A year with an iPad: How it's changed me


By Galen M. Gruman
Created 2011-09-06 03:00AM

When I first got an iPad a little over a year ago, I wasn't sure what to do with it. Technologically, it was neat, but as a new type of device, it didn't really fit in my everyday work or personal routines. A year later, it's something I keep near me at almost all times and use routinely. It's also dramatically changed some of my information-oriented behaviors. And I'm convinced its effects on me and the world at large are still in its early phases.

When the iPad first was announced, pundits argued over whether it was a laptop replacement or a new form of computing that would find a place alongside the PC and smartphone, though no one figured it would replace a smartphone. At the time, the iPad took a lot of heat -- sight unseen -- for not being essentially a nonfolding netbook, then the darling device of those who wanted cheap, lightweight computing.

It turns out that the iPad is both a laptop replacement and a "third device" that has its own role. It just depends on what you're doing.

There was also a strain of the punditocracy that said the iPad was simply for entertainment playback -- Gartner and other analyst firms still refer to the iPad and other tablets as "media tablets," reflecting this narrow view of their usefulness. I can tell you that an iPad is not merely or even mainly an entertainment playback device.

An iPad shares a key attribute with the PC: Thanks to software, it can multitask. Running iTunes or other playback app, it's a "media tablet."

Running email or messaging apps, it's a communications device. Running a Web browser, it's a Chromebook or other Web access device. Running games, it's a gaming device. Running business apps, it's a laptop. With a credit card reader, it's a point-of-sale terminal. And on and on. An iPad is what you make of it, and what you make if it can change easily, just like a PC. As apps improve, the more like a PC it can be.

But an iPad is not just a flat PC. Its touch-based user interface strongly favors certain uses. You can't get the same fine control over movement with a finger as with a mouse (thanks to all the hand muscles working in concert on a mouse), so anything that requires fine motion, such as page layout, would be difficult on an iPad. Yes, apps can use nudge buttons and snap-to grids to help overcome such motor-control realities, but that adds more steps to do the work. It's no surprise to me that you really don't see apps of this type for the iPad.

Reading and watching

The touch-based interface, though is much more direct in many ways than using a mouse. Pointing is something humans learn very, very easily in life, and touching objects comes soon after. Tapping an icon or button or object is very natural, as are using gestures like scroll, pinch, and rotate. Thus, so is navigation (flipping pages in a book or zooming in on a website, for example). The iPad may be much more than a media tablet, but media assets lend themselves well to touch-based use.

Since getting an iPad, I find myself touching lots of screens, such as the checkout terminals in grocery stores and ATM screens. When they don't respond, I'm taken aback -- but I've noticed more and more now responding to finger touch.

The easy navigation certainly simplifies media consumption, but the scalable text in most apps has an advantage my nearly 50-year-old eyes appreciate quickly: Rather than squint or fumble for my reading glasses (likely nowhere near me), I can adjust the text in books, magazines, newspapers, and Web pages so that they're readable. As a result, I read much more than I had before -- because I can. And when a website or app -- such as Google's search pages or Apple's Mail client -- don't let me enlarge the text, I get really annoyed.

I've reached the point where I've converted nearly all my magazine and newspaper subscriptions to digital-only, which has the nice side effect of saving trees. (The Economist's iPad and iPhone apps are great examples of how to do digital magazines right.) I say "nearly all" because some publications aren't available yet for the iPad (Smithsonian), are available only at a per-issue charge on top of the print subscription (Consumer Reports), or are available only as essentially a glorified PDF product minus the ability to zoom (National Geographic). Guess which publications I'm least likely to renew?

The iPad is also comfortable to hold for long periods of time, and due to its light weight and small size, it's ideal for plane and train travel. I can load the iPad with a half-dozen books and movies without increasing its weight -- which means my bag is not as full and stands a chance of fitting under the seat in front of me. And in today's scrunched airplane seats, I can see (and type on) the iPad screen on the tray table, whereas my Mac is too big to fit in the same space and have its monitor tilted back far enough to read. In hotels with dozens of channels of trashy TV, I can stay entertained on business trips.

What I rarely do with the iPad is listen to music or radio. That happens on my iPhone, which I can put in a shirt or jacket pocket and have the earbud cable not get tangled on passing objects or force me to keep one hand engaged in holding the device, as would be the case with an iPad.

