The iPad Diaries

Background, full disclosure etc.

I’m a gadget freak and classic early adopter. I had a Prius before they were fashionable. Also I’m a longtime Apple user — since 1978, in fact, when I had an Apple II. I was even, briefly a Lisa user. (Remember the Lisa? It was the precursor to the Macintosh.) I got my first Mac in 1984, but in the 1980s and 1990s worked on both Macs and PCs. Gave up using Microsoft Windows entirely in 1999, and since then have been exclusively Mac and Linux user. Currently owner of a MacBook Air, an iMac, an iPod Touch (but not an iPhone) and a Linux server. I’m not really a fanboy though, and I don’t own any Apple shares (though I remember thinking they might be a good buy when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1996). I’m ambivalent about Apple’s control freakery, in the sense that I dislike it but also understand the commercial rationale behind it. Oh, and I bought the iPad with my own money (a shade under £700) so there were no PR obligations in my response to the device.

Day 1: Friday 28th

iPad day! Apple emailed last Saturday to say that they had shipped the device and promised faithfully to deliver the Jesus Tablet by today, so entire household is on courier watch. At no stage is the house left unoccupied: there is always a courier sentry on watch. Neighbours ringing bell are astonished to find family converging on front door as if expecting visit from Obama. But the day drags on interminably and no courier shows up. So much for Apple’s ‘track my order’ facility — which consistently failed to provide tracking information. Lots of cheery messages from friends saying “I expect you’ve got your iPad by now, ho, ho, ho”. Grind teeth in silent frustration.

Day 2: Saturday 29th

Desperate need to obtain supplies (bread, milk, catfood, etc.) drives me out of the house at 8.05am to see courier van draw up and puzzled-looking driver emerging, scratching his head. Instant diagnosis: he’s had the usual satnav problem in locating houses in the village. But he’s clutching two promising looking packages. Yesss! they contain the sacred Tablet and its duly-ordered accessories — a case and a Vodafone sim card. “We were hoping to see you yesterday”, I say, cheerily. He looks at me and I see the exhaustion in his eyes. It’s clear that the poor man has iPad fatigue. “I don’t usually work Saturdays”, he says, “but I’m going to have to today”.

Unfortunately, today is a Busy Day for me, so barely have time to switch on the device. But when I do a neat image appears indicating that the first thing to do is to connect the device to a PC or Mac running iTunes. So much for the idea that this is a computer for people who don’t ‘do’ computers. What would my elderly, PC-less mother-in-law do if she had laid out £500 for this, I wonder?

This is important, since one of the enthusiastic takes on the iPad is that Steve Jobs has discovered a whole new market niche — between the PC and the smartphone, possibly occupied by people who don’t want either. But if you don’t have a computer running iTunes, you can’t get the ipad started.

Syncing it with iTunes is a breeze, as usual with Apple kit. Interestingly, all the Apps that currently run on my iPod Touch are automatically installed on the new device. Most of them, however, run only in a touch-sized window: you can enlarge them, and they look crummy if you do. But they all work.

To breakfast with my son and his family at their home on the other side of town. Seven year old sees the iPad and exclaims “it’s a big iPhone!” Smart lad: will go far. In fact, to anyone who has had an iPhone or an iPod Touch, the iPad won’t seem like much of a revelation. It’s really just a bigger Touch. I guess, though, that for people who haven’t been exposed to Apple mobile technology, the iPad will seem very glitzy and new.

But, boy, is it heavy, heavy, heavy. 1.5lbs.

The (overpriced) optional case is clever: when folded back it sets up the iPad at an angle suitable for typing on the on-screen keyboard. Said keyboard is better than expected; at any rate, it’s easier to type accurately on it than it is on my iPod Touch. But I dig out a neat little Apple wireless keyboard that I bought ages ago, replace the batteries and set up a Bluetooth connection. Hey presto! I have a reasonable typing experience — but, on the other hand, I now have another piece to kit to lug around — which rather undermines the point of the tablet.

The iPad is as efficient as any other Apple device at picking up our wireless network (which is pretty good, especially compared with Windows devices). It’s also come with a 3G Sim card from Vodafone, but just now life seems too short to lock horns with a mobile phone company. Besides I’m only using the iPad round the house. So 3G connectivity is put on the long finger.

I log onto the iTunes store and buy the three Apple iWork Apps — Numbers (spreadsheet), Pages (word-processing) and Keynote (presentation). They’re much cheaper than their full-bore counterparts. But — as I discover later — this is only fair, given that they’re heavily emasculated versions of their bigger cousins.

