My Office in My Handbag: The iPad as a Serious Work Tool

l-1560-1321-fb0479b6-b1bb-4da3-87f6-d149fe2833c8.jpegOne of the things I’ve been meaning to tell you about is my recent explorations of the capabilities of the iPad. I’m extremely impressed with it, and want to tell you a bit about how I use it in case it might work for you. There is a lot that is being said out there, and lots of yelling and whining about what it is not, and so a lot of people are a bit confused, it seems. I’ve a nice chunk of time here on the bus, heading home from my first day back on campus, just after the end of my first class of semester, where in fact I used the device a lot, and so this is a good time to begin to tell you a bit about it.

Bottom line? The small bag I carry that you can see in the picture to the left contains everything I need for a huge number of day to day work tasks, for the research, teaching, and administrative tasks that are part of the standard Professor gig, and a whole lot more. It is all I carry, even on a longer business/work trip.

The main complaint that a lot of people had was based on dashed expectations. Lots of us, and I include myself in this camp, wanted Apple to produce something like a tablet computer. A “real” computer. One that you can program and so forth like you might do your laptop or desktop, or at least run a lot of applications that are considered the business of serious computers these days, even if not writing machine code or C++ or FORTRAN…(You know, the stuff of Real Programmers.)

So typically, when the iPad is discussed, people give a list of queries about what they want it to do, and if it does not do those things, it is dismissed as a toy, essentially. End of discussion. You can find lots of shouty discussions about the iPad on the web, with lots of accusations about how Apple let people down, and the phrase “dealbreaker” being tossed around as though its some discussion about dating criteria. Ok, so the iPad might not work for you, but make sure it is really for the right reasons.

The bottom line, I realized after having my own list of disappointments, is that the more useful approach might be to figure out what sort of things it does well, and to not think of it as a failed laptop or tablet, but an opportunity to learn a new workflow that might open up all sorts of new possibilities. Instead of making a tablet computer, Apple did something different, and it actually is rather good, for the price. Let me tell you my way into iPad, what made me buy one, and then tell you some of the pleasant surprises that I found after buying it that changed it from being a sort of productivity supplement to a primary tool in my day to day arsenal.

The primary thing that made me get it flowed from something I’d already decided some time before. I mentioned it in a blog post. I thought the iPod Touch (or iTouch as I call it) was just fantastic. I’d been using mine a lot as a tool for work and non-work alike. I got it because I’d decided that the iPhone was really great except for the phone part (I do not like buying into the AT&T monopoly and moreover the way they make you buy a data contract whether you want to use it or not…) and was very impressed. So impressed that I experimented with travelling for work purposes without taking my laptop, and it worked pretty well, since using it I could email, blog, read all kinds of documents, and so forth, while in a different city. With so many wireless connections around, the iTouch was almost all one needs for a short trip.

Two drawbacks to this arrangement were that the screen is a tad small for a lot of constant work on it, and to allow my brain the space it needs to think, and also, my foldable bluetooth keyboard (iGo Stowaway – it rocks!) would not work with it (an annoying choice made by Apple – not the first or the last) and so typing fast and accurately, while possible, was an effort. But over the time, the touch meant that I was able to coordinate more and more work things while on the move, and of course have lots of pda functions, listen to music and podcasts, watch videos, and sync it all with my office computers. All while not being constantly connected, since it is not an iPhone. I don’t want constant connectivity. (It is damaging, generally, I find – constant connectivity means that everyone is getting constantly interrupted, pulled into multitasking, etc., in a way that results in the appearance of being busy and important, but with none of the true benefits. The main result is less quality thought and quality time….reduced creativity and quality of life. I refuse to be dragged into that.)

So the iPad is essentially a completion of the journey I already began with the iTouch. But a few things make it a big leap forward. The larger screen is one, of course. This also means one can type faster and more accurately on its larger inbuilt keyboard, but in addition, my Bluetooth foldable keyboard talks to it! (Although I have been quite impressed with the inbuilt one, so have not used the external as much as I though I might, except for some long editing sessions when contributing long narratives to my group’s grant renewal proposal.) But it is not just a big iTouch. A big seller for me is the fact that it connects to a VGA output to allow you to project to a screen. I’d always fantasized that I could just show up with my iTouch and project things onto a screen, and this realizes that beautifully. Lastly, they made versions of the iWork productivity suite for it, so I can transfer my database of Keynote presentations to it and use them for talks and classes, I can edit documents (yes, including the awful Word docs) that people send me, and run spreadsheets and so forth. (Beware – for some annoying reason it is a “lite” version of the suite that is running, so more complicated Keynote presentations may break a bit. You’ll maybe need to clean them up a bit. I hope they fix that.)

