Yehuda Katz is a member of the Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and jQuery Core Teams; his 9-to-5 home is at the startup he founded, Tilde Inc.. There he works on Skylight, the smart profiler for Rails, and does Ember.js consulting. He is best known for his open source work, which also includes Thor and Handlebars. He travels the world doing open source evangelism and web standards work.

The Irony of the iPad: A GREAT Day for Open Technologies

With the announcement of the iPad, the usual suspects have come out decrying a closed, proprietary, fully locked down system.

For instance, a story on the top of Hacker News today says:

This is what I asked in January 2007 on this site, shortly after the original iPhone was launched:

“1. Will Apple lock down the iPhone, blocking Flash, Java, custom widgets, and open development from its new platform?

2. Could Apple’s multi-touch patents actually stifle growth of new, interactive displays?”

Unfortunately, that turned out to prescient

And the FSF is out there calling this an unprecedented march of DRM:

With new tablet device, Apple’s Steve Jobs pushes unprecedented extension of DRM to a new class of general purpose computers

It’s a fair initial reaction. Apple didn’t build a general-purpose computer as its next entry into the market. Instead, they built a heavily proprietary, locked down device. In order to install an application onto the device, Apple must approve the application.

I don’t need to address the merits of the argument against how Apple handles native applications, because it’s irrelevant. A much, much larger force is at work here.

With the iPad, Apple has created two platforms. First, they have produced a heavily proprietary, native platform that requires Apple approval and has significant Apple restrictions. But ironically, with their heavy focus on improving the quality of Safari and the HTML standard, they have shipped the iPad with a platform based on open, unencumbered technologies.

If you haven’t been paying attention, over the past couple of years, the web platform has gotten offline APIs, improved caching support, local storage (on Safari, that includes an on-device SQLite database accessible through JavaScript), CSS-based animations, and custom, downloadable fonts. Mobile Safari has support for gestures, Geolocation, and hardware-accelerated graphics.

Additionally, Apple has remained at the forefront of these technologies, literally building some of them for mobile devices (hardware-accelerated animations were built for the iPhone, and by extension, the iPad). The Open Source Webkit project has remained extremely active, and in fact, has only accelerated progress since Apple first released its Native SDK, so Apple’s “locked down” strategy has a very carefully carved out intentional exception.

Apple even makes it easy to take a web app and put it on the home screen amongst normal apps. When you do this, the iPhone downloads all the assets in the HTML5 cache manifest to make the work better as an offline app. This is how I use Gmail on my iPhone (because Google knows what’s going on in this space, they leverage new tech in Safari quite well). When Apple rejected Google Voice, Google immediately built a Safari version of the app. The way they tell it:

Already, Google says it is readying a replacement for the Google Voice app that will offer exactly the same features as the rejected app—except that it will take the form of a specialized, iPhone-shaped Web page

Ironically, despite claims that not allowing Flash or Java represent a victory for proprietary technologies and a loss for open technologies, they represent quite the opposite. By restricting the web platform on the iPhone and iPad to open, patent-free, technologies, Apple has created a highly desirable market for pure-HTML5 apps. This is, frankly, a win for supporters of open technologies.

44 Responses to “The Irony of the iPad: A GREAT Day for Open Technologies”

Guess there is a silver lining in all this. :)

This is a good thought, though I think HTML/JS/CSS still have a long ways to go to match what is possible on native apps. Stuff like access to the accelerometer, GPS signal, microphone, camera, etc. is still locked behind proprietary APIs, and is generally out of reach for “open technology”. If limited to web-based forms only, open software will remain a second-class citizen on this type of hardware for many years.

good thoughts. a small typo: “Google Voice” instead of “When Apple rejected Google Video”

I think you meant Google Voice rather than Google Video in your next-to-last paragraph. And here’s a link to the announcement yesterday of the new mobile Google Voice app:
I think you are right that this may be a big win for open web technologies.

Your argument sounds good on first glance.