The Safari browser is quick and efficient — but also slightly crippled relative to the usual Mac version. (No tabs, for example. And no obvious way of getting RSS feeds via the browser.) The iPad screen is clear and bright and has reasonable resolution: the (free) Guardian ‘eyewitness’ App (90,000 downloads so far) shows it off brilliantly. Email works well. So far so good.

But I need a tool for writing with. “No problem”, I think, “I’ll just download TextWrangler“. This is a wonderful, stable, powerful and free text-editing program that’s always the first thing I install on a new Mac. And then I suddenly remember: this iPad isn’t a ‘proper’ computer in the sense of being a generative machine. I can’t install any software on it other than ‘Apps’ that are approved by Apple and supplied via the iTunes store. I can’t do anything with it that hasn’t been deemed acceptable in advance by Apple. I’m brought up sharply against the realisation that I’m using a tethered device: it may not be plugged into the wall, but a long, controlling string stretches all the way from Cupertino (where Apple’s corporate HQ is located) to my living room. And there’s bugger all I can do about it.

Ah, you say, but isn’t the Pages App a word-processing program? It is, but what I need to be able to do is to work on documents that have been created elsewhere, using other kinds of software. At the moment, for example, I’m deep into a new book and the chapter drafts are all held in the cloud. Can’t I just import them into Pages? Er, no; or at any rate not without jumping through some insane hoops when all it really needs is a proper ‘Import’ function in the App.

Later, I import a draft chapter from my current book project into Pages — and find that it’s stripped out all the footnotes, rendering the document entirely useless. I can’t work on it on the iPad in other words. Bah!

Day 3: Sunday 30th

First thing on Sunday morning — check web edition of my Observer column and create a post about it in my blog. With a netbook or Mac, this is a work of seconds. The process is: find Observer website, find column, select a suitable passage and hit the ‘Press This’ bookmarklet to post to my WordPress blog. But how to do all this on the iPad? First select a suitable passage from the article. Er, how do I do that? Double click. Page enlarges. Try a bit of random finger-stabbing. Ah, a small chunk of text is highlighted, with what look like virtual drawing pins at either extremity. I can drag one of these to the top of the desired excerpt. Dragging the other pin is more problematic. Hard to be precise. Tap and then choose ‘Copy’. Then shrink all windows, open new browser window, hit Bookmarks to find the ‘Write’ page for my blog. Paste the copied text into the main composition box. But then it’s back to the Observer site to copy the URL, and then the same round trip back to paste it into the blog post. And then I find that the pasted excerpt is bigger than the text box allocated by WordPress. Normally, this isn’t a problem — a scroll bar magically appears. But not on the iPad. There appears to be no way of actually scrolling this particular bit of text. Growl. And so it goes on. The clear implication is that iPad users weren’t supposed to do this kind of fiddly stuff on their devices.

Jeff Jarvis tweets that he has decided to return his. So I log on to Buzzmachine.com and there’s his video:

And then there’s Nick Cohen’s column about the apalling conditions in the Chinese factories that make gizmos like the iPad.

“I cannot imagine Stephen Fry stopping his drooling over the iPad – “Just to see this is fantastic!” he burbled as crowds gathered for its launch at the Apple headquarters in London – and showing some common decency by expressing a little concern for Apple’s workers. More to the point, I am not sure that anyone would listen to him if he did. China is too big, too powerful, too impervious to criticism for Europeans to think about. The scale of the Shenzhen plant is beyond our imagination. A boycott of Foxconn’s products would not just mean boycotting Apple, but Nintendo, Nokia, Sony, HP and Dell too. Boycott China and you boycott the computer age, which, despite the crash, effectively means boycotting the 21st century, as we so far understand it.”

Hmmm…

Later in the evening, I realise that I’ve missed Alan Yentob’s Imagine film about the making of the Rolling Stones album, exile on Main Street , so I fire up the BBC iPlayer and — lo! — there it is. At which point I realise that the iPad is indeed a Really Good Passive Viewing Device.

Which of course is what it was always designed to be.

Battery life seems pretty good too. The advertised figure of 10 hours seems accurate.

Day 4: Monday 31 May

Downloaded the much-hyped iPad edition of Wired (cost £2.99). Found it puzzling at first, but at least I was able to fire up the HD clip from Toy Story 3 which was on the ‘cover’. Eventually I got the hang of its initially-baffling interface. In true postmodern style, the issue has a column by Steven Levy on tablets in which he sets out some conditions for this new product category to succeed:

  • They must be cheap enough to lose
  • Tablets must be as light as paper. The iPad weighs 1.5 lbs — and you notice it. The Kindle is 10.2 lbs oz.*
  • Tablets must always be connected. Obvious, really.
  • Hmmm… The iPad scores poorly on two of the three.

