Technology from Apple and Some Crazy Writing Considerations

I did a crazy thing. After years of avoiding Apple tech for very practical (and yet entirely biased) reasons, I bought an iPad Pro.

I did it for several reasons. One, the quality of the Apple Pencil, two the optimization of apps in the Apple ecosystem… In other words, Android app makers have the same problem as PC app developers. They have to optimize for a million different hardware configurations. Apple app developers have a finite number of hardware configurations to support, which means that for any given app, the iOS version will generally work better. Third is that there are apps available on the iOS landscape that don’t exist on Android. For the most part, these are “pro” apps in various disciplines that I need.

Two weeks later, the results are in. In terms of the inside the Apple box experience, Apple rocks. In terms of dealing with the larger world of technology, iOS is an utter mess. The walled garden of Apple works great if you have no idea what you are doing; it will protect you and keep you calm so that you can carry on. If you are trying to include Apple into an existing system, prepare for a fight.

For years, I have categorized user interfaces into two categories. One is self explanatory and lends itself to flow. It leads you to logical places and maps itself into your work as you proceed. The truth is that only a tiny minority of software works this way. However, a lot of people are working very hard on the concept, and the rise of mobile devices seems to be a spur to push interfaces into new modes. Some of the iPad apps have incredibly good interfaces. Unfortunately, most software still falls into a metaphor I call City Software. If you know the city you are in, you can access everything it offers and allows. If you don’t know the layout, you are lost.  In a real city, you wander the streets until you find your way. In software land, you push buttons to see what they do. In the Apple ecosystem, it’s entirely possible to push buttons that do things you don’t want to do, because Apple has built a meta game around iOS. In all honesty, if I knew nothing and had no expectations, I probably wouldn’t notice the problems until I had already developed the habits that Apple wants me to learn. I would be focused on the pretty hardware and the incredibly nice screen. Unfortunately, there are two major problems. I know entirely too much in the form of decades of tech experience. From Apple’s perspective, I have all the wrong habits. Problem number two is that the iPad Pro is being sold with the Pro moniker and with the touted expectation that it can replace a laptop. I never believed it could really replace a laptop; it’s a support device with some very good solutions to my common tasks. However, I did expect a relatively fluid capability for moving files around the way that Pros tend to do. The brand new iOS 11 was said to improve that capability, but those improvements really do nothing to open up the file system. The walls around the Apple walled garden are fully intact.

I understand the reasons, namely security, revenue protection, and the Apple “stuff that just works” ethos. I also understand the massive amount of effort that any opening of the iOS file structure represents, not just for Apple but for every app developer in the ecosystem. The benefits to the current system are plentiful, especially if you intend to hand an iPad to a child, or even a parent who has heard of this world wide web thing, but is probably never going to settle in front of a full computer. And why would they? Full computers are easy to break, even for people with years of experience. There are all kinds of concepts to understand, rules to follow, maintenance to keep in mind, cables everywhere.

If, on the other hand, you intend to utilize the “Pro” aspect of the iPad Pro, then you are going to reinvent your workflows. Hold on tight. Option one is simply don’t install any apps that duplicate the functions of apps that come pre-loaded. If you don’t have multiple apps that use the same types of data, then guess what? It just works. The problem is that Pros tend to have very specific demands, which means option one is not an option. Option two is to try to do your homework, choose the apps that cover your needs, and start figuring out how to move data around. While it is technically possible to do a great deal of work from start to finish on an iPad, and it’s also possible to combine apps efficiently to handle more complex workflows, the fact is that most of the “Pro” apps need some form of data sharing. If you use your device for web surfing, social media, and media consumption, none of my grumbles will affect you. At worst you just log into things on whatever collection of machines you have and everything synchs itself automatically. If you originate work on your iPad that will need to be finished on a full computer, or if you have a pile of stuff on your computer that you need to take with you, then the fun gets ramped up to 11. By fun, I mean pain, suffering, and generalized angst.

Here’s another set of options. You can plug your iPad into a USB port on your computer, fire up the crappiest old dog of software known as iTunes, figure out how to time travel back to 2006 and transfer files to your iPad. This has a few advantages once you poke around a bit. It’s fast, good for large files and large collections of small files. It has the ability to target SOME apps, but not all of them and certainly not the default apps, as far as I can tell.* The key to the pre-loaded apps, I believe, is to add stuff to your iTunes library, tell it what to synch, and off those files go, assuming iTunes didn’t crash and was able to find your iPad. ( I’ve seen both more than once) When that’s done you can open those files on the device, also assuming you want to open them with an app that starts with a lowercase ‘i’. That other app for the same files has no clue that they are there. The exception to this rule is that the photos library seems to integrate well with third party apps, and the caveat to this whole piece is that I’m a Pro at some things, but not Apple’s Way. *Those of you who can identify my ignorance, please set me straight!

