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Kindles and Coursepacks
September 12, 2010 - 8:30pm

The $139 Kindle is a game changer. 2011 will be the year that the traditional paper coursepack (finally) disappears, to be replaced by a default digital version with the option to print on demand. And if things go right, the Kindle should be the dominant coursepack delivery platform.

I know, lots of complaints that the Kindle is bad for annotation. True. But highlighting is vastly overrated. Convenience and cost savings will drive Kindle coursepack adoption. For anyone who really needs to annotate they will be free to print. Most will not print - mostly because schools are moving away from subsidizing printing - a sound economic and environmental shift.

What about the iPad? My prediction is that the significantly lower cost of the Kindle will push the digital coursepack market towards this device. The iPad will remain an important platform, along with the iPhone/Touch, but will account for only a portion of all the digital courespacks read on a Kindle. The price differential between the Kindle and the iPad, $139 vs. $499, is large enough to insure that most student sales will be Kindles. iPad prices will drop, but so will Kindle prices - making the Kindle as a digital coursepack platform even more appealing.

The dominance of the Kindle in the digital coursepack market, however, is not assured. While I think the annotation issue is overblown, their are some obstacles that Amazon and the digital coursepack providers will need to overcome:

PDF Issues: The Kindle can natively handle PDF files, but it does so very poorly. Reading a PDF on an iPad is a good experience, reading one on a Kindle is a terrible experience. The workaround is to e-mail the PDF to Amazon and have it convert the file to the proprietary DRM restricted *.azw format. Amazon needs to find some way to either make the PDF reading experience as good as the Kindle e-book experience, or to make its *.azw format a standard filetype. A second PDF issue is that there is no way (that I know of) to convert a locked down PDF file to an *.azw file. Since many coursepack content providers only want to release their articles and case studies in a protected PDF format, and because this is the filetype that some digital coursepack providers want to use, any conversation to the Kindle format for the digital coursepack become problematic.

Rights Issues: I'm not clear exactly how we will be able to get all the digital content that institutions license for the academic library on to a Kindle for a digital coursepack. I'm unclear how the rights and permissions actually work databases licensed by the library in terms of creating formats beyond the traditional web delivery mechanism. I'm not sure who is working on this issue, where the leadership is coming, and where the content aggregators that libraries buy their database licenses stand on digital coursepacks.

Technology and Company Issues: While I firmly believe that the $139 Kindle dramatically pushes us away from paper in the coursepack world, I'm not clear which company or companies will provide the end-to-end solutions that replace the traditional paper coursepack. Who is going to step-up?

The window that we have to figure all this out is starting to close. Students will be coming to campus with Kindles or iPads (or both), and smart phones and who knows what else. They will expect to be able to read their course materials on these devices. They will want choice. Providing this choice may be one differentiator that campuses can offer, a recruitment tool and a new way to signal a student centered and tech forward campus environment.


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