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ATPM 16.03
March 2010


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by Wes Meltzer,

Burn Down the Mission

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus! There is no Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy either. All of these things are mythical inventions of adults just to keep you dumb, fat, and lazy.

Or at least that’s how I feel whenever the latest big Apple keynote comes around. Most of us enjoy oooohing and aaaahing about the product. In fact, most North American newspapers put up a photo of the device or of Steve Jobs holding it when these things happen.

(In fact, I remember vividly reading USA Today in the Detroit airport with my dad in October 2001 and being really fascinated by this new-fangled iPod device that played MP3s.)

So I wasn’t surprised to see similar hype in January. It was the day of the State of the Union, but frankly you might not have known that from looking at newspaper front pages: very nearly every US newspaper played Steve Jobs as big as or bigger than the president of the United States of America!

First, a Little Analysis

This is the first piece of technology in a long time that my grandparents have asked me about before it was already passé. I could see my grandmother (who struggles with the basics of computing) using an iPad without any trouble at all. She’s already figured out my grandfather’s iPhone.

I’ve often wondered who the target audience for a tablet device would be, and the answer seems to be, not me. I have a work-issued MacBook Pro, a white MacBook at home, an itty-bitty red Eee PC 10″ netbook with Ubuntu for traveling light, and an iPhone if I’m really traveling light. But my job is to interact with several suites of enterprise software which were designed to be used with keyboard and mouse over Citrix, so I accept that I’m unusual.

So if you’re my dad, who already uses a tablet PC at work to fill out PDF forms, or my grandparents who use a computer to e-mail and keep photos of their grandchildren and travel, maybe the iPad is that transformational device that makes “computing” a misnomer.

The beauty of the iPhone OS—and before it, the iPod OS—is that for non-technical users it reduces the UI to almost nothing and makes content primary. So my mom and gran may find even iPhoto to be pretty befuddling, with all those damn buttons and settings, but they don’t have any trouble looking through photos on the iPhone.

Bottom line is, the baseline iPhone OS was never designed for people like me, or you, dear reader, who is currently wasting his or her time reading my column. That’s what the third-party apps are for. My iPhone has four pages of apps, including one with only travel apps for when I’m on the road for work, and my mom barely cracks the second page with the Facebook application my sister helped her install and the like.

I’ve learned to use a piece of software with three different sets of keyboard commands depending on what mode I’m in (and I don’t mean vim!), but for most people, flipping back and forth between photos or sending basic e-mails is what their computer is all about. Not “computing,” per se, but just plain old “storing and browsing content.”

Steven Frank (that Steven Frank) makes the point in a much more concise way than I ever could, using an auto transmission analogy (yes, I know, the obligatory car analogy):

When I learned to drive, my dad insisted that I learn on a manual transmission so I would be able to drive any car. I think this was a wise and valuable thing to do.

But even having learned it, these days I drive an automatic. Nothing is black and white—I sacrifice maybe a tiny amount of fuel efficiency and a certain amount of control over my car in adverse situations that I generally never encounter. In exchange, my brain is freed up to focus on the the road ahead, getting where I’m going, and avoiding obstacles (strategy), not the minutiae of choosing the best possible gear ratio (tactics).

To me, that’s the iPad in a nutshell. It’s not an overgrown iPhone, even if it looks like one. It’s a computer with all the complexity of a desktop computer boiled out of it.

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

While everyone else in the Union was raving about the iPad, there was a hurricane brewing over Flash on the iPhone OS. You see, it’s one thing for your cell phone not to support Flash (although I’m tired of wailing about that too)—but I guess because the iPad is computer-sized it’s a whole new debate.

So here’s where we begin with this tempest in a teapot: the next morning Adobe Flash “Platform Evangelist” Lee Brimelow posted a series of (faked) screen shots showing Web sites that won’t work with the iPad because they use Flash. It’s, oh, 10 sites, varying from “very prominent” (Disney, Hulu) to “in poor taste” (a porn site), and he’s blocked out the content item or items with the “missing plug-in” icon from Mac OS X.

What we’ve been debating for the last month is Brimelow’s assertion in its broadest strokes: that, as long as the iPad doesn’t support Flash, it’s not really a true Web browsing experience.

But I thought it was worth noting that Ryan Cooley, a blogger/tech geek in Las Vegas, put together an illustration showing what’s missing from most Web sites when the Flash goes vacant: ads. And also noteworthy: many of the Web sites Brimelow cited have mobile versions that are either (a) mobile-friendly or (b) encode their video as H.264 or Quicktime rather than in Flash so they can be used on an iPhone/iPad.

So we’re off to the races! You all know the old joke about there being three types of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t, so let’s take this in two parts: (1) What’s the deal if the iPad doesn’t support Flash?; (2) Are there technical reasons not to support Flash on a mobile device?

Is It Such an Issue If the iPad Doesn’t Support Flash?

