A road warrior’s experience with the iPad

By Dale Vile
03 May 2011 View Comments
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I have now been an iPad user for 10 months, and despite the fact that the device has been in market for a long time now, I still often get asked whether it’s any good when people spot me using one.

But answering such enquiries is something I find very difficult to do in a meaningful way. The reason is because the iPad is in some respects very flexible, but in others extremely constraining. So, whether it’s ‘any good’ depends on the perspective you take, and whether it is right for any individual will depend on your lifestyle, working patterns and, above all, preferences.

Given this, I thought it might be useful to outline my own experiences and explain where my usage of the iPad has ended up, which is not at all how I expected things to turn out.

Before getting going, it’s probably worth saying that the device I have been using, and currently use, is the original iPad – specifically the 64Gb 3G variant. I have played with an iPad 2, however, and it’s pretty clear that it’s fundamentally the same device, just slightly lighter, slightly thinner, slightly quicker and with a couple of cameras added. Everything I am about to say is therefore not going to be any different.

So what’s my experience been?

Initial expectations and immediate disappointment

When I first got the iPad, it was with business use in mind, and to be honest it was more of a research exercise than anything else – I just wanted to explore where, if at all, it might fit into my typical ‘road warrior’ type of lifestyle. In this context, I could see the potential of something highly portable, with a decent screen size, good battery life and instant-on capability. I thought it might specifically be useful for reading and composing emails, doing lightweight office work, and browsing the Web to keep up with the news. The idea was that on days when I didn’t have anything heavy to do on the road, I could leave the laptop at home.

My initial experiences were promising. The email client was good, and despite taking up almost half of the screen in landscape mode, the soft keyboard was remarkably usable if the device was set down on a flat surface (using the standard cover folded back to support the machine at the appropriate angle). An immediate disappointment, though, was a lack of proper rendering of Microsoft Office documents sent to me as email attachments. With anything but the simplest of Word files, formatting was lost and some documents were pretty much totally unreadable.

Investigating workarounds for document authoring, editing and review

I invested a lot of time and effort looking for ‘apps’ to help with the Office document compatibility issue, and while some improved the situation, none got anywhere near fixing it. I went through a period of asking people to resend Office documents in PDF format so I could read them properly on the iPad, then using various tools that support PDF mark-up for review purposes, but all this ended up creating work for not just me, but everyone else in the team I work with.

It also became pretty obvious to me that the touch screen slate format is fundamentally not suited to routine editing, review and mark-up tasks. Using your fingers to position the cursor, highlight text, cut and paste text, etc, is certainly doable (if you have the right combination of document type and app to allow it), but it’s so incredibly slow and tedious compared to using a mouse and keyboard.

I generally gave up trying do such things after a while, and on occasions when I absolutely had to review something when I didn’t have the laptop with me, I’d get the document sent in PDF, then read it on the iPad while typing comments and corrections into a separate email on the BlackBerry. I still use this technique from time to time, and assure you it is much quicker and easier than trying to mark up a document directly on the iPad. It’s also less fuss for the author when they get the output of the review back to act upon.

Definitely not a laptop or smart phone replacement

Mentioning the BlackBerry brings me back to the question of the iPad’s soft keypad. As good as it is, is still represents a compromise compared to a physical keyboard. Even today, after a lot of practice on the iPad, I can still type a lot more quickly and comfortably on my BlackBerry Bold 9700. I have also discovered that while I receive a lot email, the vast majority of the messages that really matter are actually quite short, so the larger screen of the iPad is not as much of an advantage for routine mobile email use as you might think if you already have a decent handheld device.

As a result of these factors, I gradually found myself going back to using the BlackBerry for anything to do with email while out and about, so I don’t really think of the iPad as an email device any more.

It’ll come as no surprise that I have also given up trying to use the iPad for writing, except in emergencies, for the reasons previously mentioned. I did try using a separate Bluetooth keyboard for a while, and while this made things better, I realised that I had drifted back into laptop territory, and that a proper laptop was actually a lot less fuss and a lot more comfortable and efficient.

So, the iPad has not allowed me to leave the laptop at home at all when going out and about on business, but I still do take it with me most places. Why?

Discovering the value beyond traditional use cases

Well because it really comes into its own in other ways, beyond traditional office and email type activity.

I now, for example, carry around much less paper. It used to be that I would print off reports and research slide sets before setting off for the day that I would need for discussion or illustration during meetings. While in theory you can use a laptop to talk around in a meeting context, I have always found it to be clumsy and intrusive. This is particularly true in a relatively informal setting where talking around (and potentially passing around) a sheet of paper or document is much more natural and conducive to open and free flowing conversation.

As it turns out, you can use a slate to achieve the same effect – i.e. as a direct paper replacement. I will quite often, for example, pull up a research chart on the iPad to illustrate a point I am trying to make, then hand it to the person I am speaking with so they can look at it closely. It can even be passed around for a small group to take a look. People also have no problem when you tell them to “flick backwards” or “flick forwards” to page through the document or presentation – they know what to do intuitively. Using this technique, I can also show samples of our work, whether it’s documents or something we have published online that I can pull up from the relevant web site.

