The iPad isn’t a PC replacement for everyone, yet

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 21.17.14

When Apple announced the new iPad last week, Phil Schiller made a point of highlighting it as a replacement for the 600 million PCs that are over 5 years old.

While I like that Apple is pushing the iPad a PC replacement – for many people it is (including myself, mostly); I do think that people still using a 5 year old PC are likely to be in the ‘technologically conservative’ camp and will therefore run up against limitations if they tried to use an iPad as a replacement.

For example:

  • They may still have an older generation of iPod or MP3 player that needs to sync with a PC.
  • They may still buy CDs, and want to rip them so they can play them on such an MP3 player.
  • They may want to print things, and seeing as they have a 5-year old PC, they probably don’t have a wireless printer.
  • They might own a lot of legacy media such as video tapes and vinyl records. They may want to use a USB conversion device to modernise this media, which won’t be supported on iOS.
  • iPads still need iTunes in the event of an unsuccessful update, although rare, having to drive to an Apple Store or relative’s house to restore an iPad would be very inconvenient.

Not to mention that the cheapest iPad Pro with a keyboard cover is an extraordinary £628.00!

Yes, it has many, many benefits over a PC – low maintenance (the only real maintenance iOS devices require are OS updates and managing the puny amounts of storage they have) – and best of all there’s no antivirus software or other crapware preloaded.

So nice a nice idea, but in reality anyone who hasn’t updated their PC in 5 years probably isn’t going to blow £628.00 on a device that isn’t a dead cert to cover all scenarios. Also I’d expect a £628.00 laptop to have more than 32G of storage.

Advertisements

On the demise of the iPad

Unrelated: iPad's do not land very gracefully.
Unrelated: iPads do not land very gracefully.

 

So it seems iPad sales have fallen for yet another quarter. As someone whose iPad is their favourite computer; on the one hand this surprises me – why wouldn’t everyone and anyone want one of these fabulously useful and fun gadgets? But on the other hand I can absolutely see why many people wouldn’t have a space for this relatively expensive, yet limited device in their lives.
The problem is that a tablet does some things really well: browsing the web, watching videos, taking notes, editing photos. It also does some things very poorly: you can’t import music purchased from someone other than Apple into your music library (iTunes Match) for example and the apps are in general baby versions of their desktop counterparts. Need to rotate, annotate and save a PDF? Create a PivotChart? Have two Word documents open at the same time? You’re out of luck.

 

Most people don’t create

The iPad’s big differentiator is that unlike an iPhone, it can actually be used to create content (By content I don’t mean social network updates!). Witness the suite of applications Apple provide for free or next to nothing; GarageBand, iMovie, Pages, Keynote and excellent apps like Pixelmator, which is the only image editing application I’ve ever been able to comprehend (I even managed to ‘photoshop’ someone who was in from one photo and place them into another, while making it look convincing). The problem is, most people don’t create content very often. Outside of work and school (where people obviously do), most people’s computing needs boil down to what is the quickest and most comfortable way to consume content. The iPhone’s success in business was dominated by it’s consumer success (the so called ‘consumerisation of IT’) but the iPad hasn’t followed this because for most people, the phone is simply ‘good enough’ to check Facebook, lookup that recipe or watch Netflix.

The phone is the best compromise, for now

Most people have learnt this over the last four years of iPad usage. The iPad isn’t better than a phone at the ‘phone’ things people do (Facebook, messaging, email) and it’s not better than a laptop at the ‘create’ things people do (with all the edge cases these entail). If you’re going to put down £400 or more on a new computer, why would you buy an iPad when you know it’s not going to replace your aging laptop and you’ll still need to replace that thing when it dies too. So most people buy new laptop instead, and that would seem like a smart decision to me.

Phone sales remain strong and this is because the phone is currently the best compromise for mobile computing. A small screen with lots of sensors and are useful while you’re out and about – camera, GPS, compasses etc. The iPad is a more enjoyable and productive device to use than a phone because of it’s larger screen size, but that also means it can’t replace a phone because nobody wants to carry a large bag on them at all times. It’s not an ‘always with you’ device. The phone is therefore the best compromise between having a nice big screen, and having something that is always on your person. Will this always be the case however? Once smartwatches are able to connect directly to cellular networks and don’t need to be tethered to a phone, will they be able to take on the role of ‘always with you’, for messaging, directions, checking headlines etc? If this happens then what do we need the phone for? It’s no longer necessary to have this compromise of a smaller screen. In this case, would people decide that a watch and an tablet (or laptop, if the iPad or its competitors haven’t improved its software yet) will take on the roll of web browsing, Netflix and Facebook, fulfilling the rest of their computing needs? I could quite see myself using just a watch and a tablet, if both devices progress in the right directions over the next few years.

