Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Platforms, platforms everywhere

I work for an academic publisher. So when I saw this USA Today article, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to a topic that relates to both my day job and my after-hours Appazoogling. I expected the article to take the end-user view and shower me with insight about the unaddressed needs of the everyday e-textbook user.

Instead, it left me feeling like I was one tiny drop in a sea of digital options. The article starts to degenerate into a list of digital platforms—and the list goes on and on and on.

From a publisher’s perspective, I don’t see a particular problem with it. Sure, my company deals with multiple digital platforms, but it’s not overwhelming—especially when compared to the mass of platforms mentioned in the article. As a publisher, looking at that list makes me feel like the handful of platforms I worry about at work are a piece of cake.

But as a student? I’m freaking out.

Forget about class sites for internal communication—Blackboard, WebCT, a class WordPress, a professor’s website—now students have to juggle textbook platforms as well. Your professor wants to assign a Cengage text with a Wiley supplement? Boom. Unless you own an ereader or tablet, that’s two platforms. Another professor assigns Macmillan? Up to three. And even if you can find most of your texts through Chegg, CourseSmart, or another e-textbook vendor, there is probably going to be that odd book out that is only available through proprietary systems. Or the professor’s original work, which he distributes as a 100-page PDF. (See Iris‘ post about Apple’s proprietary textbook system for more on platform-locked content.)

You see my point. A full-time student using exclusively online texts for a semester could conceivably end up using half a dozen different platforms. How as publishers can we say that this is consumer-mindedness?

It’s all mixed up in the problem of platform proliferation. (Say that three times fast.) Platform proliferation is the problem that I’ve just described in such glowing words: too many platforms and too little synergy.

My favorite analogy for platform proliferation is cell phones. Think back six or seven years ago; remember what it was like if you lost your phone charger? You could live in a house with ten different cell phones, and no two chargers would fit the same phone. That’s where epublishing is now. Individually, all the choices are great—but taken as a whole there are so many that they’re essentially useless. The effort it takes to untangle all of the different systems is barely worth it.

And it’s a problem. Not only is it a problem for students, but it’s also going to be a problem for publishing companies that have invested in creating competitive proprietary systems that are tied to company products. This means companies are trying to compete on the level of technology—the platform—as well as on the level of content—the textbook itself—in any format.

I have faith, though, that the explosion of platforms we have right now will tone down with time. We’re going through the growing pains of a new industry. It’s quite a ride.

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.


This entry was posted on February 7, 2012 by in Technology and tagged , , .

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