But the trend of specialized native apps on iPhone to access web services – your Mint app, Facebook app, Yelp app, etc – marginalizes the browser and open web standards platform and ultimately makes it irrelevant. Apple has already showed those kinds of apps (MLB, for instance) running on the iPad during today’s announcement.

Damnit, Yehuda, I was halfway through writing a draft that says the same thing! ;-)

Suddenly powerful client-side tools like Cappuccino start to make sense. There are a ton of web apps and client-side Javascript-powered applications that could be built on this thing (and even charged for).

All well and good if you use it for it’s intended purpose, but I had great plans for this thing that can’t be satisfied by coding up in HTML5.

If i’m paying for it, I expect to use it how I want. Looking forward to the first to crack the OS.

3. Can you ask dumber questions?

Except nobody at the FSF complained about the lack of flash or java. They complained about the DRM app/book store and that now DRM in books will be heavily promoted (with the help of amazon apparently). The fact that it comes with a browser is irrelevant to that fact.

While the new Google Voice app works great, it also feels like a bandaid. There is no question in my mind that from a usability standpoint a “native” Google Voice app would have been superior. HTML 5 is great, but let’s use the right tools for the right job. You cannot fault developers for being frustrated with being forced into making technology/platform decisions against their judgements because of the closed nature of the Apple’s Touch platform.

DRM is used by Apple to restrict users’ freedom in a variety of ways, including blocking installation of software that comes from anywhere except the official Application Store, and regulating every use of movies downloaded from iTunes.

The FSF is clearly complaining about the app platform, and how the App store does not allow proprietary applications, a point I specifically discuss in my post.

They’re complaining about apps, books and movies being DRMed on the iPad and the fact that you’re not free to install whatever you want on it. The fact that is has a browser is irrelevant, they also use TCP for they connections to the internet which is an open protocol, yay…

> and how the App store does not allow proprietary applications

btw, this must be a typo, most apps on the app store _are_ proprietary apps.

Remember that Apple is about experience, not technology. That said, I think not allowing Flash and Java in the iPad is a plus. It compromises stability and smoothness of the system.

The moment Apple gives developers free and unfettered access to TCP without needing to go through the approval process that analogy will make sense.

That’s exactly my point, the fact that TCP is open and that the iPad comes with it doesn’t make it a “GREAT” device for Open Technologies if the rest of the OS is dedicated to DRM.

This is an interesting argument, and one I personally will take to heart.

However, some very important omissions:

First, it’s not fair to lump together Java and Flash. The OpenJDK is as unencumbered by patents as any technology. It’s free and open source, has a long history of community support, and one of the best options out there for cross-platform application development. Java on Android is an excellent example of what this environment can do. That’s nothing against other tools – as an Android developer begging Google for better native support, believe me, I recognize Java is not the right solution to every problem. But Java is a very, very different animal than Flash. (And incidentally, Java does nothing to “compromise stability,” hq. Bad Java does, but bad code in any language – JavaScript included – will make things less “smooth”!)

Second: HTML5 is not a magic wand for solving patent problems. See Apple’s own issues with OGG in the HTML5 video tag. Apple isn’t just trying to push H.264, either – they don’t own H.264, for one thing, or the patents around it. I think there are real concerns there.

Finally and most importantly, while I know web folks are excited about HTML and CSS, these alone do not an open platform make. Hardware and native applications matter, too. So while I agree with you under certain circumstances, you have to recall – especially for those of us doing applications that make intensive use of native code – that browsers alone are not the solution to every problem.

@Peter The fact is that Apple doesn’t need Java (or Flash) for the iPhone & iPad, but needs JavaScript. Fewer components means less headaches.

How is using HTML/JS/CSS a “win” when every other OS in the entire known universe can already do the exact same thing?

The iPad is one of the most restricted devices to hit the market, and the reason they made it so is because Apple stands to make a boatload of money through this highly DRM encumbered device.

In a year or two Apple will likely unlock, or at the least relax, some of the restrictions on the iPad, just as they did with the iPhone when viable competitors appeared on the market.