Option two is embracing the cloud. I don’t like the cloud concept any more than I like software subscription models. Both take control out of my hands. But, I understand that the cloud is part and parcel of the modern Tao of Tech, whether I like it or not. So, having been broken to the bit, I now gaze at the sky and ask, “Which cloud?” It turns out that the answer quickly becomes, “All of them.” All the big names anyway. For me, it started with Dropbox, way back when. I think I have 5.15 Gigs at my command over there. Still free. I think their minimum is just north of $8/month, which seems mighty expensive compared to the others, and way too much for something I don’t like. Somewhere in the Windows upgrade march, the Microsoft cloud became a thing, and the Office subscription (that it’s impossible to live without if you work with a single human being who happens to be named “Not You”) bumped the cloud storage up to something large enough I’ll never have to think about it again. Then the Android smartphone combined with the Chrome browser somehow dragged me into Google Drive, which I actually use almost every day. A cheap Chromebook came with 100 Gigs that I thought was supposed to expire, but still hasn’t. 100G is more than I’ll ever write plus an airport shuttle’s worth of human genomes. I’ll take free as long as possible, because the only thing worse than something you hate is something you hate that has a billing cycle. Check that… I can’t really claim to hate Google Drive anymore; I just don’t trust it. And then there’s the iCloud. It’s new to me, but my wife’s old iPad has been quietly backing itself up for years and banging up against the 5 Gig limit, largely due to our rather excessive tendency to take dog photos. I found the family sharing option for iCloud and went ahead and bumped up the storage to a level that is epic for Sharon’s iPhone and old iPad, but for two new iPad Pros, one of which is a lovely shade of Rose Gold, well… I suspect we’ll cram that old iCloud full of dog photos in no time flat. Obviously, iCloud is the default option for iOS, but there are a few iOS 11/app combos that haven’t worked out the bugs yet. My highly informal and unscientific testing makes it appear that iCloud is much slower than Google Drive and Microsoft’s cloud was much faster. That probably says very little about how well they actually work and a great deal about relative popularity of the various services, especially over Thanksgiving weekend, when all those iPhone photos were flying into the cloud like crows being chased by a flock of really angry finches. Aaaand finally… As an Adobe CC subscriber, I have access to the Creative Cloud. I have some vague notion of what it’s supposed to do, but my ingrained Adobe habits of 21 years have kept me from even touching it yet – and by yet I mean a long time. I expect those programs are using it behind my back. I really don’t want to know. All those shiny iOS apps that appear to be pale shadows of the desktop versions, yet come with the subscription, will have me using that Creative Cloud soon enough. Yay, me! All geeked out. More clouds than a Puget Sound winter.

Some unnamed “Pro” apps of the non-Adobe variety seem to have a distinct preference for Dropbox. Of course they do. It costs the most. The real issue is that I have five clouds, a collection of apps that use only one or two of them, which means that eventually I will have to know which cloud to use from my computer to make sure the files end up accessible to the app I intended. This drops right back into the closed file system problem. On any other machine, including my Android phone and probably a Raspberry Pi, I can just dump a bunch of files into my current project folder and load them into any app I want to use at any time. The only drawback is that I can potentially lose track of an entire project folder, but it has not happened, ever. I have every project folder I’ve ever done, back to 1988. That’s my OCD, right there! Every once-huge set of files tucked away in microscopic corners of modern hard drives. The only exception is good old standard definition video. It lives on DVCAM tapes in a drawer underneath some articles of clothing that are almost as unlikely to be seen ever again.

Option three involves emailing files to a convoluted email address that somehow sticks it somewhere on my iPad to be seen by who knows what apps. There are probably some good use cases for this option, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I can use email and not use a puffy white storage network. The majority of files I generate tend to make email servers complain.

I thought I was pretty clever with Option four, but Apple hammered me like a rusty old nail. I bought the SD card adapter thinking it would work like it does everywhere else, as general storage for transferring files. Nope. You plug it in and the Photos app opens up. If the stuff on the card doesn’t look like a photo or certain flavors of video, then you can forget it. The good news is that for its one and only intended purpose, it’s still very useful for me. I have multiple cameras filling up SD cards on a regular basis.

Now, it may seem like I have buyer’s remorse, but that’s not true. The iPad Pro is a fantastic piece of hardware, and the Pencil works so well that I can avoid much more expensive options for the same purpose, in a device with easier portability and longer battery life. The apps I’m using are uniformly excellent and in some cases, inspired pieces of design. I did my homework. There are also certain niche apps that only exist on iOS because of Apple’s long affinity with creative communities. I can think of dozens of people who could literally take an iPad and replace a laptop. In my particular case, I can’t go that far. I do things that require some serious heavy lifting on a desktop machine. If iOS moves in the direction of the smoother integration I’ve been blabbering about, then I would probably never buy another laptop. I’d happily use the iPad like a laptop and the desktop for heavy duty work.

