developing an online game when they realized that the photo sharing feature on the Web site was being used more than the game itself, so they focused on developing the photo sharing feature.

Business Plan
A sound business plan is almost always part of an entrepreneur’s initial strategy. Developing a prototype, getting angel and venture funding to develop the product and scale or manufacture it, spending money on marketing and customer service, and eventually creating a successful company creating value for the stakeholders is all a part of the business plan. However, not all businesses take this route. Some, a recent example being Twitter, focus on acquiring users first and not thinking about money. They believe that if users love their product, money will somehow start coming, though it might sometimes leads to a business’s collapse.

An entrepreneur gives his all to his vision and makes great personal sacrifices to make sure his vision comes to life. He tries to convince more and more people to give his product a try and, if the product is good enough, keep using it. He comes up with ways to create value for the users for which they are willing to pay. This constitutes the business model part of the entrepreneur’s vision, which creates and increases value for all stakeholders – the founders, employees, and the big and small investors.

The business model may or may not be initially on the entrepreneur’s strategy, especially if the marginal cost of production or serving the users is very low. This is especially true in the case of Internet companies where the focus of the entrepreneur is to get more and more users to use the product or service and make money later. This is not always the best approach though it remains the most popular approach.

There are some entrepreneurs who try to address a social issue with innovative ideas. They focus on solving the problem for the betterment of the underprivileged, and not on making money for themselves or the stakeholders. A recent example is, a micro-lending company, which encourages and facilitates lending of small amounts of money to entrepreneurs in the developing or underdeveloped countries.

A key to successful entrepreneurship is doing something you love. Do it with the right attitude and a strong conviction!