Better software, not a bigger screen, is what the iPad needs

The iPad Pro

 

The iPad Pro is now available, with its much larger screen. Admittedly I haven't had a chance to try one yet, and having only purchased a new iPad last year, I probably wouldn't consider such a purchase so soon anyway. But as someone who does try and do real work on an iPad, (I enjoy stepping away from my desk from time to time to focus in on something, and the iPad is perfect for this.), I am not frustrated by the iPad's lack of screen real estate (though I've no doubt more is better, it usually is) but by its limited software.

This 'limited software' is not always the fault of Apple, developers purposely try and simplify their iPad releases in an effort to route out the bloat that dogs their desktop equivalents. This is mostly a good thing, as someone who runs complex software projects for a living, I am always a proponent of the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, there haven been numerous times when I've had to walk back to my desk and grab my laptop because something just isn't possible on an iPad.

Take Microsoft Excel. The desktop version may be a horrible, bloated and full of legacy code (it seems to have its own rules on when to wipe your clipboard unexpectedly), but to its credit, it does make a lot of complex, routine tasks very quick and easy. If I have a list of stuff and I want to remove duplicates, it's one click. If I have a CSV file (or values separated by another delimiter), converting this to columns is only 2 or 3 clicks. None of this functionality exists in the iPad version. Microsoft OneNote on the iPad doesn't have Outlook integration (the ability to pull in meeting details), and while Microsoft have recently added support for audio recording to OneNote, it's modal – meaning I can't take notes while I am recording – which is one of my favourite features of the desktop version, because it synchronises your note with the timestamp of the audio recording, meaning you can quickly seek to important parts of a meeting when you're trying to remember what was going on. Again, back to my laptop.

I don't want to pick on Microsoft, they make some of the highest quality iPad software out there, and I know all too well that quality, time to market and the number of features are all opposing interests, and Microsoft has made the decision to go for quality over features. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's the best decision they could have made in my view, but it doesn't change the fact that the iPad just can't do these seemingly simple things a laptop can. Adobe and Apple both have examples too. I was sent a wireframe that had been hand-drawn and had been scanned and emailed directly from a networked printer/scanner. I wanted to annotate the resulting PDF. On the Mac I would use Preview, on Windows I'd use Adobe's Reader application. Preview on iOS doesn't support annotation, so I used the Adobe Reader app for iOS. It did support annotation, but due to the way the image had been scanned in, it was upside down. Surprisingly, there was no way to rotate the PDF. Back to my laptop, again. Yes with a little help from Google, I'm sure I could find an app that lets me rotate a PDF, but will it also support all the other things the Adobe app does? The bottom line is, it's not feasible to go on an app hunt every time one of the simplified versions of an app comes up short. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he made a big deal out of the fact other smartphones only showed you the 'baby web' and the iPhone didn't – we have the same situation on iOS now, we get baby applications.

Then there is the inability to have more than one document open at once. I can now have Twitter and Pages open at the same time, but not two Pages documents. Even just a way to quickly switch between documents would be nice. At the moment I have to close the first document, find the other one (navigate a long list of files and folders), load it (and wait while it loads), and then repeat the process when I want to return to the original document. Writing one document when referring to another is not an uncommon computing task, and yes there are workarounds like exporting one of them as a PDF and opening it in a separate application, but this isn't very clean, and what if I want to edit both documents?

I don't want to take way from the iPad what is is great at; web browsing, writing this blog post, simple spreadsheets, reading books, playing games, managing email, task lists – the list goes on. While I'm sure the iPad Pro is a beautiful device, and if money was no object Id buy one today, I don't think having a bigger screen is going to turn it into a laptop replacement. I would love to be able to work solely on an iPad, but until the software improves, I can't see this happening, no matter how big the screen is.

 

Can an iPad replace a laptop, seriously?

Ever since I was convinced to buy an iPad 4 years ago, I’ve been a massive fan and predicted they would eventually replace laptops for most consumers. Just as not everyone needs a truck, not everyone needs a laptop right?

