03 April 2011

From laptop to iPad

A few weeks ago I decided to leave my Mac OS X laptop in the rucksack for a few days and just use an iPad for everyday use as a test of the iPad's viability for typical daily use.  The work included some airplane travel and a visit to a remote office.  I also had an external Bluetooth keyboard with me in case I had to do a lot of heads-down writing.

The following is an examination of why the iPad doesn't yet fill my laptop's boots.

The Basics

Browsing generally works fine, even a few fiddly banking sites.  I miss being able to save sites to a storage area for later reading.  While there are services like Instapaper, I want to save pages to place where they can be search indexed (a filesystem!).

Email isn't a replacement for laptop email.  Most fundamentally, you can't create a new folder in your IMAP folder set.  That's a deal-breaker.  You also can't restore from trash or mark junk email.  And you can't meaningfully search email content from within the email app.  Lack of deep content search is another deal breaker.

Skype works fine, except no video (I'm on an original iPad).

Flipping between local country SIM cards for data services as I moved between countries worked fine.  New APN settings popped in without any manual intervention.  I sometimes have to reboot between SIM changes or at least flip the iPad in and out of flight mode for the new SIM to start working.  Annoying, but not earth-shattering.

Note Taking

I tried using mail messages, Plaintext, and Notes for taking notes.

I ended up primarily using "Notes".  Flipping between notes is useful.  The iPad is particularly good in meetings, especially one-on-ones as it doesn't get in the way between you and others like the display of a laptop does.

I tend to eventually convert Notes to emails for long-term archiving in IMAP, or text snips are extracted to put in docs.

However, Notes isn't perfect.  There are problems with how Notes synchronizes between devices and being on and off line.  I commonly end up with multiple copies of the same note even though I've only been using one device to edit the note with.

Plaintext's dropbox integration is compelling.  If Plaintext supported rtf files (default file type of OS X's notepad app) and some basic markup, I'd probably switch to it from Notes as my primary note taking tool.

Taking notes in the email app isn't viable because the message you're writing effectively locks down the email app interface.  I need to be able to quickly flip between taking notes and checking email without having to save and restore my notes from the draft folder.

It would be very useful to have some basic text markup capabilities in Notes, Mail and Plaintext such as lists, bold, and highlight.

Offline usage

A lack of access to files is annoying.  iOS forces a strong siloing of data by application with some sharing, but not uniformly enforced.  Flexible cut-and-paste and an underlying filesystem are very useful and general purpose ways to share information between apps and neither exists on iOS.

To an extent, dropbox and me.com can act as a filesystem.  However, without control over caching policies, being able to pre-load the cache, and lack of universal integration, they just don't cut it as a real filesystem substitute.

Ideal integration for me would be between apps like mail, Plaintext, and iWork with dropbox and iDisk working properly under them.  In particular the iWork apps (equivalents to Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) work very poorly relative to iDisk, little less dropbox.

For example, when I open an Excel doc via Numbers from an email attachment, it's a one-time shot.  The file is not being stored in a central, synchroized spot if I make changes.  I have to remember the doc is being held in Numbers and extract it later.

Network/Cloud Storage - dropbox and iDisk

Dropbox continues to wow me and iDisk continues to disappoint.  I'm continuing to put more and more into Dropbox.  About the only items I don't have in Dropbox now are large storage requirements items such as my local storage mail archives, iPhoto database, software downloads, Music, Sites, and vmware+images.  Adding all of these would mean a significant annual cost for dropbox.

iDisk continues to be painfully slow and I'm not fully confident of its syncing (n.b., I just found another legacy folder structure artifact with no files under it that shouldn't have been there).  I continue to use iDisk for backups only as I still don't trust it or find it sufficiently usable for primary storage.

Even if iDisk synchronization and app integration is radically improved, it still suffers from poor adoption and multi-device availability as compared to Dropbox.


The iPad needs some way to dock to a keyboard, monitor and mouse in a generalized (not app by app specific) way.  Otherwise, creating and maintaining Numbers, Keynote and Pages documents on the iPad is pretty-much out of the question as the screen is too small.  At best the iWork applications can be used for quick last-minute edits.

The lack of meaningful search is a deal killer.  I really miss search as directly integrated into Mail and the Desktop.  Search is likely a resource hog to maintain - memory, disk, power.  The iOS desktop search is just too shallow, not readily available and focused within apps.

I'd really like cache management under explicit control.  Email, attachments, Notes, Dropbox, and iDisk.  I'd like to be able to "preload cache" when I have a fat wifi connection available.  I'd like to be able to specify the maximum size of each cache.  I'd like to enable "background" caching so the app isn't restricted to only caching when it's in the foreground.

There is no undo or ^Z in mail (and I assume most other apps) in case I accidentally delete something.

Pages was so slow as to be effectively unusable on a 20 page MS Word document.

I often encounter links to pages I want to save for later review.  They can be from email, a news site (e.g., BBC), general surfing (e.g., Safari), tweets (e.g., tweetdeck), or a feeds manager (e.g., flipboard).  I want to save these pages to a place that is search indexed (e.g., via spotlight).  I end up having to mail the link to myself and browse/save the page later from my laptop.  I don't consider instapaper or Evernote to be adequate.

On the positive side, the convenience due to the iPad's size is tough to beat.  It strikes a good balance between portability and usability.  You can unobtrusively carry and use it almost everywhere.  And the long battery life means a full day of use between charges.


Switching to full-time use of an iPad would be possible if:
  • Apple significantly improves their synchronization capability, both with IMAP (Notes) and iDisk.
  • Apple provides a better note-taking tool with some basic formatting, ability to flip quickly between notes, and integration to Dropbox (or an iDisk that works as well as Dropbox).
  • Add Undo in a standard way to most apps that edit, move or delete objects.
  • Add a pervasive search function that is available within applications and implicitly scopes its search to that application data.
  • Be able to create IMAP folders in mail
  • Better, explicit cache management for cloud storage
  • Better way to save web pages to a centralized search-indexed location
The new iPads have been out a few weeks as I write this.  They should help with a few of the issues I mentioned above (Skype video, speed), but most issues are software and iOS design related.

Dropbox continues to shine as the best network, synchronized, shared, multi-device/OS filesystem on the market.  Adding improved cache controls by device would be a great feature addition.  iOS (or any) app makers would be wise to provide seamless integration to Dropbox for cloud file management.

Given all these iPad/iOS issues, the iPad remains appropriately only for more casual and mobile meetings.  It is still only a supplement for my laptop, not a replacement.

(For completeness, here are other apps I'm using regularly during a typical week for work.  They all function adequately:  Lonely Planet City Guides, FlightTrack, Flipboard, Kindle, PlainText, Tweetdeck (add LinkedIn integration!), Skype, and GoodReader.)

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