Messaging and monitoring

When working on my computer, I still use my iPad to handle much of my messaging: monitoring and replying to emails, tweeting, checking various news and blog sites, and watching the status of story flow in InfoWorld's content management system. Yes, I can do all those things on the Mac, but with the iPad as an auxiliary computer, I can use the Mac for more intensive editing, layout, and production work and swivel to the iPad on my desk's return to keep track of and respond to everything else. (I do use the Mac's email when I need to send an attachment in a reply, since that file is likely to be on the computer.)

I didn't expect the iPad to become my communications and monitoring companion device, but it has.

When I'm traveling -- to a meeting or across the country -- I can do a lot of routine work on the iPad, from editing stories to conducting research. I no longer take my MacBook with me on trips of fewer than three days. When I bring both, the Mac stays in the hotel room for intense work at the start and end of the day, and the iPad comes with me everywhere else. Not only does its 10-hour battery life make that plausible, its light weight and easy connectivity makes it better suited for on-the-go work.

It's also amazing how often a question comes up when I reach for my iPad and find out via a quick Web search -- if I'm a passenger in a car or taxi, for example, or sitting in an airport lounge or bulding lobby. I've found myself doing the same when I want to check the status quickly on some task or if I realize I want to make a small change to a piece I've written or edited. I can do it almost anywhere and almost any time -- so I do. The iPhone can also help in these occurrences, but I favor the iPad's larger screen and keyboard -- as long as I'm able sit or put it on a work surface. If I'm standing on a train or in a line, the iPhone is the tool I use.

Doing "real" work on the iPad

Many people complain about onscreen keyboards and simply can't imagine writing or editing an extensive piece that requires a keyboard in the iPad. Be patient -- it took me a few weeks to get comfortable typing on the onscreen keyboard. It may help that I'm not a touch-typist and make lots of typos even on a regular keyboard -- facts I've long come to terms with. I don't get upset that I make even more mistakes on the onscreen keyboard. It's easy enough to fix later, after all.

I have no trouble writing email tomes from the iPad, even on a bus or train. I've covered major events from cramped theater seats on the iPad, with the audience none the wiser. I routinely take notes on the iPad when doing phone interviews (you need a headset to be able to type), which has it advantages.

My notes won't need to be transcribed later and they sync automatically to my email server, so I have an instant backup and the ability to share it with colleagues immediately.

I've tried using a Bluetooth keyboard, which is easier to type on, but you have to do so much via touch gestures that your hands end up leaving the keyboard a lot, and switching back and forth is annoying. Unless I'm doing stenography-style meeting notes or typing a paper, I find the Bluetooth keyboard to be more of a distraction than a productivity aid.

Where work gets tricker is when you deal with formatting and other attributes. There are no shortcuts for boldface or indenting on the iPad, even for apps that support such formatting [10], so you have to stop, select text, and apply the relevant controls. It's not hard, but it's a much more awkward process than using a keyboard and mouse on a computer. If you use special characters such as for HTML coding, the keyboard mode switching required really slows you down. For example, when I edit text on the iPad, it takes me about twice as long as on the Mac. That's fine if I'm at a conference for a few days, where lugging the laptop would be a greater net inconvenience. But it's why I couldn't rely solely on an iPad.

For presentations, Apple's Keynote is simply amazing, letting you create, edit, and play back presentations easily. The iPad is a great presentation device, especially if you use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a remote control [11]; you can walk the stage while giving your presentation from the easy-to-carry, long-lived iPad. And you can easily give personal presentations anywhere by simply handing your iPad to the other person.

Obvously, the nature of your work has a huge effect on this iPad/PC balancing act. But the net effect is that I can work more flexibly and stay better in touch and informed with the iPad than without it -- though at the price of working more, or at least of falling victim to obsessive emailing, tweeting, and other such monitoring.

A year later, the iPad has made itself a key part of my personal and professional workflows. I read more, I lug less around on trips, I am more aware and in touch, and I can be more flexible in when and where I work. And I still really enjoy using it.

This article, "A year with an iPad: How it has changed me [12]," was originally published at InfoWorld.com [13]. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog [14] and follow the latest developments in mobile technology [15] at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen [6]. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter [16].

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