Barnes & Noble’s announcement that it was spinning off its Nook business and that Microsoft would be a significant stakeholder in the new company raised a lot of eyebrows. The partnership seemed unnecessary in order to meet the goals of settling a patent dispute and ensuring a Nook app for Windows 8 tablets.
It turns out that Barnes & Nobel will be shifting its textbook business to the new company along with the Nook and that Microsoft’s $300 million investment will likely be centered around creating an e-textbook initiative that will likely compete head-on with Apple’s fledging iPad-based e-textbook business.
While Apple made a splashy entrance into the e-textbook market in January, Barnes & Noble and Microsoft took a more subtle approach – so subtle that it escaped the attention of almost everyone. That may have been a strategic silence given that Barnes & Noble’s textbook division does more selling of textbooks than creating or digitizing them. The company has a network of nearly 700 on-campus college bookstores across the country.
Jamie Iannone, president of Barnes & Noble Digital Projects told the Chronicle of Higher Education that, at least for now, there won’t be any changes to the operations of those bookstores though he also admitted that the new partnership with Microsoft should “accelerate the adoption of e-reading in the college space.”
That puts the new company in a somewhat different e-textbook market than Apple, which is focused on K-12 schools at this point. That said, Apple is no stranger to working with colleges and universities. It has pitched iBooks Author as a tool for creating custom course material to educators in both K-12 and higher education and it announced an expanded iTunes U program to feature full classes at the same event where it launched its e-textbook initiative. The company also offers resources to colleges interested in offering iOS development classes.
Of course, one long-term benefit of Apple’s K-12 focus is that younger students will become accustomed to using iPads as textbooks, research devices, and even as a way of preparing classwork. That could very well lead those students to prefer the iPad as a reading and learning platform when they head off to college in a few years. At that point the new Barnes & Noble subsidiary would end up in direct competition with Apple for e-reading marketshare.
It’s worth noting that college students haven’t been all that excited by the idea of e-textbooks. A survey by the National Association of College Stores last fall showed only 2% of students chose e-textbooks as a primary way to access content. That means an uphill battle for Nook e-textbooks in the immediate future – but that could change quickly as more students graduate high school after learning on mobile devices more than books. That uphill battle will continue (and likely get more difficult) if Apple succeeds with its e-textbooks on iPads in K-12 schools.