Tales of an Apple fanboy

I’ve now had a couple of opportunities to play around with an iPad, and to surreptitiously watch other people use it. I have strong and mixed feelings. The touchscreen interface is pretty wonderful and I have no doubt that it’s going to send the mouse the way of the floppy disk. But the walled garden aspect disturbs me. It smells a little Microsoft-y. As long Apple’s products are so delightful, I guess I don’t care that deeply what their business philosophy is. But not everything that Apple makes is equally delightful, and gorgeous though it is, the iPad gives me some qualms.

A little background. I got my first Mac exposure in 1988, eighth grade, back in the days of System 6 and Pagemaker 1.0. It was love at first use. The mouse interface is old hat now but then it was a tremendous improvement on typing arcane DOS commands.

The first computer I bought with my own money was a blue and white G3 tower.

This computer was an amazing piece of industrial design. The side panel was a big hinged door so you could effortlessly open the computer up and access its innards. Not like I needed access to the guts all that often, but it was nice to not need a screwdriver or anything when I did. I also really loved having big sturdy handles on all four corners. It seems like such a no-brainer now, I wish all heavy, delicate and expensive objects had big handles on them. One of my roommates at the time said I shouldn’t buy this computer because, while it looked cool, it would be instantly dated – so late nineties. She was right, but I think the time-period specificity is part of the coolness, like the fins on a 1957 Chevy.

I resisted the iPhone for a long time because of the price and the lousy AT&T phone service. My mom generously bought me one for my last birthday, though, which was especially fortuitous, since a few weeks later, my laptop’s motherboard died. The iPhone turns out to be such an awesome computer in its own right that while I haven’t been able to replace my laptop, I’ve been getting along quite well without it.

The iPhone isn’t a perfect computer. The lack of multitasking is annoying (though this is supposedly about to change.) It would be nice to have access to the file system without having to go through the rigmarole of jailbreaking. But these complaints feel trivial given how fundamentally miraculous the iPhone is. It feels like it fell out of the future, and it hasn’t been far from my hand since I got it. And I appreciate the move away from the tired desktop metaphor.

So. The iPad.

On the one hand, you have fanboys like Steven Fry proclaiming the pad to be the second coming. On the other hand, there’s the well-documented Reality Distortion Field that makes people think they like Apple’s stuff more than they actually do. I fall in between. The most reasonable review I’ve come across is the one from Daring Fireball. After a glowing review of the user experience of Apple’s iWork office apps, there’s this caveat:

There is, however, a severe shortcoming inherent to the iWork suite of iPad apps: document syncing between Mac and iPad. It’s a convoluted mess. In short, the only way to edit a document on your iPad that was created on your Mac, or vice versa, is to go through a convoluted multi-step process of exporting, copying, syncing or downloading, and importing.

Ted Landau has copiously documented the entire situation in this article at The Mac Observer. Read it and weep.

What it boils down to is that there is no syncing really. Real syncing is something like IMAP for email, or the way MobileMe handles calendars and contacts. Certain of my favorite iPad and iPhone apps sync like this too. When I read a bunch of RSS items using NetNewsWire on my iPad, they’re marked as read on my Mac. Sitting at my Mac in my office, I can send a long article to Instapaper. I go downstairs, pick up my iPad, sit on the couch, launch the Instapaper iPad app, and a few seconds later, there’s the article I just added to my Instapaper queue. This is the sort of data flow that makes me feel like I’m living in the future — using multiple hardware devices to view, edit, and modify the same data. I don’t worry about where separate copies of my data exist. Conceptually it’s just there in the apps, and the apps do all the hard work of pushing and pulling changes made on other clients.