    Wired’s “first digital edition” is innovative in some ways, and easy to read once you’ve sussed the interface. But I wonder how sustainable it is. They sought — according to the editor, Chris Anderson — to “retain all the visual impact of paper” but “enhanced by interactive elements like video and animated infographics. We can offer you a history of Mars landings that lets you explore the red planet yourself”. (Eh?) The story of how Pixar go about animation, however, is very interesting — and of course includes a snippet of the finished sequence in what looks very much like HD.

    The Wired App is based on “new digital publishing technology” developed by Adobe. “The yearlong effort”, writes Anderson, “will allow us to simultaneously create both the print magazine and the enhanced digital version with the same set of authoring and design tools”. (Alas, it doesn’t stop them splitting infinitives.) Clearly an awful lot of work went into this edition. Can they roll something as complex as this off the production line every month? Maybe the aforesaid authoring and design tools will enable them to do it.

    The “Application Terms of Use” — all nine screenfuls of them, are a hoot. [Ed: strictly speaking, an hoot.]

    Sample: “You agree not to use any obscene, indecent, or offensive language or to provide to or post on or through the App any graphics, text, photographs,images, video, audio or other material that is defamatory, abusive, bullying, harassing, racist, hateful, or violent. You agree to refrain from communicating ethnic slurs, religious intolerance, homophobia, and/or personal attacks on or through the App”. Eh? This is a read-only application. I can’t do anything with it. Maybe these Terms & Conditions are actually aimed at Conde Nast and got published by mistake?

    Downloaded Kindle App and ‘purchased’ a number of free books (various volumes of Pepy’s diaries for example) Unimpressed. Reflective screen very difficult to read in bright light.

    Suddenly realised that the TuneIn Radio App that I have on my iPod Touch has been installed automatically on the iPad. It’s a terrific application that lets me access radio stations that stream content onto the Web (which includes domestic BBC stations). The only drawback is that the iPod has only tiny speakers, so I have to use headphones most of the time. So I fire it up on the iPad, and find that it’s been transformed by the device’s speakers. It’s now by far the best way to listen to radio. Bliss. Talk about serendipity.

    Day 5: Tuesday 1 June

    Downloaded Google Apps. Why? Because I need access to my calendar, which is stored in the cloud. Strange that Apple have not included an iCal App of their own.

    Also, since I’m a twitterer (twitter.com/jjn1) I need a Twitter App. I use Tweetdeck on laptops, so that seemed an obvious choice. It’s free and works more or less as the laptop version.

    Since I’ve laid out all this money to get the 3G versin of the tablet, I guess this is the moment when I ought to set it up. This requires making a phone call to Vodafone. I am pathologically averse to making phone calls to mobile phone companies, so I suddenly balk. And then I realise that I don’t actually need to activate the Sim card I have so carefully inserted into the iPad. I have a nice little MiFi 3G modem from the 3 network, which hooks up to the Net via 3G (when there’s a signal) and then turns itself into a little Wi-Fi base station in my pocked, radiating connectivity to any authorised device within range. Since the iPad has Wi-Fi thi is obviously an option, so I try it — and it works a treat.

    Only then does it dawn on me that I’ve paid about £270 too much for this blasted device. I could have got by perfectly well with the 16G Wi-Fi only version. Sigh.

    Day 6: Wednesday 2 June

    Downloaded Frypaper — Stephen Fry’s App. Really it’s just another way of accessing his excellent Blog, but it makes good use of the iPad’s display capabilities. On the ‘front page’ individual entries appear as smallish boxes, each with the opening para of the item. Click on it and it expands into a four-column layout, rather like a well-designed glossy mag. Good stuff, even if he is a fanboy.

    Day 7: Thursday 3 June

    What I’ve noticed is that the iPad is useful in the same way as the iPod Touch is — as a kind of always-on, Internet-connected device. So over the last few days I’ve often used it to check something quickly, to read and reply to email in the interstices between other activities. It’s easier to type on than the Touch — at least for my fingers. And because it’s got decent speakers, I can listen to Internet radio (via the TuneIn App) without using headphones (or craning to hear what’s coming out of the Touch’s tiny speaker). But it hasn’t been a game-changer in the way that, say, wireless networking or even the Touch was. For much of my working day, the iPad is peripheral because it doesn’t fit naturally into my workflow — which is mostly about researching on the Web (for which I have to use Firefox, because I use Zotero as a bibliographical tool), writing text, uploading and editing images and video, publishing stuff to the web, printing and reading documents, communicating with Skype, etc.

