Council wonders what to do about iPhone-incompatible website

Prince Rupert city council discusses whether it is worth spending thousands to make website compatible with Apple mobile devices.

If you own an iPhone, iPod Touch or an iPad you probably know that some websites just don’t work on them. Once in a while you’ll come across a website asking you to download the latest version of Adobe Flash in order to make the website – or at least parts of it – work.

But you can’t. No one can. That’s because the maker of those devices, Apple, won’t let you. The only way to get it is to jail-break the device, which violates the warranty.

The problem is that one of those websites that won’t work is the City of Prince Rupert’s website, and now city council has to decide if they should spend the money to fix it.

The issue was raised in council by councillor Jennifer Rice who has an iPhone herself. She says it doesn’t make sense that the City’s website can’t work with the most popular mobile devices on the market today. Considering that city is so conscious of the website’s accessibility that it is translated into six additional languages, it seems odd that the website should be completely inaccessible to Apple users which make up most of the mobile internet users on the planet.

“The reason I brought this up at the last meeting is that I am an iPhone user and on two occasions I’ve been stopped in the street by constituents where I wanted to access information from the city’s website for them, but I wasn’t able to do so because I couldn’t actually get to the website,” says Rice.

If you try to access PrinceRupert.ca on an Apple device you will get the website background colour, the city’s logo, a black space where the Flash elements should be, and a request to download Adobe Flash. Nothing else can be done without flash, no searching for documents, no emergency contact information, no schedules, no nothing.

For those not familiar with Flash; Flash is a software suite published by Adobe that is used for creating animated and interactive elements for the web.

In the past it was the most popular way of creating animated interfaces (like the one the city’s website uses), imbedded videos, games and other interactive elements that are easy to put on the web. Adobe makes money selling the software to create these elements while the Internet browser plug-in to make them work is free to download.

Apple is setting the standards for mobile Internet, which is no big surprise when you consider that it had about a 60 percent market share in both mobile devices and tablet computers at the end of last year. So when Apple announced a few years ago that it would not be supporting flash on it’s devices it made quite a splash in the technology world.

In a 2010 statement, the company’s late CEO and founder, Steve Jobs, outlined the reasons why Apple chose to snub flash.

One reason is because Flash is not “open.”

While the plug-in is widely available, anyone who wants to create anything must pay Adobe several hundred of dollars for the software. Instead, Apple has embraced alternatives like HTML5, Java and CSS which can do many of the same things as Flash but can be used by anyone familiar with the programming language and doesn’t require an expensive investment in one company’s software.

Another reason is that Flash was made for computer with a mouse and keyboard, and it just doesn’t work well with the touchscreen interface that Apple’s products use. And another is that Flash uses more battery power than alternatives such as HTML5 which is a big concern for mobile devices.

In short, Flash is becoming an anachronism in the modern mobile Internet that Apple is doing a lot to shape.

“Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short,” says Jobs.

So if Flash was becoming outdated almost two years ago, what does mean for the city’s website which was given a major overhaul in 2006? Should the council spend possibly thousands of dollars to fix the problem few people who live in Prince Rupert experience? These are questions that the council tried to address at their meeting on Monday.

After being asked by council to research the subject, city staff presented council with some options.

The first is to have someone rebuild the website using HTML5 instead of flash. Staff estimates that this would cost $10,000 to $20,000 but would cause them to lose the videos and live streaming of council meetings provided on the site.

The second option is to create a separate mobile-friendly website. Many websites use this option where mobile users are automatically rerouted to mobile version while those using more traditional computers can use the original. Staff estimates doing this will cost $5,000 to $7,000.

The last option is by far the most expensive: building an entirely new website from scratch without using Flash. This would allow the City to keep its videos and bring the website into the modern Internet by incorporating new technology and social media. The staff’s estimates for this is $40,000 to $50,000.

These were the options, but staff’s recommendation to council was that it hold off on changing the website until the city can more easily afford it because the benefits of fixing the problem were “insignificant.”

Opinion on what to do was split. Faced with such big cost estimates, councillor Joy Thorkelson and Mayor Jack Mussallem agreed with staff that spending money on the website could wait.

“Until it can be proved otherwise, I have to stand by what the staff presented here in this report which says it could cost up to $50,000 . . . That represents a 1.5 percent tax increase to people. So we want to be careful if we’re going to do this,” says Mussallem.

“Most people in town don’t have the ability one-way-or-the-other to access information on the city on any kind of technology . . . if we’re going to spend $2,000 or $3,000 to upgrade the website that’s a good thing but for $50,000 I would like some choices,” says Thorkelson.

Councillor Rice wasn’t buying the cost estimates that staff provided for them.

“I happen to know quite a few people in the web design industry and it was suggested to me that we can still keep our website and remove the Flash component at a much lower cost than the one provided in this report. It was also pointed out to me that for revamping the website $40,000 to $50,000 is very high for a city of our size, that is more a ballpark range for a city the size of Kelowna,” says Rice.

Other councillors agreed that it was important to keep the website modern when the city is trying to promote itself as a place to do business.

“Most people I know are switching over to iPhones and other Apple devices; people I didn’t think would ever switch from PC’s over to those technologies. I’m waiting for CityWest to come out with the iPhone myself . . . I really think that’s the way of the future and we need to stay on top of things,” says Councillor Gina Garon.

In the end the council decided to have staff to go and get a three or four quotes from different web design companies for removing Flash from the city’s website and another three or four quotes for the price of a complete overhaul.