The iPad 2: looks nice, plays ugly
The dust has begun to settle on the announcement of the new iPad 2 and first reaction has generally been positive. Not everyone’s persuaded, however. Darien Graham-Smith’s objection – The iPad 2: yes, but still, what’s it for? – is that it’s still just a cross between a glorified smartphone and cut-down netbook, so what’s the fuss?
Darien’s right: tablets are just another form of existing computers, but I think that they are as revolutionary as Apple claims. In particular I think they will come to provide our main platform for consuming web-based content. Key to this is the tablet’s new, book-like, handheld form factor which allows computers to become truly personal and enables their users to move on from merely browsing content to actively and immersively engaging with it (the activity previously known as “reading”).
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.
However, I won’t be buying an iPad for the foreseeable future. And I don’t think that you should either…
Apple v Flash: a matter of principle
The iPad isn’t designed to provide the best web-based experience, but to prevent it.
So why not? Follow the argument and it leads to fundamental principles of openness and choice, and a crucial fork in the road that will determine the very nature of the web, of computing and even of how we do business. On the surface it all comes down to the fact that the iPad 2 still doesn’t support Flash.
To most people this probably sounds trivial. Clearly the lack of Flash support is inconvenient – especially in a device supposed to be providing the best web experience – but is it really a deal breaker?
More to the point, surely it’s only a temporary inconvenience? After all wasn’t Steve Jobs’ main objection to Flash that it wasn’t suited to low-power devices? Clearly the iPad 2 is more than capable of supporting the new mobile-optimised Flash 10.1 player, so presumably it must now be in the pipeline? After all, why should Apple give Android such a clear advantage and selling-point? Just relax and wait for the iPad 3.
Well I don’t think that Flash or Silverlight support is coming and, when you unpick why, it reveals the iPad in a very different, unflattering and frankly sinister light.
Apple v Flash: war is declared
Personally the scales fell from my eyes when, the day before the launch of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5, 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. You could still produce them, but now there was no point as the only way to get apps through to end users is through the App Store which Apple controls, and now the company had unilaterally banned any apps that were in any way associated with Flash.
A tweak to Apple’s terms of service might again sound trivial but I was astonished and appalled. How could you possibly justify not supporting any means of writing native iOS applications? It meant that Apple was willing to deny its users choice and functionality and was willing to fight very dirty to damage Flash and to keep it off its devices.
The obvious question was: why?
The answer is simple: follow the money.
Why Apple hates Flash #1: Apps
Crucially, Apple doesn’t only make its profits from its devices. Much of its revenue also comes from native iOS apps that are only available via the App Store. Of course many of these are free but, when they aren’t, Apple takes a non-negotiable 30% of the price paid. Imagine the sort of money that Microsoft would have gained if it had taken 30% of every Windows application ever sold.
The danger for Apple would be if there was another way to deliver rich app-style functionality and deliver it outside of its App Store and, worst of all, deliver it independently of its devices. Step forward the cross-platform Flash and Silverlight players and the future of rich cloud-based computing based on browser-hosted Rich Internet Applications (RIAs).
Ultimately Steve Jobs wasn’t really concerned about Flash-derived native iOS apps and indeed has since backed down on this front. Rather, as his Thoughts on Flash show, Jobs’ hatred of Flash goes far deeper: he wants to drive the technology – currently installed on around 99% of internet-connected systems – off the web entirely.
As I wrote at the time (The fundamental differences between Flash and HTML and the real reasons that Steve Jobs wants to kill it) this 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.
Jobs’ Thoughts on Flash succeeded better than he could possibly have hoped. The message has come over crystal clear to developers (though not end users) that Apple has absolutely no intention of ever supporting cross-platform players.
At a stroke cross-platform Flash and Silverlight development has been deprived of its major and essential attraction – universality – and the move towards delivering truly internet-based rich internet applications has hit Apple’s brick wall. By walling off its users, Apple has managed to sabotage the development of the rich cross-platform web for everyone, not just its own users. Flash has indeed been damaged, and possibly terminally so, if Apple is not forced to change its policy.