Embrace and extend. Thanks, Apple. (@_@)

What really scares me is the fact that in this hype of apps we are
getting into a more controlled and closed door arena of personal
computing. Apple remains the master of the grounds, an innovative cool
app needs the master approval to get in, if it conflicts with apple’s
interest it gets rejected. The entire distribution …will be controlled
by apple. Utilities are what keep a computing device in the market,
apple is very intelligently outsourcing this and controlling the
platform with gates (I applaud facebook for giving developers the
freedom). Slowly apple will introduce a payment system, ad system and
control the whole eco-system, seems like circa 1980′s IBM plan. All
innovation is tied up to a cool hardware and we are going nuts about
touchscreen forgetting the fact that intelligent systems need open
platform to innovate. Customer is being locked in the name of visual
design, touch and UI experience. All this hype and we are forgetting to
analyze the danger of this hardware, software all being under one company… no harm as long as they don’t abuse it, but that never is the case. Why do I need a bigger iPo(a)d touch?

So, this is another use of the phrase “Worse is Better”?

This means, if I sell you something and says “but you’ll only use this gadget the way I want” it’s a good thing?

I never, in my whole life, thought I would consider Microsoft the least restrictive and irrational OS company…

When the application is mine, as opposed to that provided by some third party, speak about openness.

I don’t get it. Why are the FS people getting their panties in a bunch that much? I like and use (and contribute to) OSS, but people here are acting as if;

a) Apple is the only maker of tablets

b) Apple starts abusing their “monopoly” at some point, the governments will forbid anyone to offer an alternative in both hardware and software terms

c) they are somehow forced to get an Apple product

Here’s an idea: Your freedoms as a consumer start _before_ you buy a Tablet/Smartphone. If you don’t fscking like the way Apple does it, then don’t buy it, don’t write apps for it and support a company that does what you think is right.

All the complaining simply sounds like the OSS people and the FSF being jealous of Apple because they are making products that people want. If half the energy that is used to complain about Apple was used to improve OSS, OSS would be a much stronger contender.

As for the DRM argument — it’s silly to say that Apple will make a boatload of money trough it. Shit, the iTunes Store is just above breaking even and has been like that forever. Apple is not the evil DRM monkey here, the content providers are. You can’t fault Apple for simply doing their best to have as much content as possible available to their customers. Apple has to make money and they simply can’t afford the idealistic views of the free software/content movement.

The fact is that Apple’s products are not the problem, they’re just the result. Instead of crying over evil Apple, the energy could be spent educating consumers and lobbying with the content providers. They’re the ones who dictate what Apple does.

@Mauricio Szabo et al: You’re all assuming that your definition of “worse” and “better” is universal. It is not. I don’t fscking care about DRM, an application “belonging to me” or any imaginary restrictions that a product places on me. I want the damn thing to work, and I am prepared to pay money for that. I want one place to get my apps from, one place to get my music from and a device that works. That, to me, is better than having 20 accounts with different music providers, 20 accounts with ebook stores, 20 websites I get my apps from and 20 devices that run the same OS but are not really compatible.

If your priority is freedom and lack of restrictions, don’t buy Apple. As simple as that. Apple has no obligation to ignore the wishes of 99% of the users just to please you.

Wow, what stunning BS. You really believe that? You really believe that Google Voice web app is in any way comparable to the app they had yanked? News flash: Web apps suck. Much. Still. Even today, with all their client side epicycles.

That’s not saying web apps don’t have their place. I’m always happy to be able to check my gmail from whatever crap computer with a browser that happens to be around, and I don’t want an application on my desktop. But for doing any kind of actual work… web apps suck… hard. Do you use your web browser as your main email client? For spreadsheets? For writing code? If so, I pity you.

The iPhone/iPad is a whole new, and deeper, level of closed than anything we have experienced in a long time. Apple may or may not screw us all with it, it’s too early to tell. But if I were in the prison shower with Apple, I’d be afraid to bend over and pick up the soap just now.