Laptops are great, but in my weird set of demands, they always end up dangling in the center of bad compromises. If I get one that can realistically handle the (non-writing) creative work, then the battery life is short enough that it’s not truly portable. There are exceptions out there, but I’m as likely to buy a $4000 laptop as I am to spend a million bucks on a car. Ain’t gonna happen. For writing, anything works great. For drafts, I’ll fire up Google Docs and start typing. My $180 Chromebook works for 11 hours and the screen is terrible, which is a strange advantage for old eyeballs, but that drab, low resolution viewport is comfortable for writing at on-the-couch distances. The keyboard is not bad, but most importantly, I won’t feel much remorse when I wear it out. And the Chromebook OS forces me to focus. That same crappy screen isn’t good for surfing the web. Web sites want higher resolution. I just open a file, hit the fullscreen button and start typing. And yes, the machine can do more, but really all it does well is Google Docs

My phone is a far more capable machine. If I were not the kind of person who drops right out of creative mode every time the thing makes a noise, I could hook it to a monitor, link it to a Bluetooth keyboard and type like the wind. Well, more like a gentle breeze, but still…

The laptop I have is getting older but it’s still plenty of computer, just as soon as I replace the non-user-replaceable battery. It’s okay, I have tiny screwdrivers. The problem with the laptop is that I can either plug it in, or spend time watching that infernal battery gauge. Because it falls on the performance end of the spectrum, I can’t really use it on my lap. Within minutes it’s ironing a patch of my right pant leg. If I don’t move it around, it will eventually start to burn it’s way through, and nobody wants that. If it’s plugged in, and I have it propped on something heat resistant, then two effects apply, I spend 5 minutes setting everything up, and just when I’m ready to write, a spastic Chocolate Labrador will get that power cord wrapped around her leg, freak out, and destroy half the room. In other words, my laptop is a skinny, self-contained desktop for a desk nowhere near that dog.

The iPad Pro, for writing, absolutely is a laptop replacement. It will last longer than I will, I can prop it anywhere, I can scale the type and brightness for Old Man Eye Syndrome, and as the cherry on top, there is an iOS version of my beloved Scrivener, which I consider the most complete and lovingly crafted writing app on the planet. Even the PC version, which is probably the ugliest of the three (the other is on the Mac), just makes me happy. I know that when I open it, I will not spend my time scrolling through an endless Word document.

I tested several keyboards and went with the Rugged Messenger by Zagg. I didn’t like the Apple version or the price. I’ve used a lot of Logitech stuff over the years and checked out their solution. It just looked heavy and clumsy. The Rugged Messenger has a back case for the device with a nice clip for the pencil. Trust me when I tell you I needed that clip, or that pencil would roam the house like a stray cat. The keyboard is Bluetooth and attaches magnetically – or not; typing with them separated works better than you might expect. The folding extension offers multiple angles using magnets in the case when everything is connected in laptop style. In another confession of weirdness, I have two quirks about keyboards. The first is that despite some big old hands, given the choice I actually prefer smaller keyboards for typing and full sized keyboards for controlling software. Two is that I rotate keyboards often. Multiple devices does the trick, and when I didn’t have that option, I’d just plug a different keyboard into my computer. If I don’t change things up, especially when I’m writing a lot, my hands will hurt. Eventually someone will use the word arthritis, I’m sure.

Sorry for the side trip into writer land. So, I like the iPad Pro, I hate the closed file system, and I hope that Apple devises a way to keep the functional stuff locked down while opening up the storage and the apps’ ability to access files in a flexible way that matches the workflows of most of the creative people I know. One last note. We all know that Apple has nailed the mobile device market. They invented so much of the definition of what a mobile device should be that even the best Android manufacturers are still using them as the benchmark. We also know that the focus that it takes to lead the mobile space appears to have stolen some of the thunder from the Mac side of the business. I’ve never owned a Mac, but I’ve been watching die hard Mac creatives drifting over to the PC dark side for quite some time now. My guess is that the biggest factor is some version of the value equation with an emphasis on the bonus points for having the best machine available. No matter how you feel about Mac OS, the latest and greatest Mac hardware is not the latest and greatest. And spec for spec, with very few exceptions, it costs a lot more than a PC machine with the very latest parts inside. The PC laptop makers chased the Macbook Pro for years, and in the same basic category, there are now twenty options for beautifully designed, high performance PC machines. On top of that, PC makers have been innovating with the basic rules of what a PC should be. Laptops that convert to tablets, laptops that flip backwards for different scenarios including a tablet form. Laptops with multi-touch screens, laptops with pens and pressure sensitivity, laptops in multicolored faux fur finishes. Nobody expects, or even wants, Apple to follow all these acts, but if they were to produce a laptop with Apple Pencil support, a flexible screen system with current spec parts inside, then Microsoft has left them a ton of room to set the prices high. Then they could make an ad about a true laptop replacement. Laptop, meet the new laptop.