It turns out however, that iPad sales are falling. This is more likely a combination of people having much larger phones, iPads being reliable and not needing replacing, lack of innovation (today’s fifth generation iPad does the same as a second generation, only faster), and the fact that the vast majority of consumers don’t need anything more powerful than a phone. It saddens me that despite the Internet being a place where anyone can publish anything at very low cost (or for free in many cases), most people use it to consume TV and post frivolous Facebook updates that don’t require much more than a mobile phone – but that’s another topic altogether.

At the other end of the scale you have business and professional users, who tend to use laptops because they offer much more power. Processing power isn’t as far off as you might think, the power difference is now in the software. Take for example a simple task I needed to achieve last week – downloading an MP3 from a web site (legit I might add! It was to accompany a course I was taking) and add it to my iTunes Match Library so it would be available on all of my devices. This is easy to do on a Mac or Windows laptop, but impossible on an iPad. That’s ridiculous.

The other software issue that holds back these devices is the transient nature of applications. At any time your application might get terminated due to lack of memory. This rarely results in any loss of work, as developers usually code with this in min (until iOS 4, this happened overtime you left an app). Not many developers both to restore the state of an application (as they are suppose to), and even when they do having to wait for it to load again is painful.

So the answer is no, an iPad can’t replace a laptop at the moment. I would like to see Apple push forward with this vision. Why not have a simplified version of Xcode for the iPad? It could be a great way to introduce people to programming (and could feature the Playground function introduced last year). The built in applications should be updated to support ‘Open In’ so I can open that MP3 file in the Music app, for example.

For many users, nothing will beat a dual screen setup with a mouse and keyboard – but I can’t help thinking that 90% of my non-work computing needs could be done on an iPad if the software were better.

Update: 31/5/2015

I’ve been using an external keyboard with my iPad a lot recently, so hardware wise it’s more on par with a laptop. Here’s what I miss most from a full blown Windows/Mac laptop:

  • The a ability to have more than one document open within a single app. Some apps such as Mail support having mutipe drafts open at once, but all the apps I use most frequently such as Microsft Word, Pages and Excel can only open one document at a time. It takes about 30 seconds to close a document and to load another, which just slows me down.
  • Lack of keyboard shortcuts – such as being able to press ‘Enter’ to send a message, or CTRL + Enter to send an email. Also being able to switch between documents / apps using the keyboard would help too.
  • Applications getting unloaded from memory. Or rather lazy developers not bothering to reload the state of an app when it gets reloaded. Again, like with the document switching – it gets in the way when you return to a presentation and find the app has gone back to the open screen. 

Outlook for iPad

Last month Microsoft released Outlook for iPad (based on Acompli, an app it has previously purchased). Since the company I work for uses Exchange 2013, I was able to take advantage of this and try it out. The interface is a breath of fresh air for anyone, like me who is stuck using Outlook 2013’s confusing and dated interface. My favourite feature is the ‘Focused’ inbox with automatically shows you a view of messages deemed important. Newsletters, alerts and other noise are quietly hidden away so you only get to see emails from real people. The ‘other’ inbox is only a swipe away, and the focused view is only that, a view; so it won’t have any effect on your desktop email view. This is surprisingly accurate and didn’t require much training. Replying and managing email is pleasant, with the ability to swipe to archive or flag email quickly.

Outside of the corporate word, the app supports Outlook.com, Gmail and other well-known email providers. I like to keep work and personal email separate, so I haven’t tried these.

 

Attachments

Another surprising feature of Outlook for iPad is the ability to connect to cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Drive 1. A lot of network administrators will loose sleep over this, but ultimately it’s a step forward – especially for users of Office 365 who will be able to access all of their ‘OneDrive for Business’ files and attach them to emails wherever they happen to be.

A week point however is the lack of a system extension, so it’s not possible to share a link from Safari to Outlook, or send and document directly from Word for iPad. I’m sure this is on the way, but I do think it should have been included in the initial version.

 

Calendar

The calendar seems quite basic. It doesn’t seem to do a great job of letting me see other invitees ‘free/busy’ information (the main benefit of using the desktop version of Outlook), but it’s serviceable for a version 1.0 release. It’s quite buggy, for example, I tried to update an appointment start and end date, but it just didn’t work. No crash, no error message, it just didn’t do anything. I’m sure Microsoft’s latest purchase, Sunrise indicates Microsoft is putting some thought into its calendaring strategy, and so major improvements should be on the way. I’m not sure about the unified app approach – I’ve always wished Outlook on the PC were separate applications instead of one big conglomerate (especially since it’s still full of model dialog boxes! I digress…) – separate apps seems especially fitting for iOS, and I can only think it’s a branding decision to go with one big ‘Outlook’ app on iOS.

