Web developers can rule the iPad

A lot of tech commentators seem disappointed that the iPad feels more like an evolutionary step than a revolutionary step. For one group of technologists, though, the iPad is an opportunity for revolution, to take center stage in creating experiences users will want, and even want to buy.

The iPad is all about consuming content, but most of the conversation about that content has seen it in traditional silos:

  • Audio, through iTunes
  • Video, also through iTunes
  • iPhone apps (and now iPad apps), through the App Store
  • Books, through iBooks
  • The Web, the most open of these options.

The last of those options, however, can incorporate all of the rest – even the iPhone applications. Given the space on the iPad screen and the reported speed of its A4 processor, web design is actually the easiest way to create applications for the iPad.

Web design? On the iPad? Wasn’t that the bad idea Apple originally had for the iPhone, before they were overwhelmed with requests for a real SDK?

Well, yes. The early iPhone development environments felt maybe too sandboxed. A lot of features now available in Mobile Safari were only starting to develop, and key tools for connecting to features of the iPhone not typically found then in web browsers (vibration, accelerometer, geolocation) didn’t exist. Learning Objective C made sense at the time.

Today, things have changed. With support from tools like jQTouch, it’s shockingly easy to create apps that feel like they belong on the iPhone using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. With PhoneGap, you can reach out to features like vibration, accelerometer, geolocation. What’s more, PhoneGap lets you target your application to multiple platforms, including Android and Blackberry, so you’re not even locked into Apple’s tightly-controlled universe.

For a quick tour of how this works, see Bill Peña’s tutorial. For a lot more detail, though still 160 pages, see our recently released Building iPhone Applications with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Despite massive rust on my web skills and no experience with iPhone development, I was able to create a functioning, if basic, iPhone application in three hours, and have it running on the iPhone Simulator in twenty more minutes.

Moving to the iPad shouldn’t be difficult. As the PhoneGap folks tweeted:

for those unsure, iPad is @phonegap compatible out of the box.

There are, of course, ways Apple could make this difficult. They could have locked web-based apps into the iPhone size, but fortunately that doesn’t seem to be a problem. They could also block PhoneGap based applications from the App Store, as they once did, though they seem to have
gotten over that a few months ago
. Even if they were to cause trouble, however, it would just block one possible revenue stream – the web browser itself would still be open for business. I don’t think even Apple can close that down.

Apart from the joy of being able to say “I don’t have to learn Objective C”, the web approach has tremendous advantages for probably 80% of the applications people the iPad seems built for. The layered approach of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript makes it easy to pour content into templates, decide how those templates will look, and what interactivity they will have. Done right, it’s a much more maintainable approach as well, making it easy to change the look or add interactivity without having to break into the underlying content again. Adding content or reaching out to content elsewhere on the web is easy. Toolkits already make the shift from traditional web browsers to device development easy. We’ve come a long long way since the first glimmerings of a slow and creaky Dynamic HTML appeared on the landscape.

I expect music and to some extent video to stay in iTunes or similar venues. Terrified book publishers who want their DRM will likely stay in the iBooks zone, though hopefully Apple will let braver publishers in there without DRM. Customers will expect to find “books” there. It’s also clear that there will always be applications, notably games, which demand native code – Objective C on the iPad – to achieve the fastest possible response time, draw intricate graphics, or bind tightly to iPad features. There’s a future for all of those things, in their particular venues.

But for “content”, especially content that combines text with audio, video, pictures, and interactivity, web-style development has a tremendous advantage.

Arise, web developers! Our time has come to dominate!

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