Basically, I don’t need to drag my laptop with me anywhere anymore, for most things, even for longer trips. My recent trip to London and Vienna was just with the iPad, and it worked very well. My work kit, whether traveling abroad or around the city or to and from work is what you see in the picture at the top. Just one of my small, neat, handbags (yes, I am secure enough in my sexuality to call a handbag a handbag and not some silly name like a manbag or murse – see earlier post), and I am on my way, maybe jumping on my bike (which as you know, also neatly folds away).

Now if that were only it, that would not be maybe enough, but there’s more. In fact, those reasons above got me interested, but I still thought I’d wait until the next model came out, as I usually do with new technology. But so many other things work very naturally on it for me, including very visual things I do a lot (blogging being one of them). My camera and also the camera on my phone talk seamlessly to the iPad as well, so very rapidly after taking some photos I can be viewing them on the larger screen, sending them to others via email or incorporating them into a blog post, and more. This is where the pad is of course at its best…. Our society and its tools have become more and more about ready consumption of things like images and video and so forth and that the iPad is now maybe the king of that is not surprising. This is at the core of what a lot of people are disappointed about, since it is less of a real computer for actually creating things than people wanted.

Or is it? It all depends upon how narrowly you want to define creativity. There’s the crucial fact that it is a fantastic platform that people are making applications for, and those are often fantastic tools to use together for a lot of creativity. This constant expandability of the capability of the machine is to my mind what helps it fully make the leap from consumer toy to work tool. In addition to being able to project my talks on a screen, I can quickly make new ones, with the help of a good image manipulation program. So while in Vienna, I gave a talk on the blackboard, as I like to do because some years ago I decided I much prefer that for clarity, as I’ve mentioned here before. But my notes were not on a sheaf of papers in my hand, but on the iPad. I’d prepped them on paper and then just popped them into the pad using my camera. (I could also have written them directly on the ipad – see later.) At some point during the talk I wanted to show some data in a series of graphs and figures from my paper. At that point I stopped, plugged in the pad, and there they were on screen in a series of keynote slides it took me a short time to prepare. Earlier, I had called up the paper in a nice PDF reader (e.g., Stanza, where I organize a lot of my PDF and other documents for reading), taken self-snapshots of the screen with the graphs blown up large (yes, the ipad allows you to take screenshots – look it up), and then the resulting PDFs were cropped using Adobe’s free version of Photoshop. These were passed to Keynote and embedded into the slides. Keynote then delivers it to the projector and my audience. Perfectly simple, fast, and relatively tight workflow.

Lots of people are writing great applications that make this tool really shine. The above is just the beginning.

While sitting in one of the talks in Vienna, I decided that it would be nice to take notes on the iPad. I’ve been carrying around a lot less stuff, and certainly no large bag for a laptop or notepad. I do take a small moleskin pad with me, but wondered if I could make hand written notes well on this nice large surface of the iPad. I tried to do it using one of the drawing/painting programs I have on the device -another excellent thing by the way- but it was clumsy, since you have to write large with your finger and keep zooming back and forth to see what you’re doing globally. Bah. Then I thought…. I bet someone has already designed a program for making this work better, I googled, and within minutes I was taking notes. What had I found? Note Taker HD (not Note Taker… the HD at the end is important.) Wow! What a program. This is what fully transformed the device for me in my mind. Within seconds you master the way the program has solved the writing problem – there are two views, one of the global page you are writing on and then there is a little window on the page that is blown up to correspond to the active area you are writing in… Easier to do than to explain…. But the point is that I was writing in my ordinary handwriting and speed and in a range of colours, drawing diagrams and so forth. Why is this transforming? Two reasons, mainly: (1)Now I will take seminar and meeting notes on this all the time….no more losing copies of notes since I can archive these and search for them later, I can print them out if I want to, and I can email them as PDFs to others with a tap. Actually I did this in the seminar. A physics idea occurred to me while taking notes and I wrote a handwritten note to a collaborator, complete with diagrams and other key squiggles, and emailed it to him seconds later. Just great. (2) Notetaker HD also talks to the VGA output port, and so one can do all this handwriting stuff projected to the screen. This is great! I can use the ipad as a live teaching tool as well. One of the things I want to do with my students, especially undergrads, is less of the pre-prepared presentation of nicely formatted equations and diagrams and so forth and more of the process of computation and problem solving that one does in ones own notebooks. So I use the blackboard a lot, of course, but now I can actually do it on class and on screen as well, in a way that is even closer to working in a real notebook. And the examples are then exportable as a PDF, e-mails, archived, etc. Note Taker HD might be the best $4.99 I’ve spent in a while. (Don’t want to spend the few minutes it takes to get used to writing with your fingers? Pogo, for example, make a nice stylus or two for the iPad.)

