Apple’s recent iPad announcement had a strong impact on three groups: broadcasters, technology enthusiasts, and just about anyone concerned with the survival of the newspaper industry. Since discussions in these areas provide a great view of the iPad’s strengths and weaknesses, I thought that I would detail them here.
The iPad is best likened to a large iPod touch; though one model will have cellular capabilities, it’s only for data transmission, not for telephony (though you could use it to make calls via Skype). The hardware runs iPhone OS, which means that it’s compatible with the 140,000 or so apps in the Apple App Store. With a screen resolution of 1024×768, the iPad is big enough to browse the web. But it’s not compatible with Flash, so if you surf over to a Flash-enabled site, you may see a lot of missing plug-in messages. If you want to create a webpage with video that’s viewable on the iPad, you’ll need to design in HTML 5, the proposed next-generation web markup language.
Apple’s specifications indicate that the iPad will play 720p video encoded in H.264 format. But 720p is 16:9 and has more horizontal pixels (1280) than the iPad itself. This first point means that it will display the 720p video either using a center-cut approach that cuts off the sides or will letterbox the top and bottom to fit the entire video. Since the screen can’t display 1280 pixels without scaling down, it makes more sense to encode at 1024×576—if you want to show the video with letterboxing, or 1024×768—a 4:3 display aspect ratio, if you prefer the center-cut approach.
For the broadcaster’s perspective, I spoke with Peter Scott, executive director of digital partnerships for Turner Sports New Media, who manages web broadcasts for the NBA, NASCAR, and the PGA. Scott comments that Turner was very interested in the iPad as the “potential game-changer” that will garner lots of attention for the next few months. Timing will be an issue, at least for Turner’s NBA product, since the season will be winding down before iPads are generally available.
Turner has lots of development balls in the air, so prioritization is challenging, though I got the feeling that iPad support is more a matter of when than if. Scott does indicate that if Turner supports the device, it will likely treat the iPad as a large iPhone/touch device, servicing it with an application downloaded from the App Store and delivering video via Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming technology.
Briefly, HTTP Live Streaming lets you post multiple files to a server and adaptively switch between them based upon factors such as connection speed, buffer levels, and CPU load. For example, at last year’s PGA Championship, Turner produced three streams: one at 126Kbps, the next at 450Kbps, the top at 800Kbps, and all at 400×224 resolution. Scott indicated that Turner will likely customize the application for the iPad’s larger screen resolution and add at least one higher-resolution video stream. But he can’t predict the resolution or data rate until he gets a unit in for testing.
From a technology perspective, the advanced StreamingMedia.com listserv was abuzz about Apple’s decision not to support Flash. For those in favor of Apple’s decision, it was a win for standards and standards-based design, specifically HTML 5, the muchheralded next-generation web development language.
There was also a side order of “Flash just takes too many system resources to run smoothly” thrown in for effect. Flash promoters quickly pointed out the irony of Apple being the poster child for any open standard, stating that the motivation for not supporting Flash was purely financial. If the iPhone/iPad/touch trilogy could play Flash-based games or use Flash-based rich-internet applications, it would cut into Apple’s App Store revenue.
The debate got so fierce that Adobe’s CTO released a lengthy post detailing how Flash ran successfully on almost all other smartphones from vendors such as Google, RIM, Nokia, and Palm and how it enables their users to “browse the whole web.” He also pointed out that HTML 5 won’t supplant the features offered by Flash “today, or even in the foreseeable future,” and that the company is ready to enable Flash in the i-device Safari browser “if and when Apple chooses to allow that.”
Finally, there was a raging debate in newspaperland as to whether the iPad would provide a much-needed revenue stream for newspapers or further attenuate the relationship between paper and reader. For insight I called Regina McCombs, who’s on the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.
On one hand, McCombs explains, some newspaper publishers feel that the iPad will allow the publishing of a newspaper in a novel, highly readable format. It might also provide the vehicle for newspapers to charge for their digital editions, something that’s coming along very slowly. The other view is that if you sell your product through iTunes, you risk losing your customers to Apple.
McCombs notes that the iPad has vastly accelerated discussions regarding HTML 5, which she says were very rare before its launch. But she feels that most journalism professionals were very comfortable with Flash, especially for video, and that few are confident that HTML 5 could replace the current functionality of Flash.
I have no idea whether the iPad will succeed as a product or not. But it’s clear that it’s already been a lighting rod for change and discussion in multiple market segments and is sure to keep people talking and debating its significance for months to come.