iPad already changing the way Web sites are built

By | April 1, 2010 at 2:07 PM

The iPad is already having a wide-ranging effect on businesses even before its release, with major media outlets changing the way they build Web sites to accommodate Apple’s tablet.

Apple’s iPad presents a problem for many media-centric sites because it does not display Adobe Flash, a platform that runs much of the animations and interactive elements on sites, not to mention being the platform for nearly three-quarters of the video on the Web.

For sites that rely on Flash to create functionality, which includes nearly all of the major media businesses, iPad users won’t be able to view all of their content. When your business model is built on providing content, that’s a problem.

Normally a first generation device with these sorts of limitations wouldn’t worry major organizations, but this is Apple we’re talking about. The company that single-handedly threw the entire music industry on its head. Even though companies have no way to know just how much traffic they’ll be getting from the as-yet-to-be-released tablet, they’re confident it will be a big enough deal that they can afford to design entirely new Web sites specifically for the iPad.

Several major companies have already developed iPad-ready Web sites which will run alongside their current Flash-based sites for computer users. The New York Times will have an iPad version of its site. The Wall Street Journal is following suit, as is NPR Radio. These sites are also changing the layout of their content to better fit the iPad’s screen size and take advantage of its touchscreen navigation.

CBS has also reportedly been working on an iPad-friendly version of its video site so that iPad users can watch full episodes of CBS shows without needing Flash.

A video player platform called Brightcove has also developed a version of its software that is not Flash-based and that can run on the iPad. Many of Brightcove’s customers have specifically asked for solutions to iPad video problems.

“These customers are excited about the possibilities of the iPad, but they also have concerns about what it will take to deliver great video experiences in this environment,” said Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing, on the Brightcove company blog.

Some of those very customers, such as the New York Times and Time magazine, are using Brightcove as part of their full transition, while other sites will simply use the Brightcove player to play iPad-friendly video on their current pages.

Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into designing, coding and maintaining a completely separate version of a site, this is a major vote of confidence in the iPad.

Of course, this transition away from Flash has been a long time coming. The iPad is only the catalyst. The most common solution for converting to non-Flash sites is the latest form of code called HTML5. HTML has been the foundation of the Internet for nearly two decades and the latest update to the platform, HTML5, institutes many features that render Flash unnecessary.

There has been a push to convert to HTML5 for a couple years and for several reasons, less Flash dependence being one of them. The conversion to HTML5 has been slow because sites have invested so much time and effort into other platforms, such as Flash, and previous versions of HTML. The iPad is turning into just the kind of incentive many companies need to make the jump.

Even YouTube, which has a dedicated app on the iPad home screen to circumvent Flash, has been toying with HTML5.

There are other benefits beyond iPad traffic for companies to consider, too. For instance, HTML5 will make it possible for many other devices, most notably the iPhone and other smartphones, to view full Web pages without Flash. That would eliminate the need for many companies to maintain separate sites for mobile devices.

Web design expert Jeffrey Zeldman pointed out on his site that the pressure from Apple to convert to HTML5 is a good thing, even for non-mobile sites.

“Lack of Flash in the iPad (and before that, in the iPhone) is a win for accessible, standards-based design. Not because Flash is bad, but because the increasing popularity of devices that don’t support Flash is going to force recalcitrant web developers to build the semantic HTML layer first,” Zeldman said.

When considering the amount of growth that sites have seen and will continue to see in mobile traffic, the iPad may just be the first of many reasons to rebuild.

As John Gruber, noted tech pundit, put it: “If you think people using iPhone OS devices including the iPad are an important segment of your intended audience, you can no longer build a Flash-dependent web site. (And if you don’t think people using iPhone OS devices are an important segment of your intended audience, you’re probably wrong.)”

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