A customer was telling me today that they had stopped developing Flash features in their web sites because of the iPhone. So yes, it’s a small win on the one hand but a massive fail otherwise.

> Stuff like access to the accelerometer, GPS signal, microphone, camera, etc. is still locked behind proprietary APIs

GPS isn’t any more, at least on the iPhone (and presumably the iPad, although it doesn’t have a specific GPS chip).


How long before Apple introduce new low cost laptops that only allow software from the App Store? I think the majority of consumers would be happy to buy them. Most people wouldn’t know (or care) that this would restrict their freedom or the freedom of others to share software they’ve written with them.

After 5 years on Macs I switched back to Linux on my workstation. It just felt like time to go back. :-)

Stopping to develop Flash features for websites is a win.

Could not agree more with this post.

@smoofles Not voting with your dollars is not always a strong enough statement. It’s important to evangelize when you feel that the truth is not obvious. Apple is getting very popular and powerful which makes it more and more important that people (“fans” and non-”fans” alike) think and speak critically about them.


@smoofles – don’t worry, I would never buy an iPad or iPhone. It’s just this author’s falacy “apple limits your device and this is a good thing” that bothers me. If you like Apple because of something, then it’s OK but don’t try to convince people that limiting things you can do with ANY OTHER OS manufacter is a good thing!

No, the iPad is not a GREAT THING for open technologies. Maybe, it’s a GOOD THING for web applications and web standards, and nothing more.

Your entire blog post is built on the assumption that all HTML video will be driven by open technologies. That’s not the current state of things at all. In fact it’s quite the opposite.

“By restricting the web platform on the iPhone and iPad to open, patent-free, technologies, Apple has created a highly desirable market for pure-HTML5 apps. This is, frankly, a win for supporters of open technologies.”

The HTML method the iPad uses is the very closed, very proprietary, and very patented H.264 codec, which Apple has a large stake in through technologies like Quicktime. Apple isn’t trying to help the web or make it “open”. They are trying to make H.264 the standard codec for video by pushing out Flash and technologies that actually ARE open like Ogg Theora.

The Dark Side of HTML5 Video:

HTML5 video and H.264 – what history tells us and why we’re standing with the web:

“How is using HTML/JS/CSS a “win” when every other OS in the entire known universe can already do the exact same thing?”

It’s a win because it will cause more developers to switch to js-based apps that can run on almost ANY device and that doesn’t require flash.

As a consumer i wouldnt want a device without flash but as a developer i think it’s good that someone finally takes a step to phase out that piece of bloat.

“Apple has created a highly desirable market for pure-HTML5 apps.”

Oh really? Where can we see those apps? Ah that’s right, they either don’t exist, or are ‘best viewed’ in a niche browser such as Safari or Chrome and fall back onto Flash for video delivery. But I guess that’s ok as long as they support open standards, right? Maybe we should wait until the committee has finally agreed on a spec, a video codec and then updated the world’s browsers? How long may that take I wonder?

HTML5 currently doesn’t even support Flash’s features from 5 years ago. It can’t even replace a static video playback experience – no interactivity, no embeds, no fullscreen, no DRM (you or I may not give a damn about DRM but everyone with a content archive does). By time the spec is ready and widely supported your iPad will be running Flash Player 14 and you will be wishing that the committee would hurry up agreeing an HTML6 spec which has been in the works for the last 10 years…

In what way is HTML5 as it exists in Safari, specifically video and audio “open, unencumbered technologies”? It won’t to my knowledge play Ogg/Vorbis or Ogg/Theora, only the MP4/H2.63 video that is encumbered and a mix of encumbered and not audio. And with its closed nature, you can’t add the “open and unencumbered” codecs no matter how hard you want.

Am I mistaken about the codecs and formats the iP* version of Safari supports?

