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What Does the iPad Mean for Math?
Apple, Inc., which manufactures the new iPad®, announced that more than 1 million iPads were sold in its first month of release, exceeding the corresponding sales figures for the first model of their iPhone. The iPad and similar platforms are on a rapid path toward becoming ubiquitous appliances, which will surely have an impact in math classrooms. The MAA Committee on Technology in Math Education (CTiME) is sponsoring a panel discussion at the 2010 Mathfest in Pittsburgh this coming August:
Teaching Mathematics with Tablet Computers
(In the interest of full disclosure, the Chair of CTiME is Lang Moore, who is also Executive Director of MathDL; both Loci Associate Editor Jason Aubrey and myself are members of CTiME.) I do not want this Commentary to overlap that panel discussion to any great extent. Instead, I want to look in particular at the iPad platform and its capabilities (or lack thereof), and what consequences this particular platform may have for developing online math visualization software and otherwise authoring math content for the web. This Commentary is intended as a sort of response to recent comments by Apple CEO Steve Jobs regarding whether Flash will ever be made available for the iPad:
"Thoughts on Flash," by Steve Jobs
You will find as you read, however, that my comments do not have much to do with Flash. I want to look more broadly at how interactive web software will be written in the future, and the role the iPad will have in this development. This discussion is rather technical, but necessarily so -- Jobs argues for one set of standards over another on technical grounds, so his argument must be addressed on technical grounds as well. I actually agree largely with Jobs on the need for platforms to implement open web standards. I'm afraid that my conclusions are not very positive, though, that in spite of Jobs' high talk about open web standards, the iPad and its limited implementation of those standards sets the development of interactive online math visulalizations substantially backward.
By way of disclaimer, the opinions I express in this Commentary are my own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of anyone else affiliated with Loci, MathDL, MAA, NSDL, or NSF, nor anyone affiliated with my primary employer, Jacksonville State University. I asked other Loci editors for comments and proofreading of this Commentary prior to publishing it, but I have not sought their endorsements.
Since Jobs' comments were specifically about Flash, I must start there. Flash is used on today's web mostly for embedded video content, which does have some applications for math visualizations.
[Jobs] "Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access ‘the full web’ because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. What they don’t say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads."
This is certainly a fair enough point. However, there are several other modern video formats, including Ogg Theora, which may suit portable devices at least equally as well as H.264.
[Jobs] "Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009."
Security may not be a critical concern for classroom visualizations, but I couldn't help pointing out the apparent hypocrisy in this statement from Jobs. The first procedure for "jailbreaking" an iPad (i.e. obtaining root access to the internal filesystem) came out just hours after the initial release of the iPad. The reason it could happen so quickly is that the procedure was based on a vulnerability already known for the iPhone, and the iPad uses essentially the same system software. If security is such a high concern for Apple, why was this known vulnerability not patched when the system software was being adapted for the iPad?
[Jobs] "To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware; decoding it in software uses too much power."
This certainly seems like a reasonable argument at first, but I feel a need to take Jobs to task on this point. Apple has designed very stylish hardware, of course, but with severe limits to important performance parameters, in particular battery life. Rather than work to improve the hardware performance, Jobs instead blames the software developers for overtaxing the hardware.
Elsewhere, Jobs has been quoted as saying:
[Jobs] "Java's not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It's this big heavyweight ball and chain."
To me, as a Java developer, the real strength of Java is the depth of its standard library of classes. Yes, for low-performance portable hardware such as the iPad, Java can be a "big heavyweight ball and chain," but this seems more another reason to develop better, higher performance portable hardware.
As a software developer, I find this point almost offensive. He is certainly correct that the new "multi-touch" interface redefines many important concepts of interaction with web content. However, Apple is not giving the developers of the Flash platform an opportunity to adapt its existing interface elements to the new concepts. Moreover, the new interface currently disables some capabilities which are built into the previously mentioned open web standards: for example, HTML5 supports internally scrolling elements, such as
[Jobs] "We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers. This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features. Again, we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor’s platforms."
[Jobs] "New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind."
Again, I have much sympathy for Jobs' point regarding open standards. Indeed, Loci's involvement in exactly these standards predates the merger that created Loci in the first place in 2008: the article
"Scalable Vector Graphics," by David Lane
"Open Standards, Web-Based Mathlets: Making Interactive Tutorials Using the HTML5 canvas Element,"
(published in Loci in 2009) does much the same for the HTML5
"Math on the Web Made Easier," by Thomas E. Leathrum
uses a TeX-like syntax for math expressions, parsed in a Java applet into MathML output, with AJAX calls to dynamically insert the resulting MathML into the page. Loci uses the jsMath syntax and software for math expressions within its pages (and I am planning to upgrade to MathJax soon) -- jsMath makes extensive use of AJAX calls as well. If there is a standard here for developing interactive web content, then, it is AJAX.
Apple's Safari browser (on all platforms, including the iPad) does a good job of implementing the AJAX technology, but is severely limited in other standards which are important to Loci readers: in particular, the Safari browser does not implement MathML well. As indicated with my work above, having dynamic, AJAX-based access to even MathML content within a page has important consequences for authors of online mathematics. The HTML5 draft specification indicates that both MathML (section 4.8.14) and SVG (section 4.8.15) should be supported within HTML5 documents -- Safari currently has poor support for MathML and only moderate support for SVG, so its support of HTML5 must be considered incomplete, and these gaps have a particularly devastating impact on the development of online mathematics in HTML5.
If you want to see how the iPad, or any platform, will perform with future online math visualization software, test the platform by viewing the above Loci articles. In my experience, the portable version of the Safari browser (for the iPhone and iPad) performs rather poorly. Apple is not leaving the past behind: they are using sloppy and incomplete implementations of the open standards on hardware that can be easily out-performed by a 10-year-old notebook computer. Jobs has said that the current class of netbook computers "aren't better at anything" -- I am writing this, and I do much of my current software development, on a Dell Mini 10v netbook running the Ubuntu version 8.04 operating system and the Firefox version 3.6.3 web browser with current Java and Flash plug-ins (and built-in HTML5 parsing enabled), a platform which I find to be excellent for viewing all of the above Loci content, and very portable to boot. I find the iPad to be a discouraging development for the future of online math software. I sincerely wish that were not the case, because I do think that the iPad interface and design offer tremendous, but currently unrealizable, opportunities for development of classroom-ready math visualizations.
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