The data flow with these iWork apps isn’t like that at all, and needs to be for them to be truly useful. It doesn’t matter how good the user interface for viewing and editing spreadsheets is in Numbers for iPad if my spreadsheets aren’t there. Here’s an example. I keep the schedule for Daring Fireball RSS sponsorships in a Numbers document. What I’d like to be able to do on my iPad is launch Numbers and access the current version of that spreadsheet. But the only way I could possibly do that today would be if I went through the following steps every single time I made a change to the document on my Mac:

  1. Before opening the current version of the file on my Mac, check to make sure there isn’t a more recent version of it on my iPad.
  2. Open the file on my Mac and make changes.
  3. Save.
  4. Dock my iPad to my Mac via USB.
  5. Switch to iTunes and go to the Apps tab for my iPad.
  6. Add the newly-saved revision of the document to the file sharing list for the iPad’s Numbers app.
  7. Sync.

Even after going through all of this, when I do want to open this file on my iPad, I have to remember not to open the last revision of it listed in the iPad Numbers app’s “My Documents” list, but instead remember first to import the latest revision from Numbers’s file sharing list to Numbers’ “My Documents”.

And, again, it’s effectively up to me to keep track of which machine, Mac or iPad, has the most recent revision of the file. To say the least, this is a recipe for disaster, and even if you don’t make a mistake and inadvertently make significant changes to an out-of-date version of the document on one of the two machines, you’re stuck with a preposterously, mind-bogglingly convoluted workflow each and every time you make a change to the document.

 

This sounds like a colossal drag and it’s reason enough for me not to be interested in buying an iPad. I don’t mind the klutziness of iTunes syncing on the iPhone, since I’m not doing a lot of serious document creation on it anyway. But on a full-sized computer, I’d expect to be able to do real work on it, not just watch movies and read magazines. I’d like to be able to easily print, too.

I use the computer for routine web browsing and entertainment like everyone else. But I work on it too, and what I love most about it is how it enables experimentation, mental adventure, self-expression. At its best, Apple knows how to encourage experiential learning and creativity. The last couple of Macs I bought came free with OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner, both of which I love to distraction. They inspired my sample maps and the macro-scale structure of my book in progress, respectively. I’ll bet the iPad version of OmniGraffle is a major delight… until it’s time to move your files to another computer, or print them, or do anything else with them.

I’m also disturbed by the iPad’s lack of USB ports. I can imagine a lot of awesome uses for the iPad in music, but if I can’t connect my gear to it except through a proprietary port that may or may not be supported by the makers of my other stuff, what good is it? There are plenty of intriguing music apps on the iPad, like Smule’s delightful Magic Piano. But if I make something cool with one of these apps, how do I get it out of the iPad? How do I make mp3s and put them on my web site, or export audio to Pro Tools, or do anything else with it?

Apple’s supposed concern with user experience only extends to a point. Right now, just about every video and most of the animation on the internet uses Flash. For reasons of corporate strategy, Apple has decided to not support Flash on the iPhone or iPad. So a huge percentage of web sites are missing their multimedia content, and instead show a picture of a mysterious blue lego block. I know the back story behind this functionality failure and can work around it, but most people will just find it mystifying. I don’t like Flash any more than Steve Jobs does, and I’d welcome a future without it. I guess I can understand the decision not to support it, but I’m mystified as to why Apple wouldn’t offer any onscreen explanation as to what’s going on.

Both the iPhone and the iPad are missing the most significant piece of interface friendliness that I can think of: an easy and obvious way to undo your last action. Novice users need undo even more than I do. The iPad’s Undo command is buried in the secondary onscreen keyboard and it’s totally absent on the iPhone. There’s a weird and not widely known feature of both phone and pad where you can undo by shaking the device. I rarely remember this exists and I can’t imagine how, like, my mom would ever think to do this gesture. Where’s the big red physical undo button? Come to think of it, why doesn’t every computer have one?

Apple’s handholding can be helpful, but when it interferes, it’s as annoying as Microsoft’s animated paperclip. Like, on the iPhone the automated typing correction changes “its” to “it’s” in every circumstance, whether it’s correct or not. There’s no way to create exceptions to the rules and I finally had to turn the autocorrect off entirely.

Finally, I’m concerned byApple’s less-than-stellar environmental record. I’d wish for them to get to work on that.

So. No iPad for me yet. But Apple is full of surprises, and I’m keeping an open mind.

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