Popularizing a Standards Debate

Let me take you on a small what-if scenario with Apple and Adobe — then let me tell you why I think this is important from a learning technology standards perspective.

By now, even the disconnected bush people on remote islands have no doubt heard of the forthcoming iPad.  And, if they know a Flash developer or a Farmville addict, they’ve heard the siren cry foul “IT DOESN’T SUPPORT FLASH!”  This was a hot debate when the iPhone was first released almost three years ago and while it was a sore point, it never reached the volume and (almost) backlash across discussion groups and social networks that it has now.

The Flash Format Argument

There was a pretty good comment by Sean Foushee that Chad Udell (@visualrinse) pointed out to me yesterday on Twitter which highlighted what the Flash community (not old guys like me who don’t work with Flash much anymore) needs to reckon with:

Flash is in the middle of an identity crisis. It’s no longer the only tool that can accomplish interactive tasks or even deliver rich content to users. In some ways I feel today nearly the same as I did in 2002-2003 when I began to leave Director development. It was too costly for clients to pay for multimedia content developed by Director because of all the hot shot Flash gurus with their cheaper software and internet delivery. Now Flash developers are facing free alternatives in many of the various JavaScript libraries and of course the HTML5 spec. I’m not good at predicting the future, but I honestly believe that Flash needs something to properly differentiate itself from the rest of these alternatives, because saying you rock at producing internet games isn’t a solution.

Purpose and Affordance of the iPad

I have a theory on why Flash fans, be they developers or just gamers, are so upset.  It was easier to take the hit about Flash not being on the iPhone because, well, it was a phone. The options for mobile Flash haven’t been stellar, and Flash lite doesn’t work with lots of content already, so… you’d hear the griping, but we all lived with it.  Browsing on a phone is different in general.  Speed and performance on a phone, even the iPhone, one does so with a different set of expectations over general web content.  To the iPhone’s credit, it handles this extremely well considering it is, in fact, a phone.

Notice I talked about phones… not mobile devices. Up until last week, the two were synonymous (almost).  Now there is distinction, and it has people freaking out.

We as higher order mammals are still very used to dealing with things in absolutes.  Black or White; Team Edward or Team Jacob (apparently it’s a “Twilight” thing); Bears or Packers; Red Sox or Yankees; iPhone or Computer (lumping laptops and desktops into that term) is just another distinction we’ve made to categorize what “bucket” we get our context from.

The iPad messes with our heads.  It looks like an iPhone or an iPod Touch.  But it’s bigger, like a tablet, which up until this point really meant a clunky laptop with maybe a small tucked-away keyboard and a stylus running Windows.  This is Apple, but with the exception of the ModBooks, we have no basis of comparison for what to expect out of a tablet but our most vivid, personal dreams.  What bucket does it fall into?  Is it a computer? Is the iPad a mobile device?

Clearly it’s a mobile device… and a computer.  Just like the iPhone is a mobile device and a computer.  We need to look at the word “computer” and break ourselves from the direct association with laptops with a big honking Operating System (of whatever kind you subscribe to) and go a bit broader to challenge ourselves that all manner of diverse machines are computers.  The iPad/no-Flash drama is elevated because, in my opinion, we are looking at the iPad more like a MacBook with a simplified, touch-screen GUI than a heavy duty iPod Touch that allows for productivity and creation that are limiting on devices with smaller interfaces.  Basically, the argument boils down to this: if I can run Flash content on my MacBook, why the hell can’t I run Flash on the iPad?

The Standards Argument

For whatever reasons altruistic, best intentioned or veiled as such for proprietary lock-out motives, Apple has drawn the line in the sand with WebKit that they’re supporting web standards.  Flash may be a de facto standard plug-in, but it’s still a plug-in, and not an actual standard that’s part of HTML 5.  Apple is basically saying that it supports standards as they are.  They may be flipping the bird to Adobe in the process of taking a principled stand, but that’s what they’re doing.  John Gruber had an EXCELLENT post on the history of Flash on the Mac, and why it performs kinda weak even today.  I think that’s all fuel for the fire that is simply that Flash isn’t a standard.

That’s where this gets REALLY interesting if you can connect some dots.

What if Flash were to become a standard?  Adobe could still monetize the IDE, much like Microsoft does with Word (yes, I know that there are several flaws with the example, roll with me a bit here), while the format each tool produces could be an open standard.  Adobe, given it’s position with ECMA could, in fact, make the Flash format part of HTML5 or some ISO standard that HTML5 natively supports as a standalone standard.  Basically, to me, HTML5 roll-in is the key, because WebKit supports HTML5 — it’s banking on it.  If HTML 5 supports Flash natively, and WebKit supports HTML5 fully (as it maintains it will), then Apple will have Flash support on every device it makes because Safari is built on WebKit.  This is the magic door Apple is pushing.  They may be laying it down as a challenge that they know Adobe won’t take, but there’s a reason why Adobe should (and might be) pursuing this avenue: getting it into the standards forces everyone to support it, including Google.

