Commentary: An iPad By Any Other Name

This week's unveiling of the Apple iPad, which CEO Steve Jobs called his greatest work, was an attempt to define a "third space" between two of the companies incredibly popular mobile (iPhone) and desktop/laptop (Mac) product lines.

Media pundits immediately jumped on the name of the device, even noting that MADtv aired a skit more than two years ago about a fictional iPad. More vexing for Apple is the fact that Fujitsu claims that it rightfully owns the name, trademarking it in 2002 for a device the company never brought to market. Fujitsu let the trademark lapse in early 2009, but reapplied for it in June. Apple now has until February 28 to make the case for its right to use the name.

But the name is only one of many things being criticized about the iPad. Picking up the San Jose Mercury News in a bagel shop yesterday in downtown San Jose, I noticed the front page news was dominated by the iPad announcement, including an actual-size shot of the device with captions next to many of the on-screen icons. Many of the captions, though, highlighted individual features and shortcomings that the editorial staff thought an iPad would need to address if it competes in this third space.

Apple's tendency to take a select few hardware and software features, from the hundreds or thousands of possible options, and minimize them down into consumer bite-sized chunks is well known: Starting with the iPod, which was late to the portable media device market but has come to define the essence of portable audio, Apple has followed a trend that is less "fast follower" and more of "take the time to get it right."

This tendency to sit back and get it right was a highly visibile game-changer the year the iPhone was announced. I remember shuttling between MacWorld and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that year, which were held back to back. Once Jobs had announced the iPhone, the following day's CES exhibit floor vibe was almost funereal as many smartphone competitors who had put out "me, too" devices that competed with the hot product of the day were suddenly left empty-handed against a device that had clear web and user interface benefits.

This is not to say Apple's hardware and software design are perfect; as someone who uses both Mac laptops and Windows desktops/netbooks, there are PC hardware features that I would very much like to see on the Mac. Apple's propensity to drop technologies, only to bring them back a model or two later, leaves orphaned devices whose functionality and resale value are both sub-standard.

The same could be said for the ability to multi-task on the iPhone (beyond just the ability to make a call and surfing the web) and the lack of a physical keyboard. Yet the company's non-computing devices, even if they are equally aesthetically pleasing and functionally maddening to the power user, strike the right balance for the average consumer.

The iPad appears to be the one exception to this rule, however, in that its role as a middle ground between the iPhone and the Mac has skewed much more towards the iPhone. Or perhaps even more closely to a giant iPod touch.

Without a camera or the ability to make voice calls, and with the base unit only using Wi-Fi instead of 3G broadband data, the iPad's role as an oversized iPod touch means that Apple really doesn't intend it as a computer replacement.

The lack of the camera, especially a front-facing one, means a potentially price-shattering videoconferencing dust-up has been narrowly avoided by Cisco's Tandberg, LifeSize and Polycom. But don't rest on your laurels, folks: It's coming, as Apple's recent patent filings show the company is aligning its resources to integrate the camera behind the 9.7" (diagonal) screen that would allow direct camera capture by simply staring at the screen.

And, as Dan Rayburn noted on his blog, the device doesn't support 16:9 aspect ratio video, nor does it have a built-in stand for watching video.

The more glaring omission, though, that all the pundits are scratching their heads over is the lack of Flash Player support.

After all, Apple tends to be a fair observer of trends, and Adobe claims over 95% penetration for its newest Flash Player 10.0 release on desktops, laptops, and netbooks. Since Jobs is clearly aiming at the "second computer" netbook market with the iPad's base $499 pricing, it leads to the natural question: What if the omission of Flash Player capability were an intentional broadside in a larger war?

If it is intentional, I think the issue may revolve around video delivery.

Adobe claims 75% of all web video is delivered via the Flash Player, with most of it delivered via its Flash Media Server, with claims that its market share continues to grow, Apple, on the other hand, only allowed HTTP streaming on the iPhone and iPod Touch. The iPad appears to continue Apple's anti-Flash strategy.

Adobe, like Apple, is a company with one foot in the proprietary/closed system world and one in the standards worlds. On one hand, Adobe wraps up a significant number of standards into its products, especially in its Dreamweaver web development and Premiere/After Effects video production tools. On the other hand, it has the proprietary SWF—the closest we've ever been to the decade-old MPEG-4 system specification—and a bevy of codec formats that lean more toward the proprietary than the standards-based. The latter is changing with the move towards H.264, although the F4V file wrapper still lacks some of the benefits of the proprietary FLV format (such as alpha channel capability).

Another possible reason for the lack of Flash on Apple's mobile devices is the resource intensity of the Flash player, compared to the use of HTML resources in WebKit, the basis for the Safari browser. Anyone who's been involved in web delivery long enough to remember XHMTL, DHTML, and other dynamic versions of HTML knows that the intent of HTML 5 is to bring a level of interactive (and animation) sophistication directly within the Internet's native language, with the byproduct of speeding up delivery and limiting plug-in bloat (or plug-ins in general). The iPad doesn't do multi-tasking between applications, so a resource-intensive player running in the background may not be in Apple's best interest as it tries to juggle maximum battery life and performance.

The brewing war surrounding HTML 5 video, which we've covered before, is one that Apple's not been known to shrink from. Given the uncertainty around Google's acquisition of On2 and its intent for the VP6, VP7, and VP8 codecs, there is enough leeway for Apple to skirt the inclusion of Flash video playback in the first version of the iPad.

All of this, of course, is conjecture, as Apple will not ship the Wi-Fi version for 60 days, with an additional 30 days required for the 3G version; in that timeframe, Adobe may bring to market its Flash Player 10.1 version, which is geared as much toward smartphones as it is toward desktop machines (and so likely will at least include a version that is less resource-intensive). That still might not eliminate Apple's issues with adding Flash to a "third space" device, but it's certainly a start.

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