iPad's big risk

Lack of Flash could be a problem

Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, which hit the market April 3, is already drawing plenty of praise from reviewers for its elegant design, long battery life, and easy-to-use applications.

But for regular Internet users, Apple’s decision not to support Adobe Flash, which powers much of the multimedia, animation and online advertising that moves across the Web, is seen as a notable shortcoming. For Web page designers, including those building government Web sites, the absence of Flash on an iPad will mean users won’t be able to experience a variety of rich Internet applications that support bidirectional audio and video and manipulate vector and raster graphics.

Apple’s Steve Jobs didn’t pull any punches when asked about Apple’s decision to forgo Flash. During a forum following the ceremonious introduction of the iPad in January, Jobs said Apple does not support Flash because it is so buggy, according to a Wired magazine account. Whenever a Mac crashes, more often than not it’s because of Flash, he said, adding that Adobe was “lazy” in fixing the the problem. (Adobe of course disagreed.) The world, Jobs continued, is moving to HTML 5.

That may be true, but not in time for the iPad, and probably not anytime soon.

HTML 5 represents the biggest leap forward in Web standards since the current (4.01) specification, which was completed in September 1999. Despite all the promise of HTML 5, few real-world Web sites support the proposed standard.

Ian Hickson, the editor of the HTML 5 specification, recently outlined the time table for HTML 5. Even assuming browser manufacturers embrace HTML 5 when it reaches the final draft stage, HTML 5’s widespread adoption isn’t expected before 2012. Worse, the final proposed recommendation won’t be released until 2022.

A number of intrepid players are plunging ahead anyway, however. Among them:

YouTube developed an HTML 5 application to support its video downloading service on the iPhone and now offers an experimental HTML 5 player as a way to watch video on non-Flash supported devices.

Vimeo, even before the iPad was announced, also included an option for viewers to switch to the HTML 5 player.

Brightcove has developed an application that automatically detects what format a device supports and dynamically switches between Flash and HTML 5 player templates to suit the viewer's device capabilities. Brightcove is reportedly being used by the New York Times and Time Inc.

Other video platforms are in the process of rolling out Flash-less video players, including blip.tv, which has an HTML 5 player in the works and DailyMotion.

Not to be outdone, even Adobe has been forced to meet the clamor of iPhone developers demanding tools that can create special export functions for Apple devices so that Flash applications can run as iPhone apps.

Meanwhile, Apple is pushing ahead with HTML 5 in its Safari 4 browser,  The result is a considerably leaner page than is rendered in HTML 4. No more lengthy embed and object tags for video content. And sophisticated animations can reach across the Internet without Flash, JavaScript or other auxiliary tools, meaning pages load faster and require less local browser memory.

Unfortunately, developer support for HTML 5 tools, even for Safari, has remained limited. That may change if iPad breaks out of the starting gate the way some analysts predict. But until then, you might not want to ditch your laptop quite yet.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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