iPad vs the Open Web

There’s so much buzz about the iPad you can taste it! And it ain’t all minty! I got my paws on one Tuesday afternoon, and found it not revolutionary as Apple prophesied, but rather as many have described: a big iPod Touch (which is essentially a phone-less iPhone).


Now like the iPhone/Touch the iPad can use thousands of “apps”– miniature applications developed solely for use on iPhone/iTouch/iPad, and sold through the Apple store. What’s always been disconcerting about the app development process is that Apple controls not only the specifications for apps, but also restricts what apps are made available for use on their product, censors content, and even denies what technologies can be used to produce such apps.

Apple has the right to do all this, of course–it’s their device. Even though the approach out-M$s Microsoft, Apple’s restrictions on production and content of the apps is only one side of a larger problem. What really concerns me is how Apple’s app model will impact digital content on the open web, and I’m not talking about Flash.

The Web as an App

We’ve seen already a number of apps that replicate core functionality of web sites. We’re starting to see more apps produced by content providers as a supplement to their existing web-based content (e.g. Wired, NPR, WSJ). But how long until this supplement supplants the web-based stream? How long until consumers are hooked into fee-based access to this content under the illusion that it’s only available through the app?
I believe Apple has been rather insidious, if clever, in their iPhone/iPad app model, wherein the closed nature of their system requires a kind of fake innovation in the development of “new” apps that do little more than their web-based cousins; certainly little more than what’s already possible with a web browser and a little creative use of standards-based web languages. Instead, these appear to be little more than an opportunity for approved providers to elicit fees in new ways from end-users.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for businesses finding new ways to make money by improving service or a product, but is that what we are getting here? The drive to develop web-based products as apps seems entirely backwards, for we already have the one tool we need to facilitate mobility of both content and services: the standards-compliant web browser. What technologies do we need? Not C, C++, or even Flash, but how about HTML, CSS, Javascript, XML, and PHP? How about the open web standards that have facilitated the information access revolution we are experiencing?

Now a “special” path to mobile device development is nothing new; even the W3 tried to sell us on HDML rather than alternative CSS and minimalistic but semantically correct XHTML. But I think time has proven that this is wasted effort in the face of a broadly-accepted, dually-purposed web site constructed on sound principles of web design and utilizing creative applications of open technologies. Even NPR seems to prove this point by the fact that it has not only released it’s own iPad app, it’s also reworked it’s web site to be “iPad-friendly” for those who don’t want to download the (free) app. And at first glance it looks like the web site provides the same essential features.

Enter Blackboard

As expected, in an attempt to capitalize on the iPad buzz and finally make good on years of broken promises for mobile accessibility, Blackboard has unveiled its iPad app, which

recreates the course experience of Blackboard Learn™ … and lets students check grades and assignments, add discussion board comments and blog posts, email instructors and classmates

How stunningly innovative! I surely couldn’t do any of that on a mobile web browser?

I probably rehash this example too often, but I remember sitting in a session at a WebCT conference 5 years ago that was supposed to reveal WebCT’s innovations in mobile delivery of content. Turned out the WebCT rep had nothing to share, but hoped to take ideas from the audience. Disappointed, I turned to my Palm Treo phone and did some grading through Blazer on Moodle. Though the HTML, CSS, and Javascript of Moodle was still disappointingly primitive at the time, it was just good enough that the weak Blazer browser could handle it, and demonstrated the power of using open web standards.

Michael Feldstein suggests that this sort of “innovation” will promote the iPad itself, saying, “if I were a student or faculty member heavily using Blackboard and thinking about buying an iPad, I might find this app to be an additional motivator to buy one”. I bet Bb is hoping the reverse of this will be true: that by providing all their students with an iPad colleges like Seton Hill and George Fox will create a scenario that fits just right with their particular e-learning solution, which is “the industry leader” with full support for “mobile devices”.

This restrictive piping of information that we currently take for granted on the open web is of greatest concern to educators, perhaps, because it has the potential to retard the development of new models of learning. I don’t mean “learning by doing”, though iPad’s failure to support creative production is notable (Jeff Jarvis writes, “It turns us back into an audience again”); I mean particularly developing models that encourage increased learner self-regulation and networked direction along variable learning paths. Such models require access–both broad and deep–to information and depend upon content aggregation, parsing, and re-dissemination. These capabilities have only recently begun to be realized through the open web, thanks in large part to web standards. What schism might the apps model cause in this new standard of information accessibility? What locks and limitations may now encrust upon the ideals of the open web?