In the unlikely case you were somehow unaware of the big news from yesterday, Apple announced the iPad, a new device (and category) somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop that will either revolutionize the entire computing space, or will flop miserably (depending on which analyst you read). So much has been tweeted, facebooked, blogged, and written about the iPad already, I’m not sure that what I have to say will be all that new, but there are a few specific aspects of the iPad that I find very intriguing (and less commented upon).
While the value of the device for casual web-surfing, gaming, and light productivity seems pretty obvious, another key aspect touted by Apple for theiPad was video. And here is where I feel the iPad is at best a step backward, and at worst a real failure. Everyone who has been able to get their hands on the iPad lauds it’s screen clarity, but from a purely video watching standpoint, it is far from ideal. 4:3 aspect ratio and limited to 720p resolution? That strikes me as very weak. A screen that size (9.7″ diagonal) might seem small for full 1080p resolution but since the use case is geared towards handheld situations, or very close watching (while on a plane for example), 1080p is actually quite appropriate in my opinion, as is a 16:9 aspect ratio.
Worse, though, from a video standpoint are the format restrictions the iPad enforces. The iPad can only play back video files in .mp4, .mpv, and .mov file formats with H.264 video at Main Profile level 3.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps/48kHz. In other words, the iPad basically plays back video in the iTunes format and really nothing else. The vast bulk of Internet video files are in other formats, specifically Xvid in .avi for standard definition and H.264 High Profile 4.0 in .mkv for high definition content. True, we are talking about grey market content here, but that remains the vast majority of what users consume in terms of downloaded video files. This strategy mirrors what Apple did with the AppleTV, by severely limiting what kinds of content it could play back, essentially restricting it to iTunes video purchases and rentals, instead of the de facto standards of what people actually watch. The AppleTV/iPad strategy is the opposite of what Apple did with the iPod, it must be said, for that device could always play back the truly popular format, mp3. I believe that the main factor in the AppleTV’s failure has been the inability to play back formats outside of iTunes, and from a video standpoint, the iPad is repeating that error. Yes, there are relatively easy ways to transcode video content into an iPad playable format, but that is a massively annoying requirement, especially when it’s utterly unnecessary. I have no doubt the iPad has the graphic horsepower to decode 720p Blu-Ray rips in .mkv with either .ac3 or multi-channel .aac soundtracks natively, but Apple decided differently.
Just as questionable is the decision to prevent Flash playback on the iPad. I am far from a fan of Flash in general, and it is somewhat understandable why Apple does not want Flash on their iPhones, but it makes far less sense on a device with an emphasis on video playback. Without Flash, the iPad cannot access the most compelling legitimate content online right now, notably Hulu, but also the 75% of streaming content that relies on Flash today. This situation may be changing, of course, as there is some movement away from Flash based streaming towards HTML5 (see recent moves by YouTube and Vimeo) but that trend is very much in its early stages, and brings a whole host of other issues into play (that I hope to write about soon). Fundamentally, however, the dominance of Flash online is not going to disappear in the 60 days before the iPad is released. Ryan Lawler at NewTeeVee thinks the decision against Flash is a smart one in that it will push video sites to create paid-for apps specific to the iPad. John Gruber believes its a larger move by Apple against proprietary technologies that Apple does not control. Both Lawler and Gruber may be correct about the reasoning behind the decision against Flash, but regardless of the rationale, the decision makes the iPad hugely less appealing from a video standpoint. Just as with the choice to limit video file formats, not supporting Flash may make sense from an Apple eco-system and business standpoint, but it also makes the device essentially useless for me as a video consumer.
Of course, I am probably not the real target demographic for the iPad. There may in fact be enough customers willing to get all their video content from iTunes. Or maybe video functionality will prove to be a secondary factor in the iPad’s success or failure, as the device does have many other compelling uses after all. But I suspect that the crippled video capability will prove to be a major negative for the iPad, and make the chances of it turning into a failure like the AppleTV more likely than it becoming a smash success like the iPod or iPhone.