Where Does the iPad Fit?

I recently listened to Episode 24 of The Prompt and was intrigued by their discussion of what the iPad is for, responding to Marco Arment’s post, who was in turn affirming Matt Gemmell’s take. In short, the disagreement comes down to whether or not people should use iPads for workflows (requiring URL schemes and other hackery) that could be more easily accomplished on desktop operating systems. My own opinion lies somewhere between Viticci’s iPad only approach and Gemmell/Arment’s practicality approach. I use my laptop for the vast majority of my work because it is easier, quicker and more straightforward for most of what I have to do. On the other hand, I love that people are pushing the iPad further in automation and scriptability, because this pushes the platform forward and ultimately makes all apps better. The larger point is that I think both sides of this argument ignore the huge productivity that is being unlocked by the iPad right now.

If computer usage is a spectrum between hard-core users (programmers, designers, media producers, scientists) on one end and casual users (web surfers, Twitter users and email readers) on the other end, there is a huge range of activities and potential in the space between. This is the market that the iPad is opening up like no computing platform has before. There are many parts of our lives that have stayed relatively computing free and the iPad is addressing those. Many people who rarely used a computer in and out of their work are using tablets in productive ways. Sometimes their iPad usage overlaps with traditional computing work, but often it does not. Apple has highlighted a few examples of this phenomenon on their Life on iPad page. When I saw these examples I was impressed by two things. First, I would never have thought of using an iPad that way. Second, a laptop would never work as well in that circumstance.

I have seen the same phenomenon in places where I would not have imagined technology a few years ago. I serve in my church’s youth program and, as part of my responsibilities, I attend regular meetings with other volunteers. I have been in meetings like these off and on for the last ten years and something has recently changed. I now see iPads all over the place. People take notes, write themselves reminders or todos, email assignments to people, look up leadership resources, refer to past notes, etc. These things happened before, but not anywhere near the level that they happen now. Overall it is a huge win for the productivity of our organization, with very little traditional mouse/keyboard computing involved.

iPads are making inroads in many people’s lives and making them more productive than they probably would have been before. Will the majority of people learn Python or chain URL schemes together? I doubt it, but I’m not sure that matters. The iPad opens up computing to parts of our lives that we didn’t consider before and I think this is the real story that should be highlighted, by the tech press and Apple itself.

For me the iPad is nowhere near replacing the Mac for productivity, but it is getting better and better. I am grateful for tools like Pythonista, Editorial, and Launch Center Pro. I am confident they will push the platform forward and the limits of mobile software will expand.

There is a narrative that the iPad is a consumption only device where nobody can get real work done. If the examples I have detailed above aren’t persuasive that this is a bogus line of thinking then I think we need to redefine what real work is. Having used rather high end productivity, design and programming software on a regular basis I would say that if that is the litmus test for real work I fear for the state of humanity. The iPad is being used for real work all the time and the biggest concern I have for the platform has little to do with its capabilities, but with its economics. The race to the bottom on app pricing makes it difficult for developers to justify the investment necessary to create more powerful and fully featured apps. This is why I applaud developers like The Omni Group, who charge a fair price for their software, despite market pressure to give everything away for free.

In conclusion, I will reiterate that the iPad is built for real work and it can make you more productive in ways that you might not have considered before. It may not be better for Excel, but is that really all you do?

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