Some may think it a mystery as to why a technology firm would want to buy a publisher, but the answer is not as complex as it may seem.
While all content sectors have been focused inwards, looking at ways in which they can maximise digital revenues in a networked economy, the tech giants have been quietly taking control. The laws of Moore, Gilder, Metcalfe and Varian—the four laws that are restructuring processes and the world of work in light of technological progress, and at breakneck speed; as described by Richard Baldwin in The Globotics Upheaval—have accelerated this to the point of total control and now there is no return.
We can trace this all the way back to the 1990s with the creation and expansion of Amazon. Since the end of the 1990s, businesses such as Intel, Google, Microsoft and Apple have all joined the party and with the advent of downloadable disaggregated digital music tracks, the future was already written for all content. The internet and technology was the medium, content was the prize. Tech firms have all the data and expertise, and now AI has come into play, which makes it tougher and tougher for content providers to stay on the technological treadmill.
An illusion of choice
We’re at the stage now where any consumer of any type of content is influenced by the mass market. And the mass market is influenced by the tech giants. So, when we think about "published" educational, professional, academic or trade content, we need to look at the highest common denominator, which brings us right back to the tech giants. The largest of these turns over in a month the same amount that any one of our industry sectors turns over in a year. More importantly, it is the business models and the channels to market that they control that really make the difference. The consumer’s preferred method of consumption has already been decided.
Let’s examine the case of the average classroom. While publishers of educational content have focused on building platforms and web environments with learning management tools built-in, the Googles of this world have been quietly selling huge amounts of technology hardware to governments, schools and educational boards. They have been creating their own learning management environment to work with the technology, along with a whole heap of other applications that facilitate the needs of schoolchildren, students and their teachers. They have been securing the channel.
Education publishers in the past few years have found it increasingly difficult to sell their own brand of learning management system through which to flow their content. I understand that in the US it reached the point some time ago where those who control mighty state education budgets, previously the reserve of educational publishers, would hold their heads in their hands, muttering "not another education publisher with another ‘platform’ and another set of logins for each and every pupil in my state". Imagine the chaos that this approach creates.
In parallel, there have been specific moves in certain parts of the world to build large content repositories of Open Educational Resource (OER) content. Amazon has entered this market with a view to structuring and ordering it with its Amazon Inspire product. But, in the same way that academic publishers found it challenging sifting through huge amounts of Open Access content to find articles which are really valuable to consumers, OER content is still an unstructured and disorganised collection of the good and the bad. The idea of OER is fantastic to those who control education budgets—all the "stuff" they need to educate their audience, with none of the associated cost. But it is the educational publishers who control the content and have earned the trust of the educators. It is the educational publishers who can guarantee that the quality of content is such that using it will ensure better grades.
Which brings me full circle back to the question: "Why would Google want to buy Pearson?" The answer is not as complex as the algorithms which drive the technological development around us.
For a consumer of any type of content from publishers or other, the amount of information available is immense. There are now some five trillion photos, nearly two billion websites and close to seven billion mobile phones. But in any content area, the challenge for consumers of any type of content is to find that which is high-quality, branded, carefully constructed and curated. Particularly when it comes to education.
This is not the expertise of the tech world. Tech excels at tracking, organising, distributing, controlling channels to the market; tech is the conduit, but content is the prize. Google needs to buy Pearson because content matters.