    So…summing up

  • The week has reminded me of how much I value my laptops (MacBook Air and Hackintosh netbook)
  • The iPad is primarily a consumption device — and is very good for that. But it’s hopeless for originating or editing existing stuff. It doesn’t fit into my personal workflow. At the moment, it can’t handle digital cameras (though Quentin tells me there’s an optional USB-type connector available) and doesn’t have an onboard camera, so much inferior to iPhone in that respect.
  • The huge sales of the iPad suggest that Apple has discovered another profitable market niche — between laptop and smartphone. If so, then it isn’t the elderly, PC-less folks of this world. To make use of the iPad you need (a) access to a machine running iTunes; and (b) access to a wi-fi network.
  • For me, the iPad turns out to belong to the category “nice to have but not essential”. It’s beautifully made, but overpriced (esp in UK) and heavy.
  • I can see that I might find it useful in some circcumstances — e.g. a day spent travelling away from base when all I need is email, web browsing and small amounts of writing. For some people, that may be all they need.
  • Finally, I can’t see it making big inroads as an eBook reader, somehow. Of course the big screen is an advantage. But it’s offset by the increased weight, and the poor performance in bright sunlight. And it’s too bulky to carry around. When I compare it with the Eucalyptus App on my iPod Touch — which enables me to carry, for example, the entire text of Ulysses in my pocket. Given that the iPad is only marginally heavier than my hardback Everyman edition of Joyce’s novel — and I don’t carry that around — well, you can see that the Pad is no competition for the Touch.
  • I suspect that the real significance of the iPad is that it legitimises the tablet format. Just as the iPhone legitimised the idea that a mobile phone should actually be a powerful handheld computer that happens to make voice calls. The next release of the iPad will probably address some of my frustrations — the absence of multitasking, for example, and the lack of a camera. Remember that after the iPhone came Android and the legion of Linux-powered, increasingly capable, mobile phones. Expect a similar deluge of iPad-apeing tablets (first one — the Streak — out from Dell this month. ASUS is also working on one. And Google.) So one day we’ll get a really useful tablet out of this. The big question is whether it will be made by Apple.

    ——————————
    * Thanks to Josh Marchment for spotting the over-weighty Kindle.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    As part of my attempt to try and assess the utility of the iPad, I’ve been using it as much as possible in the course of my day. We’re now several weeks into the experiment and I’ve noticed something interesting: I’ve been blogging less. And the reason is simple: the iPad is hopeless as a blogging tool, or at any rate as a tool for the kind of blogging that I do. Since I use Memex as a kind of working notebook — an online commonplace-book — multi-tasking is absolutely essential: I read something online and decide that I want to log it in Memex. On a real computer, that’s dead easy: highlight the key passage, hit the ‘Press This’ bookmarklet (I use WordPress), edit, hit ‘publish’. That’s it. With the iPad, the workflow needed to achieve the same result doesn’t even bear thinking about — it involves closing one application, launching another, clumsy selecting, cutting and pasting, etc. etc. Zzzz…

    There is a WordPress App for the iPad, and it’s ok as far as it goes, which is only to write posts from scratch. For some bloggers — those who just write original stuff — it’s useable. But for someone like me it’s not really helpful.

    Another quirk: when blogging with WordPress (and, I guess, Blogger) one’s composing inside a text box — as here:

    Note that when the draft post exceeds the size of the box a scroll-bar appears. On the iPad, there’s no scroll bar. “No problem”, you think. “Just grab the text and move it up to make room”. Not possible: all that happens is that you move the entire web-page. Not sure if this is fix-able within the parameters of Apple’s touch interface, but at the moment it makes the editing of longer blog posts effectively impossible.

    (And as for getting an image into the post to illustrate a point — as above — well, forget it.)

    My hunch is that there’s an opening for a serious iPad blogging App. The big question, I guess, is whether it’s possible to do one within the confines of the present OS.

    All of this merely confirms, of course, that the iPad has been conceived as essentially a tool for consumption rather than creation — and that users like me are, really, rather quaint exceptions with little marketing significance. Steve Jobs might say that we should stick to our multi-tasking laptops; and, given the huge sales of the iPad, who’s to say that he’s wrong?