In the meantime there is no alternative. 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.
Why Apple hates Flash #2: Content
It gets worse. It turns out that Apple has an even bigger incentive to keep Flash off its devices which goes to the very heart of the new handheld tablet form factor: its ability to replace paper as the future electronic delivery route for newspaper and magazine content.
Currently just about all newspapers and magazines are produced using the two main publishing packages, InDesign and QuarkXPress. For years both packages have been developing their ability to output rich and interactive designs to Flash, ready for the arrival of tablet-based delivery.
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.
Both Adobe and Quark have been forced to entirely rethink their electronic strategies, ditching Flash and coming up with brand new digital publishing platforms based upon native iOS readers.
I must admit that I thought that Apple’s anti-competitive behaviour and artificial restriction on iPad functionality – holding back tablet-based publishing for over a year – was an incidental by-product of the need to keep Flash off its devices to protect its apps revenue. After all, once the free reader apps were installed, surely the publisher would simply be free to deliver content to it and charge accordingly? Guess what?
Follow the money
In mid-February Apple unveiled its new App Store subscription service, allowing publishers of content-based applications – not only newspapers and magazine publishers, but video and music broadcasters – to offer recurring billing based on its In App Purchase API.
At the same time it announced that it was enforcing terms preventing iOS software from “utilising a system other than the In App Purchase API to purchase content, functionality, or other services in an app.” and that it was therefore banning a number of existing apps such as Sony’s eReader and digital library.
For good measure it also added new terms preventing apps linking to external websites to purchase subscriptions and banning the use of lower out-of-app subscription rates to undercut the in-app rate with its 30% tax. And just in case you thought you might have spotted a possible loophole, it also warned publishers that they cannot provide free iOS-based access as part of print-focused subscription packages.
Apple’s walled garden
Apple’s real business model is to hold its users hostage within its walled garden and then to charge heavily for access to them. This isn’t “insanely great”… it needs to be stopped.
Suddenly the billions in app revenue seem like very small beer. Apple wants a non-negotiable 30% of every commercial transaction (revenue, not profit) in any way associated with its devices. And it wants it for ever with absolutely no possibility of competition.
Worse, Apple is claiming this enormous prize for one reason alone: it’s holding its users hostage within its walled garden and then charging for access to them.
Even more incredible: Apple is getting away with it. The developers, publishers and other providers can’t complain too loudly because they can’t afford to fall out with Apple – not when it owns the App Store and so controls the only way in to the walled garden.
Meanwhile the end users and reviewers seem to be so dazzled by their brilliant hardware and apps that few of them seem that interested in what’s going on behind the scenes and outside the wall.
The iPad revolution
Yes the iPad is truly revolutionary, but not in the way that Apple would like you to think.
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.
Apple’s refusal to support cross-platform web standards and its walled-garden strategy goes entirely against the extensible nature of HTML and the open cross-platform principles on which the web is built. At the same time its anti-competitive App Store, with its unavoidable 30% tax, goes against all established business standards.
Ultimately it’s not the beautiful design and engineering that makes Apple unique, it is the company’s ugly business model and practices. The iPad isn’t designed to provide the best web-based experience, but to prevent it. Rather than ushering in the future of internet-based computing, Apple is squatting on it.
The Android Alternative
Thankfully there is an alternative. Despite Apple’s new slogan “it’s not a tablet, it’s iPad 2”, there is nothing inherently different about the iPad; it really is just a handheld computer. 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.
Crucially Android’s unlocked tablets will also support traditional, open competition free of Apple’s 30% tax and 100% control.
Thanks to Android there is an alternative to Apple and so no reason that we should allow Steve Jobs to divert and subvert the rich future of the open web.
The iPad 2 might look attractive but that hides a much darker side. Now isn’t the time to buy into Apple’s walled garden; now is the time to break free and – ideally – break it open.