A time to gain, a time to lose.

Pete Seeger

Thoughts on the iPad

10 May 2010

I’ve had my 3G iPad for about a week now, and it’s becoming clear to me how I’ll use this device.

As Steve Jobs pointed out at its launch, the iPad occupies the space between the iPhone and a computer. Of course, the question is whether there is room for an additional device in there. As I waited for mine to ship (the month of April seemed so long, as seemingly everyone else received their wi-fi versions), I wondered about several questions. Would the iPad replace many of the uses of my iPhone? Would it replace my MacBook Pro? Would it present novel uses, things I didn’t do with either my phone or laptop? The answer to each is yes.

What was

I wear three different hats, so my MacBook Pro does triple duty. It’s the data analysis tool for a scientist, the development tool for Hunt Mountain Software, and the all-purpose tool for family life and fun. This means that I use a lot of software. Pages, Papers, Keynote, EndNote, NoteTaker, Illustrator, and R get the heaviest workout in my research. XCode, Interface Builder, Coda, BBEdit, Graphic Converter, and Xyle Scope are the backbone of my software development. Safari, Mail, and iPhoto are used in everything, including family and fun.

I’ve used my iPhone for a small subset of what I do on my laptop: it handles the family and fun area well because it’s convenient and it’s always with me. It’s become the go-to device for web-surfing, email, Facebook, Twitter, and it’s my main game-playing platform. My iPhone also became the preferred GTD-capture device, since it’s always with me. What links all of these iPhone tasks is that they require only minimal input: they are all primarily about consuming content.

What is

Once the iPad arrived, I tried to figure out how I was going to use it. I first installed all of my iPhone apps and soon realized that most of those didn’t work well on the iPad. Most weren’t synced to the iPhone, which raised new issues of keeping multiple devices up to date. For example, the prospect of keeping two parallel sets of GTD notes in TaskPaper seemed like far too much futzing. Second, many of the iPhone apps have no native iPad version, and they give you the option of looking at an iPhone-sized app on the large iPad screen (odd) or doubling the app size to fill the screen. The pixelation that results makes most of these apps look an old Atari video game. The fonts also become ludicrously large, making the iPad seem like one of those large-print novels. Many apps, like Tweetie, fall into this category and I soon deleted nearly every one of these 1X/2X apps from the iPad.

Next, I sought out native iPad apps. Keynote and Pages were obvious first choices, since my lectures are all in Keynote and Pages is my default word processor. Simplenote was another immediate purchase, as it was my main notetaker on the iPhone, and Paperdesk let me organize my notes into notebooks and let me add drawings. Articles, quickly became my preferred way of accessing Wikipedia. Papers proved great for organizing and reading my pdfs, but syncing with my Mac has been problematic (more about that later). Instapaper shows great promise as a way of accessing web content when I don’t have wireless access and don’t want to pay for a month of AT&T’s service. Nightstand HD let me turn the iPad into an alarm clock, and my favorite game, Strategery, is even better on the big screen, as is Real Racing HD.

I also found lots of great free apps, too. Weatherbug is a beautiful and informative weather app. The NYT Editor’s Choice and BBC News are good news sources, although the NYT Editor’s Choice is hampered by greatly limited content. Both iBooks and Kindle are good book readers and have let me set my Kindle device aside. Netflix let’s me stream movies to my iPad, something I never would have done on the iPhone.

What shall be

With time, it became clear that the iPad is great for all those odd internet-related bits I do in the evening: checking my email, going to Facebook, looking through Twitter, catching up on the news, and surfing the web. Mail, Safari, Twitterific, NYT Editor’s Choice, BBC News, Weatherbug, and Articles all get daily use. For fun, I’ll play games and stream video. The iPad is outstanding for all of these. As a result, I spend almost no time at night on my laptop, and curiously, I do less of these things during the day because the iPad is just a better platform for them. I also do less of these things on my iPhone. Like Darwin’s wedge, the iPad succeeds by displacing its neighbors. The iPhone is with me all the time and still works fine for most of these tasks, although the screen now does feel a bit small. I can still also do all of these things on my computer too, but when it comes to consumption, I’d rather do it with my iPad. So would my kids. The 2 ½ year old using the iPad made the rounds early, but I’m impressed at how my kids immediately understood how to use the iPad.

With few exceptions, I’ve done little work on my iPad. I did buy Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, which is extraordinarily compact, but I’ve used it only once. I can imagine taking the iPad and keyboard with me when I travel to meetings instead of my laptop. The iPad would give me ready access to email and the web, plus the ability to take notes, in something I wouldn’t mind carrying with me all day. The keyboard would stay in the hotel room for when I need to do some serious text entry. It’s light enough that I’d barely notice it when packing. Even so, typing on the iPad is far easier and less error-prone than I expected; it’s not at all the barrier to work that I expected it to be.

I enjoy that the iPad has forced a division of work on my laptop and play on my iPad. Matt Gemmell’s described how his iPad helps him with both leisure and work, but so far for me, it’s strictly a leisure computer and I like that separation.

For the iPad to become a serious work platform for me, syncing has to be substantially improved. Right now, getting files on and off of the iPad is complicated. Even for the iWork suite, arguably the three stars in Orion’s belt for Apple’s claims to productivity on the iPad, file transfer is cumbersome and must go through iTunes. I understand that Apple wants to shield the file system from the average user, but a simpler way needs to be developed. Where’s easy wireless transfer, for example? Papers uses a wireless transfer, but it requires me to make a new wireless network from my laptop. I shouldn’t need to make a new network to sync my iPad. I also shouldn’t need to email files to myself, a solution other apps suggest. Nor should I have to enroll in a different online syncing service for each app. Right now, there are too many solutions to syncing, and none of them are good.

In addition, the iPad-Mac sync must be seamless for this to become a work computer. Because iWork on the iPad is not as full-featured as its Mac counterparts, files prepared on the Mac may not render properly on the iPad. Transferring two simple manuscripts to the iPad generated a raft of errors for missing fonts, including the commonplace Times-Roman and Garamond. EndNote citations were also removed. File transfer shouldn’t bring back memories of crossing from the Mac to Windows.

As Steve Jobs predicted, the iPad does find a place between the iPhone and the Mac. For me, it’s primarily for consuming content rather than creating it. It’s taken the place of much of what I used to do on the iPhone, in terms of email, Facebook, Twitter, following the news, and so on. Many of these things I also use to do on the Mac, but no longer. It hasn’t taken the place of my work on the Mac. My paleontologic research and my software development will still be done almost entirely on the Mac. There’s no serious software solutions that would let me move any of this work to the iPad. The iPad has presented new opportunities, like reading books and watching movies, that I never did on either my iPhone or my Mac, even though I could have. I also play more games on the iPad than I did on the iPhone, mainly because of the larger screen. I’m certain that the iPad’s capabilities will continue to expand, even perhaps making it a passable work computer one ay. Even so, I’m delighted with my iPad right now, just as it is.