 

Security Concerns?

The first release had no security requirements at all, so if your system administrator had mandated users have a passcode on their device, Outlook would ignore it. This has been resolved, though unfortunately it requires you set a PIN at a system level on the device, rather than just for the app (as had been the case with the pervious OWA app). I liked the fact I could have more lax security on my personal device (e.g. ‘Ask me for a PIN after 1 hour’) while the app could be much more strict (‘ask me for a pin after 5 minutes’) – this worked in the old OWA app, but not anymore; which is a major disappointment. Some system administrators might lament the fact the then app will store your emails on Amazon’s AWS servers (soon to be Azure, I have to believe), but it does allow the app to do lots of cloud processing that ultimately benefits users. The fact that Microsoft just released the app without any warning and a way to block the app is probably the bigger concern in my views, as I can understand organisations who have various security practises (ISO et al) not being very happy about being caught off-guard like this.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Outlook for iPad solidifies the iPad as a tool for business and makes me think that one day, many users will be able to use an iPad (or similar device) exclusively at work.

It’s missing some key features at the moment (you can’t set your ‘Out of Office’), but I’m certain they will come in time. The bigger question is whether tablet-devices will ever replace traditional PCs in the workplace. This is probably the subject of a future blog post, but with Outlook, Office and the cloud it’s becoming an increasing possibility. I personally use Outlook for iPad as more of a sidekick device than a laptop replacement, but then my job does involve using a lot of traditional desktop software such as Visual Studio, or macro-enabled spreadsheets. That said, for many enterprise users, an iPad with a decent hardware keyboard is now a viable alternative, if not for the small screen size.

 

 

 

1. Great to see Microsoft embracing interoperability, in contrast to Google, who refuse to support Windows Phone.

Apple Upgrade Regret

As someone who owns an iPhone, Mac, iPad and an Apple TV, I can safely say I’m deeply embedded into the Apple ecosystem. I got my first Mac, a white iMac n 2001 at the dawn of the OS X revolution and loved it. I had switch back to a Windows PC for university as back then a lot of the software development tools I needed were PC-only or required I keep upgrading my OS on the iMac to install them (the poor G3 processor struggled from the offset with OS X).

I came back into the Apple ecosystem with an iPhone in 2009, and later an iPod Touch (now retired), iPad and more recently and Apple TV. They all work well together, and the hardware design and quality is second to none.

So I was excited when Apple announced as WWDC that iOS 8 and Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite would further deepen that integration. About a month ago I finally upgraded my phone (a trusty 2-year old iPhone 5) and iPad to iOS 8., and two weeks later my MacBook Air to Yosemite. My Apple TV also got upgraded (after weeks of nagging me) to iOS version 7.0.2 (oddly it seems to be on a different versioning system).

In short, I have regrets.

Yosemite on the desktop is the polar opposite of 10.9 Mavericks. While Mavericks was all about optimisation, whether it was battery life or memory consumption, Yosemite is a lavish excursion into a world of translucency and bright colours and unfortunately, some bugs.

Take for example listening to music over headphones. No longer possible if you have an Apple TV on the same network. You either need to unplug the Apple TV, or turn off Wi-Fi. Animations are choppy, and the new looks resembles the much derided Windows Vista. There are a few useful new features; Safari now feels much more streamlined and being able to send and receive SMS messages from the Mac is brilliant. I’d rather have a fast, bug free system running Mavericks and sacrifice these small but useful features, however.

On the Apple TV side things are even worse. It used to be that from a Mac or iOS device you could start beaming audio or visual content while the Apple TV was in deep sleep mode (“off”). This no longer works. Now I need to hunt around for the infrared remote and switch on the Apple TV first. This also rules out using the iPhone Remote app, as it uses the same mechanism and cannot wake the Apple TV. Often I try and beam a video to the Apple TV an get sound coming out of the TV but no audio. Frustrated, I reboot my iPhone or Mac and it still happens. In the end I learnt that I actually need to reboot the Apple TV to get my videos to play.

