Amazon's Last Chance to Catch Up to Apple

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If you think Apple (NAS: AAPL) is a pretty big deal right now, you've seen nothing yet.

No one's really talking about last month's digital-textbook initiative, where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson (NYS: PSO) , and McGraw-Hill (NYS: MHP) agreed to offer interactive iPad editions of their classroom classics for no more than $15 a pop. However, all around the country, school administrators can't stop yapping about it.

I have an eye-opening experiment for you. Get a hold of any of your family members or friends who are teachers. High school teachers are preferable, and you'll get bonus points if they happen to be educators at private institutions.

Hit them with this simple chat starter: I heard that your school was going iPad in the fall.

These are the three words that you're most likely to hear back: How'd you know?

It's not much of a secret. Unless budgetary concerns or bureaucratic red tape arise, more schools than you can probably imagine are making backpacks lighter next school year.

Foxconn, awaken your iPad assemblers
Apple has cleverly put itself at the forefront of this inevitable push. Sure, Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) thought of this first. It was four years ago -- two years before the birth of the iPad -- that Amazon turned to a few colleges to give digital textbooks on the Kindle a shot. Unfortunately, the original Kindle's colorless imagination got in the way of translating some of the more colorful reference materials. The screen was too small. The keyboard was too awkward. The price just wasn't right for a one-trick pony.

Amazon's now three months into the solution. The Kindle Fire sells for half of what the original Kindle was fetching, and less than half of Apple's merrily paid ransom. Since hitting the market in mid-November, Amazon has sold millions of the entry-level tablet.

It's been widely reported that the Kindle Fire is being sold at a loss. Amazon thinks it will make back the difference in time through digital sales. Well, you don't get any better than a classroom of tablet haulers forking over $15 per book every semester.

However, you don't hear Amazon taking its value proposition to the masses. You don't hear about Amazon letting educators know that a Kindle Fire does nearly everything that an iPad can do at a price point that will deter theft and can easier forgive the dropsies.

Amazon's sitting quietly, and it may wind up waiting until it's too late.

Learn your cross streets
Tech website GeekWire had a tantalizing headline on Thursday:

Exclusive: Amazon.com buys TeachStreet

Yes! Amazon gets it. Unfortunately, TeachStreet isn't what I thought it would be. The site is a fast-growing platform that matches paying students with local educators. Too many of the listings in my hometown are for Pilates and yoga instructors, so it's not exactly the enterprising hub for continuing education that it probably aspires to be.

More importantly, Amazon is shutting down the site the day after Valentine's Day. The heartbreaker move indicates that Amazon is more interested in the technology than in the website.

Bummer.

What is Amazon waiting for? This is it, Jeff Bezos! If the plan is to wait until school after school -- and district after district -- officially announces that they will be replacing textbooks with iPads, the game is over.

If Amazon thinks it can offer some students at some schools cheaper access to the same books down the line, it's missing the point of the social layering that administrators want to avoid. There won't be mixed classrooms. High school can be clique-riddled enough without having to pit the iPad haves against the have-nots.

If Amazon wants in, it's going to have to thrust itself in completely. If it thinks it can't ramp up production in time, then it may as well just throw in the digital towel now. Striking similar deals with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill may be the easy part. The challenge will be to get the word out.

Anything short of a national campaign that calls out the iPad on price at a time when cost does matter would be a failure.

Barnes & Noble (NYS: BKS) and Amazon now have attractively priced gadgetry that need to get in front of school administrators before it's too late. The problem is that Barnes & Noble doesn't have the money or the viability to make it happen. Amazon, on the other hand, is crazy and cash-rich enough to make it work.

School's out
Apple sold 15.4 million iPads in its latest quarter. Can you imagine how many more it will sell heading into the fall? Even if Apple ushers in generous educational pricing, it's not about Apple's margins. It's about Amazon's final opportunity to prove that the words "iPad" and "tablet" aren't interchangeable.

Every single tablet manufacturer is toast in this country if Apple achieves what is likely to happen later this year. Android is dead in tablet form if Apple corners the classroom. It's just that simple.

It's all about switching costs. The reason iPhone and Android handset owners are so loyal to their platforms is that it's no longer just about moving contacts from one phone to another. Once someone has invested money in books and apps, they're married to the platform as a financial investment.

The classroom land grab is happening right now, folks. Amazon's smart enough to know that it can't let Apple run away with this, but it's on the verge of flunking out of class anyway by taking too long to react.

Recess time is over.

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At the time this article was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Amazon.com and Apple and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors.Longtime Fool contributorRick Munarrizcalls them as he sees them. He owns no shares in any of the stocks in this story and is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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