We Don’t Need an App: Rhiza Insight is on the iPad!

Okay, I’ll admit it: we’re just as excited as the rest of the tech world about the iPad.  Josh, our CEO, was at the Apple Store bright and early Saturday morning to pick up his, oops, I mean, the development team’s new iPad.

The thing is, thanks to a few fortuitous design decisions we made for Insight early on, there wasn’t much development to do to get Insight running well on the iPad.

When we built the first version of what eventually became Rhiza Insight, there weren’t really any next-generation Web-based mapping tools out there yet.  So we did a lot of internal prototyping to figure out how best to build the system. The two leading candidates were to implement something in Flash, or to use the Javascript Google Maps API and use standard web technologies.

Flash has some advantages: if you can push all the rendering to the client, it provides some really nice UI benefits. But our use cases involved datasets with tens of thousands of entries, and we rapidly discovered that to make the system fast we were going to have to render tiles on the server one way or the other. If you’re not going to use Flash as the data rendering engine, it removes a lot of its usefulness.

So we decided to use the Javascript Google Maps API. And that’s why Insight runs on the iPad today. Apple doesn’t allow Flash on the iPad (or iPhone), and even if it did, the performance would probably be pretty poor.

There was still some work to do. We added panning controls to our maps because drag-pan isn’t implemented in the Google Maps API on the iPad yet.  (I’m sure Google will have an update that fixes this within a couple of weeks.)  The iPad also doesn’t have scrollbars, but Insight uses a lot of embedded scrolling areas.  This is a usability nightmare since most users don’t know that there’s a two-fingered scroll gesture to make that work.  We added convenient pagination buttons to make this both easier to do and more obvious.

The work will continue as the iPad and other mobile platforms grow in popularity and capability.  There’s a lot of optimization we can do to make the system faster on these devices. Some things can’t be done on the iPad (for instance, you can’t download a Shapefile or export a KML tour).  But other than those things that interact with the local filesystem or external productivity apps, everything else works just like you would expect.

And our full screen snapshots look absolutely stunning on the iPad!

To check out the snapshot on your own iPad, just click the image.