The iPad ain’t ending anything

The haters are wrong, part one

I just finished an excellent blog post by my friend Blake Patterson. It’s about the iPad. Blake realized in the wee hours of Sunday morning that the iPad was actually Alan Kay’s Dynabook, emerging after 40 years in Steve Jobs’ turtleneck-clad arms. Seriously, it’s a great post. Go read it.

I think Blake may be right that the iPad is going to be a great device for developers and users. It’s a whole new playground for a set of mature, widely-known, yet still rapidly-developing technologies. It’s an incredible opportunity. People who are poopooing the thing, or suggesting it’s actually going to harm the computing world, are being unimaginative and pessimistic.

I find cynicism and pessimism applied to a lot of issues and events in the web development world. Maybe it’s the recession. Or this cold winter we’re having in the continental U.S. But the gloom and doom is dead wrong. And I feel compelled to explain why.

I’m not given, personally, to bouts of dizzy optimism. I’m not a bit light-headed at this moment. I think the future is looking awfully good for people who develop software for the Internet and people who use this software. And I want to pour some cold water on the clever people currently pouring cold water on the tech optimists. The Internet is not splintering, Apple is not going to end the golden age of the personal computer, the United States is not chronically short of talent, and our jobs are not all going overseas.

Reality: lower barriers to entry

The first bogeyman to talk about is the Splinternet. Forrester Research recently put forward the idea that new devices like the iPad are dividing the Internet—its audience, its developers, its software and applications. Gone is some golden world of uniformity. All the useful information is in walled gardens, behind website login screens. In the future, we won’t even be able to use Google Analytics to track Internet users’ traffic. The golden age of the Internet is over.

So, obviously, there was no golden age of uniformity. Unless you mean the depressing couple of years when it looked as though we’d all have to use Internet Explorer for the rest of our lives. If anything, the present moment is better than ever for content developers. Sure, the iPhone is a new platform, but it comes with mobile Safari, which is built on WebKit. And Android is a different platform, but it too comes with a browser built on WebKit. There are libraries out there that turn any decent web programmer into a phone app developer. And these apps are programmed with? HTML, JavaScript, and CSS.

Back when I started learning how to program for the web, there was no reason to believe that these basic technologies were going to survive on computers, let alone thrive on a new generation of handheld devices. Every new device promised a steep learning curve of some C or C++ dialect and API. The vendors of key technologies back then, like Oracle, invested a lot of time and money in their proprietary tools. One of the first books I was given as a programmer was a three-inch-thick manual for learning PL/SQL. I never did read it. Thank God.

Focusing on the physical platform is the wrong move. Because, unexpectedly, HTML and HTTP have won. Look at the Forrester Research post going on about the calamity of so many devices. But they’re all going to display HTML, styled with CSS, and controlled by JavaScript. If I want to put my web app on an iPhone, there’s PhoneGap, or jQTouch. These libraries let you write beautiful apps for these platforms. Beta vs. VHS is the wrong comparison for Apple vs. Google, because in a couple of days I can get my web app running well on both the iPhone and Android. I can tweak its HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and it’s good to go. It’s as though there were a third format that either VHS or Beta players could have played just fine.

As for walled gardens, there are serious efforts underway to make social website data APIable and shareable. OAuth and OpenSocial are two examples. These may not be the efforts that succeed, but something like them will. And if Facebook and other sites like it won’t play along, they’ll risk losing their users. I worked on online communities in the 90’s. Those companies are all gone. Remember Geocities? Friendster? Heck, even MySpace is on the way out. People have no loyalty for a brand in this business. They’re seeking the potential of the web to put them in contact with other people and build the personae they want. The next site or tool that does that best will get all the marbles. For a while.

And how are we not going to be able to track or analyze traffic? If a device can use HTTP, it can send a GET request to Google Analytics. And what device isn’t going to support HTTP? After being told to go get the three-inch-thick manuals so we could understand SOAP or Remote Method Invocation or special XML subsets for Internet communication, it turns out that HTTP and REST (AKA human-readable URLs) are almost all we actually need or want. HTTP won, and it won because it’s simple and it’s robust.

This is why another great fear tied to the iPad is wrong. The iPad is not going to end personal computing. True, Apple completely controls its hardware. And you can’t install a software application onto the iPad unless Apple lets that app into its store. Even this isn’t too dire, although I’m not a fan of Apple’s censorship of apps like dictionary utilities. But focusing on the physical device again misses the point. The browser is the OS of the future, and there’s every reason to believe the iPad will be an even better web app device than the iPhone. As one commenter to the harninger-of-doom post wrote, “The future of Apps is through the browser not installing it onto your machine.”

So the reality of these new devices is that they open the door to new opportunities to develop with the technologies we know and love and keep making better. The iPad is probably going to succeed, not because it’s a certain size rectangular object, but because developers are going to go wild trying to find and fulfill all the experiences it promised. Jobs has built it, and a lot of developers will come. The barrier to entry for a new device has never been lower. And we have coders, not companies, to thank for that.

The Internet, and the Web in particular, are not splintering. Because the people who use them, and continue to invent them, are holding them together. A closer look at those kinds of people will inform my next rant against ranters, those who argue that the U.S. is doomed to lose its edge in this industry.