heard on the wire

Why the iPad 2 is rubbish and you shouldn’t buy it, redux

Tom Arah, writing on the usually reasoned PC Pro blog, won’t be buying an iPad 2, not because it’s rubbish¹, per se but for one simple reason, Flash.

Or more specifically, the lack of Flash and what that apparently tells us about Apple, Steve Jobs and the frightening nature of the iOS “walled garden”.

But the problem with Arah’s argument is that it’s full of untruths and misdirections.

Personally the scales fell from my eyes when Apple announced that it was changing its terms of service to ban third-party development tools. This deliberately hostile act completely undercut what should have been the star capability of the new Flash Professional CS5, its ability to produce native iOS apps. … I was astonished and appalled.

Unfortunately for Arah, Apple subsequently reversed that decision. If you still can’t use Flash tools to create iOS apps, that decision lies with Adobe, not Apple.

The real reasons that Steve Jobs wants to kill [Flash] isn’t actually because of Steve Jobs’ surprising and less than convincing belief in open standards, but rather the opposite: his absolute determination to stop the browser-based web becoming a platform for rich device-independent applications.

Why “surprising”? Why “less than convincing”? What evidence is there to suggest that Apple has done anything but embrace, implement and encourage open standards over the past 10 years? Admittedly, it has done so for its own ends, but the benefits have been felt across the web. Take Google, whose Chrome and mobile web browsers are based on WebKit, an open source project conceived and created at Apple.

Meanwhile Adobe has tried to push us into a closed, proprietary format that, three years down the line, still hasn’t been successfully implemented on mobile, touchscreen devices. So much for “rich device-independent applications”.

Developers realise that if they want to access the lucrative iPad market – and they do – then they need to do it the Apple-approved way. That either means producing comparatively design-poor HTML5 apps (think free) or signing up to become an xCode-based rich iOS apps developer and accepting Apple’s terms of $99 a year and 30% of any sales.

HTML5 apps are only design poor if built by poor designers. No one would suggest that Apple’s Mobile Me apps are design poor; likewise Gmail might be ugly as sin, but it provides original and outstanding functionality. The limitations of HTML5 and its co-conspirators, CSS and JavaScript, are increasingly the limitations of the developer not of the tools.

As for Apple’s fees, Arah makes it sound as if developers get nothing in return. The $99 includes access to all Apple’s technical documentation and developer support forums, free access to all developer tools, and access to all iOS software betas. The 30% commission means the developer has no hosting fees and no bandwidth fees and their apps are made instantly available on every iOS device. Of course if Apple’s commission is so egregious, an “anti-competitive, unavoidable 30% tax [that] goes against all established business standards” according to Arah, developers can always switch to the Android platform, where Google charges, yes, a 30% commission.

When the first tablet did appear, everyone simply assumed that the iPad would naturally embrace such rich Flash content. Or they did until Steve Jobs made it clear that he had other intentions and that, amazingly, Apple’s devices would be kept a Flash-free zone. If publishers want to access the lucrative iPad userbase – and they do – then they need to do it the Apple way through native apps.

No they didn’t. Steve Jobs made it perfectly clear what he thinks of Flash, in Thoughts on Flash, which Arah has previously cited, but appears not to have read. Sure publishers wanted free access to the iPad, but why should Apple treat them as a privileged group? Ironically it’s not the lack of Flash that’s likely to hamper the development of digital publishing, but Apple’s new, and heavy-handed, rules on subscription payments (on this Arah and I agree, though I don’t agree with his argument that publishers should, by right, be free to deliver content to a device).

In fact publishers could deliver daily subscriptions via a web app and Safari — with its robust support for open web standards — and charge whatever they like without paying Apple a penny, or cent.

Ultimately the iPad is not about providing the best web experience to end users, in fact quite the reverse. By trying to kill Flash and Silverlight development and so restricting the browser-based web to HTML, Apple is deliberately holding back its full potential to ensure that the next generation of rich internet apps and rich internet content are artificially tied to its own devices and routed through its App Store.

Silverlight, seriously? When was the last time anyone encountered a web page with a blank space and a notice requiring Silverlight? As for Flash, try turning it off (or blocking it) on your computer and you’ll see how much faster the internet is without it and how less frequently it crashes. And the absence of all those beyond irritating Flash ads, well now we get to the real reason why Adobe is so keen on Flash. It has nothing to do with pie in the sky notions of “device independent rich internet apps” and everything to do with revenue streams from Flash advertising. Video aside — and lets remember that most web video will play on iOS devices — Flash is an advertising medium most web users can do without. As Apple’s iAd shows, it is possible to deliver “rich”, “interactive” advertising using free, open web standards.

The coming invasion of Android tablets will do all the things that the iPad can and will also support Flash as well as AIR (for offline apps) and Silverlight and any other cross-platform web standards that come along as the future of rich cloud-based computing develops.

I look forward to it; competition is a good thing. But I’m yet to be convinced by the prospect of the promised land of Flash and AIR. This is what happens when you use Motorola’s Android-based Xoom tablet to visit it’s own website, a far cry from the promise of “the full internet”.

The only flash that the Xoom has is the one next to its camera, meanwhile “Adobe® Flash® 10 Player will be available as a free download…”. Since 2008 Adobe has been telling us that all it needs is the go-ahead from Apple; it’s had the go-ahead from Google Android for more than a year. Motorola must be very impressed.

I’ll leave the last word to Arah.

Apple, as well as pioneering the tablet format, currently produces the best implementation of it and the iPad 2 will raise the bar even higher. Moreover, by providing a superior system for the same price, end users will clearly be getting more for their money.


¹ Why the iPad 2 is rubbish and you shouldn’t buy it, by someone who hasn’t used it

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5 Responses

  1. Sean says:

    If Flash is an invaluable part of your web experience, then you’re doing the internet wrong.

    The reason I will never buy an iPad: I already have a reliable laptop and an iPhone. Having an iPad will be of no advantage to me.

  2. Paul says:

    One big problem I can see with Flash on any tablet device with a touch based interface is the touch part. A lot of Flash content is designed for keyboard/mouse operation with small buttons or the need for keys to be pressed. That is because that is how Flash has been deployed for over a decade.

    I can imagine the howls of dismay as people try to play their favourite Flash based game on their touch device only to find that the “Hit Space to Fire” part doesn’t work. Not only does Flash need to cater for a touch based interface, but so does EVERY SINGLE Flash implementation out there that relies on user feedback of some form. That will be Adobe’s and the Flash developer’s problem to sort out.

    It’s a bigger issue than many imagine, and I’d say that by making a clean break of it, Apple is doing us all a huge favour. I’d rather have no Flash than a “kind of/sort of works” implementation which will look bad and offer more frustration than functionality.

  3. Andy says:

    What are iPads actually for? My wife has one, which she loves, and uses for getting online quickly to check/update social networks and play Angry Birds. This is probably the majority use for iPads. Most users don’t know what Flash is and care even less. Youtube works, Facebook works, iPlayer works; for most people that’s enough.

  4. ThatKeith says:

    Yep, spot on. Flash is now primarily an advertising medium. Why should I care about that? Other mainstream uses are largely catered for; h.264 video is almost universally delivered in iOS-friendly as well as Flash-friendly forms. Panoramas can be delivered surprisingly effectively using HTML5. Flash necessary? Do me a favour…

  5. […] reviews the Playbook, the Flash tablet from BlackBerry-maker RIM that was going to kill the rubbish iPad 2. …the PlayBook’s software suffers from several missteps and oversights, especially in […]

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