Ryan Cooley’s got a point: Flash isn’t exactly the Internet’s Great Wall of China, the only thing standing between the Web and barbarism. To folks in this camp, it’s more Maginot Line than Great Wall, a large fortification that only benefits you if you’re stuck in the past.

I think Jeff Zeldman encapsulates this line of argument best. He writes, on his personal blog, about how Flash was a terrific solution to the dreadful state of Web development a decade ago. But in the time since then, we’ve had a big move to more semantic development in which the content comes first and the presentation second…without Flash. In essence, he’s arguing that Flash is good for presentation but shouldn’t dictate the underlying content structure the way it does in some of these examples from Brimelow.

Zeldman makes the same point that I made earlier in this very column, that the next generation of computer operating systems are going to make the leap from command line to desktop OS look like a walk in the park. They’re sometimes customizable at the surface level, like the iPhone or Palm Pre with downloadable apps, but even the amount of hackery it was possible to do with my old Windows Mobile 5 phone is pretty much gone. And in its place is a lot of polish and a lot of UI simplification. That means that anything relatively low-level (to the average user, anyway) like a browser plug-in is on its way out.

There’s an effort under way that Zeldman writes about, the big HTML5 push, which would support natively embedded video and interactive content without plug-ins. Right now, it’s virtually impossible to do this without a plug-in, in which event it might as well be Flash. (Almost everyone with a desktop computer has Flash!)

But between the burgeoning HTML5 standard, Ajax, and the judicious use of JavaScript it’s possible to accomplish very nearly everything you can do in Flash without damaging usability. Flash is still great for a lot of things (so far that I know, no one’s written (yet) an HTML5 data charting library), but it’s at its best when it’s used to enhance a semantic UI rather than to reinvent the wheel.

Even Adobe makes a version of this argument. John Nack, the Photoshop Guy but also one of the company’s most public and most honest online faces, observes that Adobe is in the business of “helping people communicate.” What he means is that Flash was designed to fill a specific gap in the Internet ecology, but that the future isn’t and doesn’t have to be about Flash. Now, he thinks that Adobe will find that niche and not someone else, and given their resources Nack may well be right. But the broader point is that the Internet will survive without Flash.

I wonder how well some see this. For instance, Joe Balderson, a Flash developer, thinks that Apple is doing this so they have control over the platform. There may be a component to this (he suggests it’s about the App Store), but I see no reason Adobe or Apple couldn’t pioneer a method to encapsulate a standalone Flash application on the iPhone just like Adobe Air. Then it could be sold in the App Store through the same (vaguely insane) process as Objective-C applications.

It’s worth taking into account Balderson’s broader argument that Flash is basically inextricable from the Internet. There are some places where this is certainly true: charting in Flash is bad enough (charts are the best thing about Flex!) but the idea of implementing a dynamic charting library with nothing but Ajax, big emphasis on the J, makes my head hurt. It would also in all likelihood be almost as slow as the Flash Player.

But at the same time, I think Flash is at its best when it’s used to alter the presentation of content or to add content, and at its worst when it provides the UI or wraps the content in such a way that it’s impossible to access it except in Flash. For instance, copy and paste is pretty much critical to me compiling this column, and has been the aid of every under-skilled hack like me since it became possible to get text as digital data. Unless a Flash application has its own method for copy and paste, I can’t get at any text or links encapsulated in a Flash application. If Balderson’s blog were implemented in Flash, I would have no practical way of quoting him!

Michael Heilemann, a UI designer and Web developer, really hits the nail on the head. In an article about the technical limitations of Flash in terms of the tablet interface (what’s a click? what’s a hover? what’s a drag?) he makes what I think is the most salient point in this group: in computing, the future of hardware is proprietary and the future of software is open.

To me this is just right. Think of this like an old-fashioned POTS phone network. Anybody can build a phone, and innovate on features, because there’s an open standard everyone has to use when it comes to voice communication over copper wires. (I know it’s a little more complex than this, because that standard is government-mandated and enforced, but so is road-building, people, and I don’t hear any wailing about that. Yet.)

For all the things that have gone wrong since United States vs. AT&T in 1982 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there’s no question that the independence of network operator (the software, in this analogy) and hardware vendor led to a lot of cool features. You can get caller ID notification on your TV, have an outgoing answering machine recordings, etc.

And open standards on the Internet have the same sort of effect. If the future is in Flash, then Adobe is going to tell us what’s next…and if the future is in open standards, we’ll find out organically when we get there.

Apple Is Better Off Not Supporting Flash

There are those who will tell you that Apple would do well not to hitch their wagon to Adobe, and that the iPad is better off without it. These are not technical evangelists (see above section) but Rooseveltian pragmatists who have used Flash on other mobile platforms and on their desktop computers and don’t want it there for one reason or another.