Nothing major on its own, and yes the very definition of a 1st world problem – my frustration is that this stuff used to work so brilliantly, and now it doesn’t.

On the iOS 8 side things have been surprisingly non-eventful. After the upgrade that was iOS 7 it might just be it seems that way in comparison,  but it seems to work pretty well. I love being able to use LastPass in Safari. Occasionally I find Safari will show me a white page, only to show the content when I try and scroll. No big issues though.

Writing bug free software isn’t easy, I know that all too well, so I don’t feel like its fair to call out Apple as being any different to say, Microsoft (one word: Excel). However Apple could make the lives of its users easier by letting them downgrade! There’s nothing wrong with trying something, deciding it’s not for you right now, and going back. Software should be running on a device because the user wants it, not because they have no way of removing it.

o2 Aims to Make Your SMS Allowance Relevant Again With New App

Tu Go is a a great idea. It can turn your iPod, iPad, laptop, or Android Tablet into a phone. Call people as if you’re calling from your mobile, and have up to 5 devices ring when you receive a call, send and receive SMS messages and see a list of voicemails. 

Unlike Skype, there’s no ‘free’ calls if you call someone else using the app, all calls are charged as if you made them on your phone, as are messages.

To me this is less of a challenge to Skype, but might have more of an impact on people using iMessage, BBM or Google Talk for messaging across their devices. Now instead of being locked into your device operating system vendor’s ecosystem (iOS, Android, Blackberry), you can be locked into your network operators (albeit far more interoperable) system instead. This is a nice idea, since SMS messages sent from this app can still be receive by someone with an old phone. I do like iMessage, the typing indicator is particularly useful for knowing whether to keep you phone out because you can see the other person is about to respond but I am seriously considering switching to this since my contract gives me unlimited SMS anyway.

It remains to be seen how this app will affect battery life. On iOS at least, VOIP apps get launched on system boot and can poll their sever a minimum of every10 minutes. On Android anything goes with regards to background activity. Of course users without a cellular network connection (most iPads sold) will only be able to receive calls when they’re in a WiFi area. If it had a big impact, I probably wouldn’t use it.

What this does blur the line between what a phone is, and what a tablet is. How long before we just buy a device with a 3G/4G connection, and download our favourite VOIP app for making calls with? With a Bluetooth headset, could the iPad mini be your next phone?

Review: Apple Smart Cover for iPad

Despite my earlier post there are times when it's wise to put a case on your tablet. On the beach for example. Suncream and iPads really don't mix, and putting an unprotected device into a bag with suncream WILL end in disaster (I know from experience). So I thought I would try Apple's Smart Case, the version of the smart cover that fully covers the whole device. It's not cheap, but being an Apple product you generally get top quality goods, it can also be engraved at no extra charge.

Upon receiving the case I was mightily disappointed. For a start, it feels very cheap. It's not very sturdy, with the Smart Cover you can stand the iPad up and use it as a picture frame, or just watch a film. The Smart Case apparently supports this, but the iPad seems very precarious when in this position, any sight nudge of the table would send the iPad crashing forward to the floor. The Smart Case also adds an enormous bezel around the screen, making the iPad's screen seem small. It also seems to trap a lot of dust on the screen and doesn't work as a screen wipe when you close and open it as the cover does. Talking of opening it, it's not obvious which side you open it from, and when you have finally worked that out you will need long nails to open the magnetic case.

On the plus side it does protect the iPad well, even the back. However I can't recommend this product for day to day use, and seeing how bad it is, it seems a bit much to she'll out for occasional trips out to places such as the seaside. I'm not sure what happened at Apple, it's certainly not to their usual standards (but it's still at their usual prices). I have now gone back to using a Smart Cover and it's like I have a band new iPad 🙂

 

The Cult of Over-Protection

On my holidays this year I’ve noticed a large number of people donning iPads. In the pub, on the train, on the ferry and even sat on the beach. Like it was intended to do, the iPad is finding its way into places no one would ever imaged a laptop would. One thing did strike me though, and that is how nearly every iPad I’ve seen out and about is parcelled up in a protective case (one person who sat opposite to me proceed to get their iPad out of one case, only for it to be inside another).

Yes, I get that these things aren’t cheap, but they’re also not as fragile as most people think. Why pay all that money for iconic design if you’re not going to ever see it? This is exactly the thinking behind the Smart Cover, which protects the screen while not in use without sacrificing the slimness and design.