iPad: Seven weeks on

So I’ve had the privilege of having an iPad for almost a couple of months now and I’ve spent a fair bit of time experimenting with a few different apps and thinking of ideas for uses of this interesting UI. I’ve also had numerous discussions with various friends and colleagues about some potential use cases for the iPad.

With that in mind I wanted to summarise my initial thoughts and ideas; nothing too prolific, but maybe over time I can refine my thoughts. I should also note I haven’t done a lot of research into innovative ways the iPad is currently being used apart from what I have observed within apps that I have used. If anyone has any good links to content then feel free to post them in the comments; in particular I am interested in any research being undertaken at Universities.

I’ll break up my comments by industry:

Software

Given this is the industry I work in there are a number of different applications that I have found for the iPad. The first was the ability to use diagramming tools for brainstorming, requirements elicitation, software design, data design and documentation. In my case I’m using OmniGraffle and Instaviz. I can highly recommend both of them; they are excellent.

OmniGraffle is a bit more expensive than your average iPad application, but if you normally find yourself needing to use Visio then I would recommend you give this app a go. I do warn you though – you probably won’t want to go back to using Visio since its UI is awful in comparison. The main issue though is that OmniGraffle can only be used on iPad or Mac OSX, so if you need multiple people editing the diagram then they all need an iPad or Mac.

We’ve been using Pivotal Tracker to keep track of user stories and they have an iPad app (Track-r) that we have been using in order to conveniently change and view the status of tasks as we progress. Disappointingly though, the app is fairly buggy, but the web interface works well in Safari Mobile even if it’s less convenient than having an app.

I have found that for pair programming in particular the iPad is a very useful tool. The person who is not typing can use the iPad to look up API documentation and Google things (e.g. code snippets or solutions to problems experienced) while the person typing can concentrate on writing the code without interruption. This provides a great way of improving the efficiency of pair programming. They can also take notes of things that need to be looked at that are noticed (and need to be looked at later; for that though we take advantage of our boogie boards rather than the iPad).

I’ve found that the iPad is really convenient for performing research via Google and reading blog posts in my down time while sitting on the couch at home or eating lunch etc. It’s such a nice interface to read with because of the natural and effortless ability to swipe down the page and zoom in and out combined with the ability to adjust the orientation and position of the screen with ease.

One thing that would be nice is if someone developed an application that provides a nice UI for JavaScript (with popular libraries built-in e.g. jQuery, jQuery UI, etc.), HTML and CSS development so that when I’m on the road and have an idea that I want to quickly play with or prototype. On second thoughts, a quick scan on the app store reveals there are apps for this very thing, including some apps that let you integrate with an FTP site (that’s really handy, if a client rings you up with a problem with their site while you are out and about you can fix it on the spot!). I haven’t used any of these apps yet, but I did find a free one JavaScript Anywhere that I will try out.

Teaching and learning

Working at a University I am obviously exposed to a lot of situations in the field of teaching and learning. The iPad is a fantastic potential tool for teaching, learning and assessment. I would say the main properties of the iPad that lead to useful applications are:

  • Portability: Allows staff and students to access teaching materials or perform assessments in an environment that is convenient to them and to capture or document learning where / as it happens.
  • Support for creation of rich media to supplement textual resources (audio for now, but photo and video as well with the new iPad when it’s released). This includes the fact that the iPad does give the advantage of providing a great interface for creating drawings and illustrations. The are a whole heap of apps that you can get; I’ve used Doodle Buddy and Adobe Ideas, which work fine as basic tools, in combination with the aforementioned OmniGraffle and Instaviz.
  • Instant access to resources via iBooks (think course notes, lecture notes or text books in PDF format), email, Dropbox, Blackboard, various education apps that you can get, the web etc. At Curtin we use Live@Edu for student emails, messaging, storage etc. – it would be pretty amazing if there was an app to tightly integrate with that *hint* *hint* Microsoft.
  • Ability to take notes easily (once you get used to the keyboard, or using the microphone if you are in an environment where you can talk).
  • Ability to increase efficiency of assessments by making them electronic.

It should be noted that iPhones (and the like) and laptops can both be used for some of the above list, but the screen size of the iPad wins over iPhones and the portability wins over laptops.

There are already examples of the iPad being used in education environments such as the University of Adelaide trial.

One specific area that I have had conversations about iPad use cases is in Medicine and Biology. Apart from the standard use cases the iPad would be really useful in wet labs. Provided it can be sterilised, the iPad could be used to easily access and manipulate 3D models and textbook resources, which are normally scarce in these environments.

Business

The iPad really shines as a business tool. This is probably evidenced by the increasing number of businesses and executives buying up iPads. The linked-to article outlines the major points that make it a great business tool, but in short ease of managing calendar and emails, creating / editing and showing presentations, access to Internet, emails and calendar and easy note taking in meetings without having to cart around a laptop and ability to perform business functions on the go with 3G make it attractive.

This is relevant to all industries and uses of the iPad, however I will mention the obvious that the iPad is a great tool to assist with becoming paperless.

Server support

As part of my job I occasionally have to perform server support functions. The iPad has proven to be an excellent tool for this. The combination of built-in VPN and the Wyse PocketCloud application means that I can remote desktop into my workstation (or connect to my VDI) from anywhere and perform any task needed. There are also a range of SSH applications to choose that could also prove useful, although I haven’t experimented with any yet. Finally, there is an application called PasswordSafes, which allows you to transfer your existing PasswordSafe file(s) onto the iPad and have secure access to passwords.

Medicine

I thought that the following post provided a fairly insightful look into the pros and cons of using the iPad in a medical environment: A Nurse’s View on the iPad in Healthcare. Be sure to read the first comment as well.