To extend my earlier comment, the key point is gone over here:

Quote: “This means that although all HTML5 browsers will support , there is no guarantee that they will be able to play and particular file. Firefox (at least the 3.5 beta) plays Ogg Theora, but Safari plays H.264 (a superior but expensive to license codec) but not vice versa”.

Has this changed? Even to the point that whatever will work on the iPad is “open and unencumbered”?

By restricting the web platform on the iPhone and iPad to open, patent-free, technologies, Apple has created a highly desirable market for pure-HTML5 apps.


Well that’s some nice slight-of-hand since the biggest debate about HTML5 is that the standard refers to certain Apple PATENTED components.

Nah, you’re misinformed. By definition, W3C standards are patent free. Participating in the body, as Apple does, requires disclaiming any patents. What you’re thinking about is that the video tag does not require any particular codecs, and Apple so far supports h264 (patented, but not by them), while Mozilla supports only OGG. Chrome supports both. It’s very early, but my guess is that when things shake out, everyone who supports the video tag will support at least one open codec. There are rumbling ms that Google is planning to open up a very good codec they acquires.

None of this, however, has anything to do with the standard itself, which says nothing about codecs, and only describes how the tag itself works. Consider it similar to the img tag, which doesn’t require any open formats. That hasn’t impeded the success of JPG or PNG

Frankly, the absence of desirable features such as Java, Flash, and Shockwave on the iPad is a big loss to consumers. Consumer interests are being shunted aside here by Apple as a part of a larger company vs. company format war. In war there are only losers — even the victorious sacrifice.

This is the first popular operating system platform in HISTORY where the manufacturer controls what you can develop for it. If they succeed, they set an incredibly dangerous precedent for years to come. How much progress would have been lost of AT&T controlled what you could install on Unix operating systems?

There’s people that want to use the internet for openness, and people that want to use the internet to restrict people. Which camp are you in right now by supporting this?

What I would like to see, is the mobile Safari app being able to view pages with Java, Flash, and Shockwave properly.

But this could,and I think should, be aside whatever limits they place on app development. I, as a consumer, appreciate the singularity that the iPhone and now the iPad give in where to search for resources, I like the app store. The iPad is their product, they could close everything up and only make their own apps and that would probably work, but they choose to utilize the creativity and horsepower of the programming public. It’s their right to dictate what languages apps for their product are written in.

What I mean is that programmers don’t have to program for Apple or it’s products, and if they do want to, they should do it the way that works for them.

Also, Apple has all the power and reason to change the accepted standards for app and web development. By narrowing the standards, I think we may also slowly get a more compatible and maybe faster running internet.

When this was only an issue for a telephone or a glorified MP3 player, there was not much to be concerned about.

Now that Apple has created a viable tablet for use by th general phblic, it becomes a massive issue. Let’s provide an analogy. Let’s pretend that 20 years ago as the IBM AT computer was coming out they provide the same limitations to developers. Since IBM made a boatload of money at the time off of typerwriters and calculators and their supplies for them, they deny the right for Lotus or Word Perfect. As a result most businesses or home users find little value in the PC and developers don’t develop code for it. Instead of the massive innovations seen due to the openess of the platform, the home personal computer never gets off the ground and the literally millions of jobs created never happens.

Apple’s cool branding and marketing prowess have convinced even intelligent developers that aying inside of their proprietary sandbox is not only a good thing but innovative as well. Other major companies have seen this success and are trying to follow suit.

This is not innovation but pure corporate greed. Free flash based applications (which are very low CPU/memory utilization when well developed) compete directly with Apple’s App store. Good developers shy away from proving content on the platform because they can’t guarantee its security (HIPAA, BS17999, etc).

This might be a great thing for the developers of fart applications or content providers able to play by the rules. It is a horrible development for technology and innovation in the future. Anyone who doesn’t see this has had one cup too many of “Job’s Kool-Aid”.

I write this from my iPad, so not saying this out of hate but as someone who has been an avid technophile for over 30 years and is a respected senior technologist for a tier one company who gets paid to validate and integrate new and upcoming technologies.

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