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What does the iPad hold for eLearning’s future without Flash?

Questions that have suddenly engulfed all the stake holders in the e-learning industry are: What is the future

Questions that have suddenly engulfed all the stake holders in the e-learning industry are: What is the future of eLearning going be in a few years to come if the iPad won’t support Flash? Will we have to reduce the interactive quotient of our eLearning courses? Is HTML5 really a viable alternative to Flash? Or simply, why couldn’t Steve Jobs just decide to include Flash on the iPad and make lives simpler for everyone?

The answers? Especially to the last one?  Well, quite honestly, no one has any at the moment.  Even Steve Jobs’ open letter to Adobe doesn’t quite give us a satisfactory reply.

But what we can possibly do is a thorough analysis of the situation, look at the possibilities, weigh our options, come to a conclusion, and make a choice.

Till now, we have all been well-versed with eLearning, while busy catching up with mLearning. However, the growing popularity of tablets (dominated largely by the iPad), also calls for some attention. The growing desire of clients to not alienate this new medium is also accompanied with their hesitation in accepting and treating it like a new medium. That’s where the dilemma starts, and we often see a brief from a client demanding an interactive course along with the expectation of it performing equally well on an iPad. Realistically, it cannot be achieved at the moment, not if tablets continue to block Flash.

In his open letter to Adobe, Steve Jobs has backed his decision by citing technological issues like Flash being a closed system, a CPU hog, and one that eats up the battery. The debate about whether or not Jobs being totally honest and his claims are justified still haven’t died down. So let’s focus on the important part, the alternative.

HTML5 is being touted as the replacement for Flash. But the larger section of developers and users feel differently about this. While the freedom from plug-ins would be nice and welcome, HTML5 is currently in its infancy.

Jan Ozer, is an expert in video encoding technologies. He tested HTML5 against Flash in a series of tests. Highlights of Ozer’s findings are presented in the table below. These are broken up into Mac and Windows test results.

Ozer also determined that the key to better performance from Flash was dependent upon whether or not it could access hardware acceleration. According to Adobe, hardware acceleration is not supported under either Linux or Mac OS X. The Mac OS X simply does not provide access to the required APIs. Therefore Apple simply isn’t allowing Flash to become more efficient on the Mac OS X/Safari platform or the iPod/iPhone/iPad by not giving the access to the hardware it needs to reduce CPU load.

To be objective, while this test result reinforces the usability of Flash, it doesn’t throw enough light about HTML5. This technology can bring in lots of features, like offline storage, advanced graphics, and a plug-in free ecosystem that can simplify the whole process and especially enhance the multimedia experience. However, at present, it needs to undergo a lot of development, and won’t be finalized at least until 2014.

The confusion has been further magnified by Adobe’s changing stance about developing a Flash player for the mobile platform. In early November 2011, Adobe announced its decision to stop making a Flash player for the mobile platform, thus making you think that HTML5 has finally arrived. However, reviews about the online performance of the recently-launched and much talked-about Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire prove otherwise.

As reported on geek.com, the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire were put through a series of tests using an online HTML5 testing tool. When we break down the performance into various categories like elements, parsing rules, video, audio, and forms, each browser was given a report card to show its ability to handle the still-changing requirements of HTML5.

The Nook Tablet scored 177 out of 450. The Kindle Fire fared only slightly better, with 196 out of 450. In terms of browsers, the iOS 5′s Safari on the iPad has the current highest score of 296. The Opera Mobile 11.10 browser (on multiple tablet platforms) comes in second at 269. The Blackberry Playbook’s browser has the third highest rating at 257.

In terms of desktop, Chrome came in first with 340. Firefox comes in second at 313, and Safari came in third with 293 (slightly lower than the iPad’s score).

Basically, it indicates that browsers lack full support of HTML5, and without standardizing HTML5, cross-browser compatibility is even more difficult to achieve. Hopefully, that will serve as a decent explanation about why the same level of courses cannot be created for PCs and tablets.

After a comparison about the technologies supporting iPads and traditional PCs, getting a perspective on the adoption of the devices themselves is equally important. Here are some of the figures and trends compiled from the studies of various Research agencies and market analysts.

According to analysts IDC (as reported in the Guardian newspaper), in 2011, the media tablet market was forecasted to be 17.5%, or slightly less than a fifth, as large as the PC market in unit terms indicating a growth of 5% from the figures of 2010. While the PC shipments to grow by less than 3% this year. To break it down simply, the per unit sales of iPads may be far low as compared to PCs, but its showing far superior growth rates.

Another firm e-marketer shares some interesting forecasts about the penetration of tablets and iPad in particular, in the US market.  According to their new estimate, by the end of 2014, one in every three Americans or 90 million users is expected to have a tablet and Apple ipads are going to lead this category.

So coming back to the current scheme of things in the context of eLearning, where do we stand?  There are two things that mainly need to be accounted for—the devices themselves and the technologies supporting them.

Whether or not the iPad can replace PCs is something that needs another discussion. But at the moment, they co-exist—and in a fashion that you cannot sideline either. And as far as the technologies are concerned, it’s a state of confusion that calls for a wait-and-watch strategy. Thus, probably, it does not make sense to write off either Flash or HTML5 at the moment and place all your eggs in one basket. So perhaps what we require is an approach that treats the iPad as a new medium that has its own specs and limitations, and would thus render itself to another version of the courses we develop. What’s that version going to be like? Just hang on a little and we will tell you.

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