Mr. McNealy, the fiery co-founder and former chief executive of SunMicrosystems, shuns basic math textbooks as bloated monstrosities: their price keeps rising while the core information inside of them stays the same.
“Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time,” Mr. McNealy says.
Early this year, Oracle, the database software maker, acquired Sun for $7.4 billion, leaving Mr. McNealy without a job. He has since decided to aim his energy and some money at Curriki, an online hub for free textbooks and other course material that he spearheaded six years ago.
“We are spending $8 billion to $15 billion per year on textbooks” in the United States, Mr. McNealy says. “It seems to me we could put that all online for free.”
The nonprofit Curriki fits into an ever-expanding list of organizations that seek to bring the blunt force of Internet economics to bear on the education market. Even the traditional textbook publishers agree that the days of tweaking a few pages in a book just to sell a new edition are coming to an end.
“Today, we are engaged in a very different dialogue with our customers,” says Wendy Colby, a senior vice president of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “Our customers are asking us to look at different ways to experiment and to look at different value-based pricing models.”
Mr. McNealy had his own encounter with value-based pricing models while running Sun. The company had thrived as a result of its specialized, pricey technology. And then, in what seemed liked a flash, Sun’s business came undone as a wave of cheaper computers and free, open-source software proved good enough to handle many tasks once done by Sun computers.
At first, Sun fought the open-source set, and then it joined the party by making the source code to its most valuable software available to anyone.
Too little, too late. Sun’s sales continued to decline, making it vulnerable to a takeover.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and other top textbook publishers now face their, forgive me, moment in the sun.