Expand the Flash Metaphor to Learning Technology

The debate around Flash on the iPad, from a standards perspective, where it is a popular (very popular) proprietary technology that has near ubiquitous adoption… well, that debate is similar to a longstanding debate in the learning standards community about open standards.  Pardon me if I grab another third rail (as if the flaming about Flash and Apple won’t incur enough wrath), but what about IMS-Common Cartridge?  Here, on a much smaller scale but very impactful, you have a de facto standard for many institutions, but it’s proprietary.  You can’t openly participate in the standards process that revisions IMS.  I’m not ranking on IMS here, I’m just explaining how it works.  It’s not “just like Flash” but clearly you’re not marching into Adobe’s offices in (lovely) San Jose or email Mike Chambers about whatever change to the Flash plug-in you’re passionate about and want to work on (note: it’s not like we’re buddies or anything, but this is in no way ranking on Mike Chambers — there’s few people as awesome as Mike, whom I’ve been lucky to meet a few times over the past too many years).  The Flash plug-in and format is not something you or I are going to work on.  It’s not open for us to do so.  And neither is IMS Common Cartridge.

Now the big difference in my examples is that you CAN join IMS, get into the Common Cartridge Working Group, participate and evolve it.  You need to pay to get in (it’s nominal, but for me it’s been a barrier), but you can do that.

That said, the barrier prevents further adoption and unfettered inclusion or integration with other specs and standards.  Common Cartridge might be the best learning technology standard since sliced bread — but without it being open, it has very little chance of revolutionizing public education systems, because the barrier to entry is high.

We see the same thing with IEEE standards, too.  You need to pay to get those standards.  Sure, you can always find a way to read the standards, but to modify them? To use them? You need to pay.  Like with IMS, I agree that these organizations are doing good work and need to be supported and the value they provide is worthy of compensation — but the fact that there are more end users of the specs these bodies produce than the people who make them — and many of these end-users have needs for interoperability with other standards that are beyond the scope of bodies like IEEE or IMS… this is where the drama comes in.  Because without it being an open standard — by open, I mean unencumbered — you can’t even try to make these things work together.

The Owner’s Manifesto

I subscribe to Make Magazine, and one of the very first maxims they put out there to their audience was “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” If you can’t open these standards to mash them up, how are we going to create legitimate combinatorial innovations and mashups?

I think Avron Barr (@avron) put it best in his recent LETSI blog post on Content Interoperability is the Wrong Problem to Solve:

Innovation is key to realizing elearning’s true potential on the web – we have a long way to go. In various corners of the elearning world, teachers and content creators are exploring immersive learning environments, mobile platforms, multi-student collaboration activities, online tutoring, and intelligent tutoring systems. They are using online activities in constructive and discovery-based learning scenarios that fall outside of traditional computer-based instruction. However, to achieve portability, today’s content standards make 20-year-old assumptions about pedagogy, about the student experience, and about publishers’ business models that stem from a time before computers were connected by networks.

Walled gardens make it hard for the things inside them to grow and adapt.  Flash solved a content display problem for a very long time that was nigh impossible to achieve until browsers started really supporting W3C standards — and while IE 8, Mozilla, Opera and Webkit are each far from perfect, they’re a lot better at displaying HTML and CSS consistently than ever before.  The need for Flash to do this is fading, but the backlog of online content (especially “learning” content) that’s in Flash makes it impossible to edit, which everyone has complained about for years.  It’s not Flash’s fault, it’s not Adobe’s fault — it’s our fault for relying on a closed format for so long as for it to become burdensome to adapt the material to more open means.

The longer we depend on closed and rigid formats, the harder it will be to adapt and evolve what we do with them into whatever comes next.  This hinders evolution, innovation and future adoption when we need, more than ever before, to accelerate and lower the barriers to doing these very things.

One More Thing

There’s another message that Apple needs to hear from the Owner’s Manifesto.  One that as a fanboy it’s hard to process.  Ultimately, If I can’t be free to make bad decisions with my iPad, it’s not really my iPad, is it?

What I’d like to see is the removal of FUD and Draconian language in the terms of service so that there’s amnesty if we jailbreak our devices.  Let people play without fear, and marvel at what you empower them to create.

UPDATE:

It should be plenty obvious that I’m a big fan of Apple.  After receiving some comments about this post, I want to make it plain that I actually don’t have a particular beef with Flash; certainly not with Adobe.  Adobe has been a tireless sponsor of standards activity, actively participating and interested in standards discussions.  Plainly, they’ve championed ECMAscript.  They’ve been an ardent supporter of LETSI.  I’m just putting that out there.

What I tried to do (and probably failed at) is putting the Apple/Adobe debate over Flash as a metaphor for other debates that are generally less visible to a broad audience, and harder to follow with all the nuance, context and history needed.  Hence the title of this post “Popularizing a Standards Debate” because the waves of emotion around Flash and the forthcoming iPad are exposing the kinds of struggles the learning community still throws down over.  My hope is that in sharing my perspective with you, it helps you to view your position on these issues in a broader context.

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