With a combination of the iPad, a PDF library containing all of our current research and deliverables, and an always-connected web browser, I can metaphorically ‘create’ any piece of paper I need on the fly, even if I didn’t foresee needing it before the meeting. While sceptics might argue you could pull up the same content on a laptop, believe me when I say it is not anywhere near as effective as using a slate – indeed I can introduce material into a discussion via the iPad in situations where it would be totally unnatural or inappropriate to open my laptop. This is not a benefit I expected, by the way, I just discovered it by accident.

Web browsing and access to cloud apps

The benefit I did expect, and that the iPad has delivered on, is around web browsing. In my job, I need to stay reasonably well up to date with what’s going on in the IT industry, so I spend quite a bit of time on news sites and vendor web sites. The slate form factor is perfect for doing this comfortably, whether on the train, in a coffee shop between meetings, laying on your bed in a hotel room, or even sat on the sofa at home. I also discovered a nice cross-platform utility for caching web pages offline so you can read them later, e.g. while sat on a plane.

The lack of Flash support on the iPad is irritating, and I found it particularly noticeable when getting into more research type activity. I find watching video clips quite handy when you want a quick hit overview of someone’s view of a problem, or their high level proposition, and there is some great pre-recorded webcast material out there. A lot of useful content on IT vendor, consulting firm and publisher web sites is Flash based, however, and therefore not accessible. To be honest, though, for this kind of more proactive research, I tend to use a PC anyway, harvesting links and segments of text as I go into Office documents, so the Flash thing is arguably moot.

The one thing that’s changed considerably over the course of my iPad use is accessing some of our intranet and cloud based apps. To begin with, I had problems with some of our Microsoft stuff, but today accessing Outlook Web Access and SharePoint is not bad. The one I still have a problem with is Salesforce.com. There is no iPad app, the iPhone one is not brilliant, and Mobile Safari is still not properly supported – all of which is ironic given that Marc Benioff was waving an iPad around on stage about a year ago claiming that such devices were transforming the way customers were accessing their service. As an aside, if anyone out there has found of way of getting a decent iPad experience with Salesforce.com, I would love to hear from you.

Great for reading and personal use in general

Building on my use of the iPad for browsing news sites, etc, I have got so used to using the device for reading stuff that I take advantage of it routinely for pretty much all of the written content I consume on the road, whether it’s business or technically oriented papers, IT vendor literature, or business books or novels. There are lots of ways of reading a PDF on an iPad (I generally favour the ‘GoodReader’ app), but I have settled on the Amazon Kindle app for eBooks as this is portable across devices and syncs both content and current position in books across all registered clients (via ‘Whispersync’). In fact, I now rarely read physical books anymore, even at home on the sofa or while lying in bed. The only real limitation of the iPad in this respect is reading it in bright sunlight, so with the Summer coming, I may be looking at a dedicated Kindle device at some point for more domestic/holiday use.

Talking of entertainment, I have found that the portable video capability of the iPad has become quite an important part of my life. I tend to download TV series from iTunes so if I have an hour to kill and don’t fancy working or reading, I can pull up an episode and relax – great for train journeys home after a long day, on short haul flights, and for those dead periods you occasionally get when staying in hotel rooms. If I have a decent WiFi connection, I also use streamed content in the same way, and even do this around the home. It’s now pretty natural for me to watch BBC iPlayer content, or the BBC or Sky news channel, for example, while shaving in the bathroom, cooking in the kitchen, sitting in the back garden, or whatever.

Interestingly, I don’t tend to use the iPad much for music though. While out and about, the BlackBerry or iPod (1st gen Nano in my case) is generally more convenient with a headset (and the BlackBerry has better sound quality).

Conclusion

Standing back and reviewing all these experiences and learnings, I would sum it up by saying that the iPad is an ideal prosumer device that genuinely cuts across the business/personal divide and delivers significant value on both sides of the equation. From a business perspective, it is certainly not a laptop replacement, however – partly because the slate form factor is inherently not suited to some types of activity (e.g. authoring and reviewing), and partly because neither Apple nor Microsoft seem interested in making Microsoft Office documents properly accessible on the iPad (and there probably isn’t enough money in it for third party app vendors to move much beyond the capability they currently offer). However, the iPad is very useful as a laptop companion and paper replacement in the way I have explained.

The last point I would make is that most of the benefits and constraints I have mentioned would be common to any credible slate offering – e.g. based on Android, WebOS or Windows. The only consideration might be MS Office compatibility for business purposes (which may ultimately be better on other devices), and the role of iTunes on the personal front (which others may find difficult to match). iTunes is very convenient for managing video content, and while I am not a big game player, I would imagine that if you were into this, the sheer volume of titles available for the iPad would be a consideration.

So, is the iPad any good? I personally think so, but it really does depend what you are looking for, and other options are emerging very rapidly.

Dale Vile is research director at analyst Freeform Dynamics

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