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July 05, 2011

The Empress’ New iPad

Update: I was sloppy in my debugging and wrong to blame Safari on the iPad for problems we had viewing web pages on that device in my post below. Although iPad, as is well known, doesn't support Flash, the problems I was seeing were caused by settings on the two WiFi routers I use; these settings don't seem to affect other devices. However, the problems are well known and the fixes simple unless you own a very old router. Details for those who may have a problem with broken web pages on an iPad – other than when trying to view Flash content – are at I Was Wrong and Sloppy to Blame Safari on the iPad for Viewing Problems.

Our friends love and use their iPads – even former applephobes. Mary was an early iPhone adopter and is still enthusiastic about it; so it made sense to get her an iPad 2 for her birthday. Got one with lots of memory, WiFi, but no cellular connection because I figure we can use my MiFi device to create a hotspot wherever we need one in the US and can rent a similar device when we travel abroad. Didn't want yet one more wireless data account, either.

Here in Nerdland birthday presents come with tech support. Yesterday it rained so I spent all day – literally – setting up the iPad to do the things Mary wants it to do. The big disappointment so far, however, is the Safari browser. Surfing, to use the right technical term, sucks.

It shouldn't be that way. The screen is beautiful and crisp and big enough to display most web pages; the touch gestures we learned on iPhone and Droid work as they should. But too many websites are flat out broken when viewed with Safari. Some, like sears.com won't even load (I spent an hour looking for problems with my home WiFi); others, like NYTimes.com, load in an ugly and degraded way. These same websites work much better on an iPhone or Droid than they do on an iPad. I know why now and it's all Steve Jobs' fault. added later: commenters and others report that they are not having the same problems I am with these two sites. Am trying to track down what makes the difference. Doesn't effect whether Safari supports Flash - it doesn't - and the arguments pro or con; but I may have chosen bad examples.

Why browsing is broken with iPad Safari

Many websites use a technology called Flash, which comes from Adobe, for animation and general bling. To put it mildly, Steve Jobs doesn't like Flash and has refused to support it on either the iPhone or the iPad. He blogged a diatribe against Flash when the iPad was released and listed lack of openness (he should talk!); poor reliability, security, and performance; drain on batteries; lack of touch support; and "most important":

"We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers."

Steve, of course, would rather developers were dependent only on Apple for new features. He's always been that way. But I digress.

It was no big deal that the iPhone didn't support Flash because no other phone-based browser did at the time. Those site owners who wanted their content to be browseable on phones developed special versions of their sites laid out to display correctly on a small screen and with no Flash dependency. Often, but not always, a professional site will detect what kind of device you are using to access it and automatically direct you to either the mobile or desktop version of each page. Some, but not all sites, let you override this selection.

But all of a sudden there's the iPad. Like the iPhone, it doesn't support Flash. Unlike the iPhone, it has a nice big screen. So does a website serve up the mobile version of its pages to the iPad (remember, it's the web server and not your browser which decides what format to send) and lose the benefit of the big screen? Or does it send the beautifully designed full page version – only to have any imbedded Flash break and make the page ugly or even inaccessible. Different website owners have taken different approaches; some treat Safari on an iPad as if it were on an iPhone; others treat it as if it were on a PC or Mac. On far too many websites, the result is a terrible user experience.

That's why browsing is broken for so many sites using Safari on the iPad.

But there's an app for that

Many site owners who want to take full advantage of the iPhone and iPad have developed downloadable apps which display their content outside the context of a browser and get their bling without Flash. Apple itself distributes a YouTube app on iPad because YouTube, which uses Flash, won't work inside the Safari browser and the iPad market would be restricted without YouTube support.

Some apps are quite elegant – but this is déjà vu all over again. We're back to the early days of online networks in which every major content provider and website distributed an application which you ran to get access to their content. You didn't get the instant gratification of just being able to navigate to a page for the first time and immediately interact with it. You had to keep all the apps uptodate. Then came browsers and broadband; each webpage can do the equivalent of downloading the latest version of its "app" whenever you access it; Flash is part of the process that many sites use for this purpose. Partly because Flash isn't supported in Safari on iPads and iPhones, we're back to downloading and constantly uploading specific apps for specific content, good for app developers – and apparently for Apple - but bad for the rest of us. At the ridiculous extreme, every website would require its own app and we'd have to learn how to use them all.

Droid is a fly in Apple's ointment.

It does support Flash despite all the drawbacks Steve lists; this makes a Droid phone better for web-browsing than an iPhone. It presumably means that Droid tablets are better for web browsing than the iPad. I don't have a DroidPad but glad to have comments from anyone who does.

Fred Wilson wrote:

"I know where I personally come out in this fight. I much prefer a "web-centric handheld world" to a "proprietary app centric universe". And that's why I carry a Google phone instead of an iPhone. For me, it's a political statement as much as anything else.

"Someday soon, I'll be reading a blog on my Google phone and I'll come upon a video in a Flash player and I'll be able to hit play and watch it on my phone. That's apparently not going to happen in Apple's "proprietary app centric universe". "

I agree and I have a Droid but I'm still puzzled. When I search online, the only major complaints I see about Safari on iPad are that some sites serve it their tiny mobile screens (probably because there's Flash in the big screens). I don't see complaints about Safari being unable to load some sites as happened to us (a survey of two friends elicited one similar experience to ours and one "Safari's perfect"). People really love their iPads and do carry them instead of computers. Is web browsing less important than I think? Am I just looking at an unrepresentative set of sites that happen to break? Is the iPad so good at other things through its apps that the limitations on browsing don't matter? Or does the empress' iPad really need Flashier clothes?

Related posts:

Why did Mary's AT&T iPhone Ask To Use Verizon?

Keeping a Moving Boatload of Devices Online

Mary Meets Steve Jobs – Why the Mac?

Droid Setup – Day 1 of My Re-Retirement

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