Apple has finally taken the wraps off the iPad, a device that many in the edtech community have been eagerly awaiting. Is it, as some have opined, the perfect machine around which to build a K-12 1:1 computing program? I’m sure we will see some school adoptions, but there are problems.
Not surprisingly, Apple has chosen to make software for the iPad as restricted as the offerings for the iPhone and iPod Touch. While the market historically seems to have accepted small mobile devices with software development and distribution options restricted in various ways by manufacturers and/or carriers, I do wonder whether Apple will be able to maintain that acceptance in devices that compete more with netbooks and notebooks than smartphones. Alex Payne’s insights into why we shouldn’t accept the lack of openness are worth reading.
The iTunes App Store is a nightmare for both districts and software publishers. Things like site licenses for schools or districts are simply not supported. The basic problem is that the store model assumes that the device is an avatar of a single user and enforces a near 1:1:1 relationship between devices, iTunes desktop installations and iTunes accounts. This doesn’t work for schools or other institutions that need to manage large numbers of devices. While it’s true that Apple’s enforcement is loose enough to permit limited sharing between a few devices, it falls far short of what’s needed for a classroom full of devices, let alone school-wide or district-wide implementations. It is true that iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches can make purchases directly from the iTunes App store without synching to a desktop or notebook installation of iTunes. However, there is still too much of the old Palm/Microsoft mindset that saw the PDA as a computer peripheral rather than a device unto itself. This is evidenced by Apple’s own “Tech Specs” page which lists a Mac or PC under “System Requirements”.
UPDATE: In the original post of this article I incorrectly said that there is no enterprise management tool, like SOTI’s MobiControl, for Apple’s mobile devices. That was incorrect. Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility is a capable tool that can manage the files and applications on iPhones and iPod Touches. Presumably it will be able to do the same for iPads by the time they become available. It is available as a free download from Apple for either MacOS or Windows. For complete details on capabilities and limitations, see the iPhone OS Enterprise Deployment Guide. Apple’s configuration utility does not, however, solve the problem of site licensing to schools. The provisioning profiles necessary to deploy applications to an enterprise belong to the enterprise, not the software developer. In addition, the utility is not well suited to use by teachers for classroom by classroom device management.
Some educational technologists believe strongly that an integrated physical keyboard is essential to a successful student computing device. While many teachers, administrators and other key players in the purchase decision-making process will see the lack of an integrated physical keyboard as a problem, I don’t think it will be a significant impediment to students. Kids who cut their teeth on game controllers don’t see alternate input modes as a barrier. People like me, who learned our keyboard skills on typewriters in the middle of the last century often do. As Shawn Gross from Project K-Nect puts it; “Kids want smartphones, administrators want netbooks”. The real question is whether kids will see the iPad as too big to carry everywhere all the time. That’s the chief advantage of smartphones, Touches and other small mobile devices in extending the school day. Time will tell.
While Apple’s promo videos extol the virtues of a large-screen multi-touch browsing experience, there is almost no hard information about the version of the Safari browser included with the iPad. There is no mention of Adobe Flash, which has been missing from the iPhone and Touch versions of Safari since they were launched. The lack of Flash is a problem, huge amounts of curriculum content on the web count on the availability of Flash-capable browsers. Apple has been particularly hostile to third-party browsers on their mobile devices, so a Flash-enabled alternative browser isn’t likely, nor does Mobile Safari support a robust plug-in ecosystem like the one Firefox Mobile has. Dave Wiener has some worthwhile thoughts on both the Flash situation and the lack of openness of the iPad in general.
Adobe has announced that it’s Flash Professional CS5 development kit will allow developers to port Flash applications to native iPhone applications, but this does nothing to make existing Flash-dependent curriculum content on the web usable.
As content creators move toward using open standards like HTML5′s video tag and CSS-3 this will become less of a critical problem. Ironically, it will likely be Microsoft’s adoption of these standards that sets the pace. IE 9 on Windows 7 promises to implement 99.3% of CSS3 (as opposed to about 60% for the existing IE8). In the mobile device space their intentions are less clear. Schools still have hundreds of thousands of machines running older versions of Windows that can’t run IE 8 and will never be able to run IE 9.
The current versions of Firefox, Safari and Mobile Safari all implement 100% of the spec today. However Safari for Windows won’t run on Pre-XP versions of WIndows, and Firefox, which will run on versions as old as Windows 2000, has very little penetration into K-12 IT departments. So it’s not at all clear that software publishers with large amounts of Adobe Flash content have an obvious path to total market penetration. Even rewriting old Flash-based content to use emerging open web standards won’t get them to all of the students all of the time.
Apple will doubtless sell tens of millions of iPads. This will make the iPad the first truly successful device in the category that National Semiconductor’s Conceptual Products Group tried to jump-start with their WebPad reference design more than a decade ago. While there have been several attempts to market such a device to education, including the Fourier Systems Nova 5000, none has seen widespread adoption. Apple is likely to do better in the education sector with the iPad, but sales into the K-12 market are unlikely to be large enough to get Apple to make serious changes to some of their policy decisions that impede classroom adoption.
Assuming that the iPad will be a roaring success in the consumer market, Apple will have done one thing that is likely to have a large impact on K-12 classroom devices. They have provided a well-defined target for knock-offs running more open operating systems. With the exact specs for a potentially successful device now evident, we’re likely to see Android, Linux and perhaps even WinMobile/WinCE devices with similar packages and specifications in the near future. While none of these is likely to actually be an iPad killer, one or more will be at least moderately successful in K-12 situations. To the extent these devices implement both Adobe Flash and open web standards, they will be far easier to integrate into curriculum than the iPad.
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