Learnlets
Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

19 May 2010

Apple missing the small picture

Clark @ 7:06 am

I’ve previously discussed the fight between Apple and Adobe about Flash (e.g. here), but I had a realization that I think is important.  What I was talking about before was the potential to create a market place beyond text, graphics, and media, and to start capitalizing on learning interactivity. What was needed was a cross-platform capability.

Which Apple is blocking, for interactivity.

Apple allows cross-platform media players, whether hyperdocs (c.f. Outstart, Hot Lava, and Hybrid Learning) and media (e.g. video and audio formats are playable). What they’re not is cross-platform for interactivity.

Now, I understand that Apple’s rabidly focused on the customer experience (I like the usability), and limiting development to content is a way to essentially guarantee a vibrant experience.  And I don’t care a fig about the claims about ‘openness’, which in both cases are merely a distraction.  Frankly, I haven’t missed Flash on my iPhone or iPad.  I hardly miss it on my browser (I have a Firefox extension that blocks it unless I explicitly open them, and I rarely use it; and I browse a lot)!

What I care about is that, by not supporting cross-platform programs that output code for different operating systems (OS), Apple is hurting a significant portion of the market.

I came to this thought from thinking about how companies should want to go beyond media to the next level. There will be situations where navigable content isn’t enough, and a company will want to provide interactivity, whether it’s a dynamic user order configuration tool, a diagnostic tool, or a learning simulation.  There are times when content or a web-form just won’t cut it.

Big companies can probably afford dedicated programming to make these apps come to life on more than one platform: Windows Mobile, WebOS, Blackberry OS, Android, and iPhone OS (they need a name for their mobile OS now that the iPad’s around: MacOSMobile?), but others won’t.

What are small to medium sized companies supposed to do? They’d like to support their mobile workers with smartphones regardless of OS, but when they’re that 1-few person shop, they aren’t going to have the development resources.  They might have a great idea for an app, and they probably have or can get a Flash programmer, but won’t have the capabilities to develop separately across platform. And no one’s convinced me that HTML 5 is going to bring the capability to even build Quest, let alone a training game with characteristics like Tips on Tap.

Worse, how about not-for-profits, or the education sector?  How are these small organizations, with limited budgets, supposed to expand the markets?  How can anyone develop an ability to transcend the current stranglehold of publishers on learning content?

Yes, the cross-platform developer might not carry the latest and greatest features of the OS forward, but they’re meeting real needs.  There are the ‘for market’ applications, and the pure content plays, but there’s a middle ground that is going to increasingly comprehend the potential, but be shut out of the opportunity because they can’t develop a meaningful solution for their limited market that just needs capability, not polish.

I get that Flash isn’t efficient.  I note that neither Adobe or Apple talk about their software development practices, so I don’t know whether either use some of the more trusted methods of good code development like agile programming, PSP & TSP, or refactoring, but I think that doesn’t matter.  While I think in the long run it would be to their advantage, I think that even a slow and even slightly buggy version of a needed app would be better received and more useful than none.

I don’t have the email address to lob this at Steve directly like some have, but I’d like to see if he can comprehend and address the issue for the people caught in the situation where delivering interactivity could mean anything from more small-to-medium enterprise success, to meeting a real need in the community, to lifting our children to a higher learning plane, but they don’t have much in the way of resources.

Quite simply, a cross-platform interactivity solution really doesn’t undermine the Apple experience (look at the Mac environment), as it’s likely to be a small market. Heck, brand it as a 2nd Class app or something, but don’t leave out those who might have a real need for an easy cross platform capability.

I’m curious: do you think that the ability to go beyond navigable content to interactivity in a cross-platform way could be useful to a serious amount of people in a lot of little different pockets of activity?

8 Comments »

  1. You make some good points here, but I believe you need to really reconsider HTML5. I think it’s a bit more powerful than you think. Don’t think so? Take a look at Lords of Ultima. No, it’s not entirely HTML5, but it’s definitely not Flash (and it would run on your iPad if the Safari browser that is included had a little more support for things like textboxes).

    Sure, Flash is nearly ubiquitous in the programming world, but so are HTML and Javascript. Using a framework like Phonegap you can build an application that, with minor tweaks, will run on an iPhone, Android device or Blackberry and give API access to native functions (like GPS, for example). That same code can be used to develop a browser based application as well. You can’t tell me that a developer working in Flash won’t be able to pick up Javascript and HTML. If they can’t, then you need a new developer.

    I agree with you Clark, there is a need for a cross platform toolset that is easy to use. I think it’s already here though, and if people can get past arguing about Flash on the iPad/iPhone, etc and look at the viable alternatives, the solution is a lot easier than most think.

    Comment by Kris Rockwell — 19 May 2010 @ 7:30 am

  2. Kris, thanks for the update. I’m thrilled if HTML 5 can provide the type of cross-platform needed for simulation-, model-, rule-, etc -driven interaction. Phonegap looks very interesting, BTW. Will it pass Apple’s ban on non-Cx-based compilation?

    I agree that if they can learn Flash, they should be able to get on top of a new environment, though there’s always inertia.

    Great feeedback!

