• Life Without iPad: It's Too Small, or Too Serious

    A couple of weeks ago, I started a cruel experiment involving the self-inflicted deprivation of what's by far the most used device in my digital life outside work hours — my iPad. This was partly because I was curious to know how not having one would change my usage habits, and partly because I was a little short on cash and saw selling it as a way to get something back before iPad 2 was announced, when the value of my iPad was sure to drop overnight (I'll be honest, the latter was the bigger half).

    I've learned an enormous amount about what's so great about iPad by not having one; more so than I ever could have realised while actually using one. And as fate would have it, I now know I'm able to get my grubby hands on an iPad 2 after all, though I'll have to wait a couple of months for it. I foresee many sleepless nights and more than a few visits to Apple.com as I muse over which model and Smart Cover to settle with.

    But first things first. Let me explain what kind of user I am, as this has a huge amount to do with just how useful an iPad can be to a person in their day-to-day life. I'm a professional nerd (software support/design/documentation guy) who spends 45 hours a week working from a desktop OS (Snow Leopard), and when I'm not at work I like to use digital devices to — for the most part — entertain me. Most of the 'work' I need to do on computing devices, whether actually work-related or personal, can be somehow squeezed into my work hours, so I have little need for the extra functionality of my Mac once I leave the office. My iPhone and iPad serve me very well. I read a lot on the web (the Reeder+Instapaper combo on iPad has changed my life), I play a few games, I watch movies, TV shows and web videos and answer a crap ton of emails. These are all tasks that iPad excels in, so I'm one of the crowd who's almost always using it to do things it's very good at by design. I understand that iPad isn't good at everything, but that's another topic for another time. An iPod Shuffle is no good for writing documents on, but that doesn't make it a useless device.

    iPhone is Too Small, Mac is Too Serious

    The first decision I found myself coming to when approaching familiar tasks was, "Should I switch to my iPhone (which now feels too small for many of my common iPad duties like RSS, Instapaper and iBooks/Kindle); or to my MacBook Pro, which feels (for these particular tasks) too cluttered and, well, serious, compared to the simple and joyous environment of iOS.

    Unfortunately, neither of these compromises has really satisfied me after spending quite a bit of time using them as replacements. Today's Mac offers a stellar computing experience — no question — but there's still a huge difference between iOS and a desktop operating system. One is clearly designed for doing a bunch of things at once, and the other for zen-like singular focus on one app at a time. More on that in a moment.

    The crazy part is, these are all tasks I used to do happily on my Mac before iPhone or iPad even existed. But now that my appetite for clutter-free, iOS-style consumption is whetted, nothing else feels right. On another note, as crazy as I am about my iPhone 4, the sad truth is that I rarely use it for anything other than messaging, making phone calls and checking Facebook since getting my iPad (and if iPad had a native Facebook app, even that would probably drop off the list, though Friendly is quite good). I've gone back to my iPhone for a lot of these duties since selling the iPad, but before then it was beginning to get quite lonely, serving mostly as a 30-pin lint collector in my left pants pocket.

    iPad not only gave me a new platform to extend my existing usage habits to; it actually reshaped them. I can honestly say that my volume of reading has increased about 400% since I got my original iPad in July last year. Not just reading of web content, but novels, articles, biographies — the works. Before, I was always (in true 21st century fashion) a chronic headline scanner and micro-reader on the web, never delving into content with deep resolve or full appreciation. Soon after getting my iPad, I found myself actually caring more about what I was reading, getting all the way to the end of articles I had set aside to read (thanks to Instapaper) and buying eBooks, even though the last time I bought an actual physical book would have been at least 3-4 years prior. I enjoy the reading experience on iPad that much. And those new habits have stuck. Despite the loss of my iPad, I'm using other means to consume the same content and a revolutionary new habit has been formed — I've fallen in love with learning again, through the purchase of a gadget! Magical, indeed.

    Take a look at the design of iPad and it's obvious how this level of engagement with content is possible. It's completely un-designed; it's featureless. Free of peripherals. It exists only to serve the content it offers. It stays out of your way and lets you intimately connect with whatever words, images or sounds you're perusing, whatever their combination or permutation, without ever feeling like a piece of hardware. In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic". I think as cheesy as the iPad marketing tag of "Magical" is, it's almost true for me.

    iPad Is An Ultimate Productivity Device

    By now you're probably realising why the absence of my iPad is leaving such a stinging hole in my soul. I've realised iPad is all about focus, and I really like being able to focus, as it's something I'm historically terrible at. It's about being able to load up an elegant application that does one thing really well, and fully immerse myself in its contents, whether it's a game, a book, an RSS feed, a website, or even a writing or painting app. It's all the stuff I can't see while I'm in an application that makes all the difference. This is exactly why I have push notifications turned off for all applications except Calendar on my iPad — if I wanted to be distracted every seventeen seconds by a tweet or an email notification, I'd be on my desktop. This may even be why iOS's notification system is so simple. Many cry and moan for more sophisticated management of notifications in iOS, but I suspect Apple may have designed them from the beginning with very minimal use in mind — meaning, if you need to manage them, you're using them too much. In my opinion, it's a perfect model for things you absolutely need to make sure you don't miss (thanks to their modal "drop-everything-and-let-me-take-up-the-centre-of-your-screen-before-you-swipe-me-away" approach), and not much else. I still want to see some kind of history screen for notifications of course, which I'm sure Apple is planning for in future versions.

    I love using iOS 4's multitasking when the need arises (quite a bit), but even while swapping between tasks, you're only ever focussing on one thing at a time, jumping between them sequentially, as all apps are full screen affairs which dominate the device while in focus. This is very natural because it's perfectly in line with how the mind works — you can believe all you like that you're a multitasking veteran, but if you're looking to do more than one thing at a time, the human mind is much better at switching between cognitive tasks at deliberate, discrete times than performing them concurrently. All illusions that we are performing many mental tasks at a time on our desktop computers are fantasy. We can use multiple applications to perform a single task without breaking our mental flow, sure, but trying to multitask between two non-contiguous tasks as a mere human is mentally tiring and hopelessly unproductive, and for some reason it's hard to avoid this temptation on a desktop. Great things are achieved only when we throw long, uninterrupted chunks of time into a task, and iPad was made for this kind of work. This is why I even write all my article drafts on iPad now (as plain text in iA Writer) before adding images, links and formatting in MarsEdit on Mac and uploading to MacTalk. It offers unadulterated minimalist perfection in the writing stage, and I'm hooked.

    This makes a strong case for iPad being a kind of ultimate productivity device, in a completely different way to a desktop computer. Early on in iPad's life, before the addition of multitasking in iOS 4.2, the inclusion of the words 'iPad' and 'productivity' were never to be heard in the same sentence, as it seemed we missed the full revelation of Apple's design for a while. And I, in my naivetι, never took the iPad seriously in this way. I never would have considered doing serious writing on iPad with its soft keyboard, for example. Now I know better.
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