A quick round-up:

  • Morgan Adams, a Flash developer, suggests that in a touch-based UI it’s very difficult to discern the difference between different kinds of clicks. And of course, Flash relies very heavily on these differences!
  • Robert Scoble points out, from a pragmatist’s perspective, the spread of HTML5 technologies means that support for Flash in its current incarnations will probably become optional. Adobe’s best hope is an innovation above and beyond what it does now, which HTML5 intends to replace. He imagines, in broad strokes, a world where HTML5 is the baseline and Flash the add-on for additional, better experience.
  • The LA Times’ Mark Milian notes that the challenge for Apple is that the future may be without Flash, but they run the risk, he says, of alienating the present. He quotes Adobe’s Adrian Ludwig as saying that “HTML5 is probably going to be around standardization in, maybe, 10 years”—an eternity. Ludwig has a vested interest in saying that, but even if it’s 4–5 years, that would relegate the iPad to the same niche as the iPhone, of a device that is a slave to the master computer, rather than the primary user device Apple seems to imagine it could be.
  • Even Adobe acknowledges that its performance on mobile devices is, at best, bad. Since Apple prides themselves on the performance and battery life of the iPad (it has a new, Apple-driven CPU in it!) I don’t think they’re going to burn up the iPad’s battery or drive down its perceived performance with Flash. I mean, even light Flash use tends to drive the CPU in my work-issued 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro up to near 100% and eat up all its battery time. It even makes my work PC, an old Dell GX280, emit an audible whine! (What a piece of crap that computer is.) Let’s fix that before we ruin the mobile platform.

You may have also heard that there’s going to be a Flash Player for Android and Windows Phone 7 (this is unofficial, but I’m hearing it will not be coming to Windows Mobile 6.5, just Windows Phone 7).

So the big question is, will enough people buy these Windows Phone and Android devices to outweigh Apple’s holdout status?

In Other News…

A good hack never writes a transition. He just puts in a lead-in like that!

  • While we’re on the subject of the iPad, Mario García, the newspaper design/redesign guru, imagines the future of the media industry in the iPad infrastructure. Frankly, a lot of us expected more from the New York Times demo than an iPad-ized Times Reader, and the fact that they refuse to give up their lovely-in-print custom weights of Cheltenham makes my eyeballs hurt. (Cheltenham is beautiful in print, even if it is impossible to read in all caps. But on screen, it’s criminal.) García imagines what the NYT couldn’t bother to do: invent a world where you click on an article, authorize a dime to the content provider, and then read it.

    Apple has the best infrastructure for seamless micropayments on the Internet, as he points out, and even if Apple only passed 5–7 cents to the provider, it would keep at least a little of the cost burden of reading a periodical (pointed not calling them newspapers) on the reader. Let’s imagine a hypothetical: I currently pay a buck six days a week to read the Daily Paper on the rack. With the iPad, if the Daily Paper gave me a quota each day of 10 free articles and then charged 10 cents, I would be able to read 20 articles for the price of the daily paper (or 15 in Chicago, say, where the Sun-Times and Tribune are only 50¢). That’s about how much of the newspaper I read each day. Anything less and I’m ahead; anything more and the Daily Paper is ahead. It’s a game that virtually demands that media companies compete on value and content, and one where I think almost everyone wins. (And where the losers probably weren’t putting good content in print either!)

    Let’s extend this hypothetical a little further. Newspaper surveys consistently say that most print readers buy the Sunday paper for the ads! (And for the weekly TV listings.) A media company could produce a weekly all-advertising section for the iPad, charge 50 cents for that with the ability to clip coupons, and give all the rest of your content away for free on Sundays—and probably make money.

    Worth considering, since a lot of the pre-announcement iPad hype was about its impact on the media.

  • Did you wonder after the announcement how any other company will compete with the iPad, having seen it? Matt Gemmell tries to imagine what that conversation would be like:

    Your usual tactic is to simply copy the industrial design of the most successful product, reduce the price, then adopt a pump and dump strategy until your next quarterly financials… [but] I think you might be on a dead-end track without even realising it.

  • Brent Simmons writes NetNewsWire for iPhone (and Mac). He blogged all about his transition from using Core Data to writing straight SQLite queries in the next version of NetNewsWire. If you’re a SQL lover like me or a programming geek, I think his experience is really worth reading.

  • John Gruber (you knew I couldn’t write a column without the Macosphere’s most prolific blogger) is off to the races about the controversy over “sexy” apps on the iPhone. Did you know there was a controversy? I didn’t until last Thursday. Apparently there are still apps in the near-porn mode for the iPhone, but only from established vendors. So this has, in Gruber’s words, “unsettled” a lot of developers. I can see that. At the same time, I think maybe some faint sound of the siren of doubt should have gone off in their heads to suggest that Apple would not allow girls in bikinis (or, to be fair, dudes in swimsuits) forever.

And that concludes this month’s almost all iPad/iPhone-related edition of Bloggable. Hope you can dig yourself out of snow in time for next month!

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