    Comment by Clark — 19 May 2010 @ 8:46 am

  3. Html5 is not even a completed spec – let alone ready to deploy your company’s solution to, that your bottom line counts on. The rich development IDE tools are lacking. Although Adobe is beginning to add stuff in CS5. Yes you can build stuff with html5/svg/js/canvas, like the doom game that 2 google developers put together. The issue there is that the small firms don’t have 2 google developers hanging around to build that stuff. Everything is about cost of entry/development. Can you produce and deliver a product/service at a price your customer is willing to pay? HTML5 is not ready to provide the depth and richness of these at the same cost:

    http://www.audiotool.com/
    http://aviary.com/
    http://www.sliderocket.com/index_c.html
    http://ironmanmovie.marvel.com/ (click “enter site”)

    I look at the ironman site and i think about the kind of svg files i’d need to draw and code against and it makes me want a stiff drink.

    Apple just does not care in the least about this niche. Elearning is not a money maker for them-it doesn’t sell more hardware or more apps for them. Small elearning content firms like mine are nothing to them. Apple makes it’s living off of raising the cost of entry and signing deals with big content boys to push more hardware/software sales.

    I don’t want to sound like it’s impossible to make interesting simulations, interactions, immersive experiences on the iPhone OS platform. You Can. There are some amazing iDevice apps that have interactions that they built for the app’s transitions in relation to the task they serve. The animation API’s are there but locked away in a decidedly programmer-ish workflow. How many firms can afford to carry an ObjC programmer to just port their flash content for 2 devices (given that is what Apple expects them to do)?

    Cost of entry is what it’s about – for Flash, iPhone OS Native Apps and html5.

    Another thing I’ve thought about while researching html5/js/svg/canvas workflows: how do you protect your content? How do you stop competition from view sourcing your immersive training experience and selling it as their own at 1/100th the cost? I know my bosses are very concerned about that.

    Comment by ethan — 19 May 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  4. HTML5 is not yet complete. I’m tried of everyone actin It will not be complete for a few more years and even then it will not replace Flash or other RIA platforms. JavaScript animations are getting better, but yet there are still a number of interactive + animation things you simply can’t do with JavaScript without a ton of effort.

    My take on the entire thing is that its a pissing contest between two large companies, but I think Apple is truly hurting themselves in the long run by limiting the tools developers can use. Developers don’t like being put in hand cuffs. Apple’s move will only further drive the rapid adoption of Android mobiles & soon coming tablets.

    Just my $0.02

    BTW… Flash Player 10.1 works well on my Google Nexus One. =)

    Comment by Lee Graham — 20 May 2010 @ 8:25 am

  5. In terms of learning and performance support: Evidently the majority of the elearning community is focused on the media or delivery format and completely misses the point of instructional methods and/or human factors. Some of the primary factors impacting learner satisfaction in online sessions are concerned with interactivity, immediacy, and opportunities for coaching and support. I have been observing a trend with the online learners I support for quite some time now: I see more and more learners seeking one-on-one interaction and feedback with the online instructor, mentor, colleague, support network, etc. on demand while at the same time they invest less time navigating and searching through information. This will only intensify as the amount of content and information we are asking learners to navigate through is on the increase.

    Comment by Maria Schutt — 21 May 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  6. These comments illustrate the problems. Kris, who I know and respect, tells me HTML 5 is the real deal. Two separate posters who I have no reason to doubt say HTML 5 isn’t ready for prime time. Google’s recent Froyo announcement throws down a few gauntlets, as well. May you live in interesting times.

    PhoneGap looks interesting, but as the Tweetstream mentioned recently, I kinda wish I had HyperCard for mobile!

    Maria, yes, it’s about the social network too, but the organizational and institutional need is to know what to provide and when, while developing learner’s abilities to help themselves. Much can be content, but there’s a role for interactivity (can you say games?) that I hope won’t go away, as there’s too much potential power to ignore.

    Comment by Clark — 22 May 2010 @ 10:55 am

  7. Clark, I think it depends. If your developing content for only mobile devices with a webkit based browser then html5/svg(vector and bitmap)/canvas(bitmap)/ js is a possible solution although cpu performance is key. I can see it being used in tightly controlled deployments. In my case we license content across a wide variety of clients so we need a reusable solution. HTML5 support is high on new smartphones, non existent on feature phones and blackberries right now, and low on desktop browsers. It really comes down to wide solid adoption numbers to make it work for us.

    If a company builds stuff internal or contracts for a custom job that supports the multiple devices then they can do it as long as the dollars are there for dev. I used to work for a purely custom elearning developer and that business model failed miserably.

    Licensing so you can spread out cost over time as well as pofit is the only way to go in my book. For us the dev tools, the standard, and the wide playback support has to be given more time to build up. Along with a way to protect our content from easy cut and paste theft.

    My biggest gripe is SJ’s running around presenting it like it’s the flip of the switch which then our clients start reciting. It’s patently untrue. I really look to Adobe to lead the drive on better HTML5 tools-only when they deploy the tools will it begin to be economical. Even then performance may not be what html5 geeks think it will be.

    Comment by ethan — 23 May 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  8. While I have followed the arguments back and forth for some time, I think people are missing two important things. First, Flash does not work on the dominate mobile ‘smart’ phone, RIM’s Blackberry. More than 50% (I think I am being conservative here) of the business world still uses these exclusively. Two, the absolutely best way to get Flash on the iPhone is to show that it does not suck the battery dry and provides great applications. If enough people ask for it or leave for another phone, you can bet that Apple may rethink their decision. On the other hand, if I had to carry my charger with me because Flash ate my battery every 4-5 hours, I think I have lost much more than I have gained.

    Companies that build all Flash sites almost always employ non-standard navigation to be ‘cool’ when IMO it is just irritating.

    Comment by John — 27 May 2010 @ 12:10 pm

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