The Tipping Point

Back in November 2000 I told educational publishers’ conference that the writing was on the screen for the paper textbook. From the conference programme:

Ian Grove-Stephensen, Managing Director of the Chalkface Project, argues that any paper-based investment made today will fail to earn a return; but reveals how publishers can leverage their existing resources to make real web-based profits now.

My reasoning wasn’t particularly esoteric. I simply noted that Moore’s Law was going to make computers cheaper than books. Nor did I think it was that big a deal for publishers. What we publishers do for a living is package up information to make it more useful to different kinds of users. I didn’t think then (and don’t think now) that the new medium was going to change that basic principle.

The audience unanimously disagreed and my presentation bombed sufficiently badly that the organisers didn’t ask me back. Most of them didn’t see it happening in their lifetimes, let alone in the five-year timescale I laid out. I left the conference very firmly put in place by my superiors.

Thus it was with guilty schadenfreude that I read this article in USA Today. American schools, they say, are about to reach the tipping point where computers are cheaper than books.

“A child’s set of textbooks costs $350,” Smith said. “If they can get these notebooks down to $500, it gets cost-effective in a hurry.”

The article doesn’t make it clear over what timescale that $350 is spent, so we have to be a bit careful translating it for the UK. Here we spend very approximately £20 per student per year (PA calculation). Notebook computers are still expensive, but desktops are not. I’ve argued elsewhere that they are a better bet anyway. The price of a desktop computer is down around the £200 mark now. So a computer would have to last 10 years, and the information on it would have to be free, for us to be at the tipping point now.

But by start of the academic year of 2005, that computer will be down to £100 (Moore’s law again). Which is only a five-year payback. And whilst there’s still the information to pay for, against that the computer can provide access to far more of it. So my prediction is that the tipping point will come in September 2005. From then on change will accelerate as schools grasp the economic opportunity.

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