PDFs can be projected to screen too. I did this the other day with a document I wanted to go through with my class (the syllabus). Goodreader is another excellent PDF reader. For the princely sum of 99 cents you can have it as part of tour suite of programs, but it is even better than stanza at organizing your database of PDFs and has the bonus of talking to a projector too. Just great.

Want to read PDFs and make notes on them? Comment on them and send them back to collaborators, or grade papers of students and write helpful remarks on them? I have heard that iAnnotate is the program you want for that.

While on the subject of reading, yes, books, blogs, magazines, and of course PDFs of papers look great on the iPad, it is the perfect size for comfortable reading, I am old fashioned, and so will continue to buy actual printed books, but when traveling especially, it is nice to have a pile of books with me, without the actual weight and bulk associated with it. I tested out novel reading on it this last trip by leaving my copy of Aimee Bender’s new novel (mentioned earlier) at home, and while in Vienna I installed Kindle on the iPad so that I could get an ebook version of the book (there’s also iBooks too, don’t forget, among a bunch of other book services). I took to reading it at breakfast in my hotel, and on the subway. It was a pleasure to read on the iPad, with really nothing significant taking away from the book-reading experience. Oh, and Aimee’s book is just great, by the way. For work, there is the issue of databases of PDFs of papers, but this had already been done nicely for the iPod or iPhone, and so programs like Papers, ArXiview, or ArXiver work nicely (I quite like the latter, even if it needs some obvious improvements like remembering where you were in a search once you jump out of it), especially if used in combination with a nice PDF reader like Stanza or Goodreader.

Lastly, there is still the concern for many that one does not have. “real” computer at one’s fingertips. What about being able to do those big heavy lifting computations, or the ton of other things (yes, typesetting technical papers in Tex for example) that you might want to do that cannot be done on the iPad? Well, just use your computer! This is not entirely a facetious remark. It is indeed the case that there is no reason that it need be a “dealbreaker” if the device does not do everything for you, but yes, it might be that you want to do some of these things while traveling, and so just taking the iPad might not work for you even though it does for me. I like to be as light as possible, and most of my work is pen and paper and in my head while some people need to work with their computer more… And yes, what will happen when I want to run a Maple calculation or a big numerical computation? Well, there’s an app for that! (Probably many.) With Desktop Connect, for example, you can turn your iPad into your computer over the web. No, really. You set up your computer in listening mode, and go off with your iPad. When you do want to run that program or few that is needed for full computer functionality, you run something like Desktop Connect on your iPad, and lo and behold, your iPad screen is a perfect copy of your computer’s screen. Your finger is the mouse pointer. You’re in your office, at your full computer able to be a Real Programmer, but without being there. I’ve not tried this yet, but it looks fantastic and rather promising.

Ok, that’s enough from me. I could tell you a lot more about how I use the iPad, but that would entail telling you a bit more about some of my work activities than I want to right now, because they pertain to the Project. Which I am to tell you about later.

Which reminds me… It is time to get out of bed (where I have been, finishing up this post on the iPad that I started earlier on the bus) and spend another chunk of time working on the Project before other things take over…

Are you using the iPad for work productivity? Considering it? Found some nice applications you want to tell us about? Tell us about your workflow. Or talk about the non-work stuff you do with it! (Epicurious on the iPad is fantastic, for example!)

Do so in the comments.

-cvj

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