Home use

As a home use tool, I’ve found that the iPad has resulted in less time sitting at my computer, tasks like checking my emails, browsing the Internet and catching up on my favourite video serials (except for zero punctuation, you have to pay for a subscription to access their videos in HTML5 format 🙁 ). This generally means I perform these tasks from the comfort of the couch or my bed. There are even a number of proper games that you can get on the iPad, I tried out RedAlert and Need For Speed Hot Pursuit which were both pretty amazing. There is also the array of slightly simpler, but addictive time-wasters like Angry Birds and Flight Control that are quite enjoyable.

Another thing at I can now do is write blog posts on the iPad. I just got the WordPress iPad app to try it out and I’m writing this post as a trial of it. It’s reasonably basic, but it certainly acts as a convenient way for my to write down content on the go when I have a spare few moments. If I need to do anything more complicated than I can simply pull up Safari and log into the administration section. It’s pretty cool to be able to write posts while sitting on the couch watching TV. One slight annoyance is that for some reason when I start typing fast the keyboard and the screen doesn’t update with what I have typed until a few seconds after I stop typing! It also managed to lose parts of this post that I am typing, so I have mixed feelings about it.

Another novel use of the iPad is to use it to help fix your computer when it won’t boot or you messed up a BIOS upgrade and you need to use Google search to try and find the cause of the problem. For instance, my house mate made use of my iPad to fix his laptop after some configuration settings were lost after a BIOS update.

The fact that most every-day computer use cases (Internet, Internet Banking, games, videos) are covered means the iPad provides a real alternative to a computer if your computer use is limited to that set of activities. This, in combination with the easy to use UI the iPad provides, means that recommending the iPad to your parents and grandparents is a really good idea. Not only is the iPad either cheaper or comparable with the price range of a basic PC (with monitor and peripherals) or laptop, you will have to give less tech support because the iPad is less likely to crash and is much simpler to use, configure and maintain.

Dungeons and Dragons

I recently started playing Dungeons and Dragons and one of the first things about it that frustrated me was the fact that you have to use paper to keep track of your character. I have been trying to remain as paperless as possible of late for efficiency, clutter-free and environmental reasons. Thus, I started researching how iPad can be used to play dungeons and dragons in a more paperless fashion. The following posts provide a basic overview into how you can use the iPad with DnD:

In particular iPlay4E is really good, but you need to use it in conjunction with Character Builder in order to add and edit items and abilities and level up. Personally, the thought of having to pay a $70/year subscription for something that I play for a couple of hours a week seems a bit silly, so I might use my infinite spare time to create a basic web app to track my character and use it as an excuse to play with jQuery Mobile.

Disadvantages / Barriers to adoption

  • Security – Businesses will rightly be worried about the security of their data if they allow a proliferation of the use of this type of device, Apple have clearly thought of this and have written a white paper outlining the ways in which the iPad can be secured. There are some other points made by Philip Hall in regards to this.
  • Keyboard – The iPad keyboard takes a bit of getting used to – it is quite different from typing on a normal keyboard and there is no physical feedback so some people will probably really struggle. Personally, after about a month I become quite proficient at typing on the iPad and now I can almost type as fast as on a normal keyboard. For those people that still can’t master it, there are a number of keyboard solutions out there ranging from Bluetooth ones through to cases and docks with built-in keyboards. A simple Google search for ipad keyboard reveals a few of the options, including an official Apple one.
  • Inability to read screen in direct sunlight – This is a limitation of the iPad, so if you find yourself outside a lot this may be a problem for you.
  • Lack of precise styluses – At the moment there seems to be a lack of precise styluses for the iPad, which would extend the ability of using the iPad for drawing and illustration applications.
  • Lack of OneNote integration – I use OneNote at work for distributed note taking extensively and the one main thing I really would like to make my iPad experience complete is an app that has proper OneNote integration to SharePoint. Microsoft recently released an iPhone app for OneNote on the US App Store though, which is encouraging 🙂
  • Lack of Office integration – There are a number of office suite applications that you can get including Apple’s own suite, but there is no suite for editing Microsoft Office files that I have found.
  • Lack of suitability for rugged environments – By default I imagine the iPad probably isn’t built for industrial environments. In saying that, there does seem to be some options for cases to address this.
  • Lock in to app store – If you want to distribute your application to your users then you are pretty much forced to use the app store (unless you are ok with ad hoc distribution). This includes a situation where you create an app with potentially private business logic (Although, a bit of Googling reveals that Apple have an Enterprise Developer program that allows you to distribute an app only to devices owned by your business).

Other devices

It would be remiss of me not to say that a lot of the advantages afforded by the iPad are also applicable to other such devices, and some of the limitations above are iPad specific. In particular, I think the main advantages of iPad over other devices are:

  • Natural, easy-to-use UI – The touch screen is responsive and in true Apple style they have taken full advantage of that with their wonderfully intuitive UI.
  • App store – While lock-in to the app store can be a disadvantage it is also a source of one of the main advantages for the iPad since it makes it so convenient to find and download applications. It also gives you some level of confidence due to Apples QA process that the apps will actually work and not use up too much processor power. This, in combination with the user rating and commenting system provides a good indication on whether any particular app will likely be worth getting. The app store also provides you with confidence that your credit card information is kept safe and it also makes it convenient to keep apps up to date with the latest version.
  • VGA output – while this might not be specific to the iPad, the ability to output to a screen via a VGA connector is really handy because (assuming you have the right app) you can modify your presentation and display it on-the-fly and don’t have to lug around a laptop for the privilege.
  • Remote wipe – The Find My iPhone app allows the iPad to be found remotely and also any data on it to be wiped; this provides a useful security blanket for any data stored on there.
  • Accessibility – The iPad, like other Apple products focuses on being as accessible as possible to people with disabilities e.g. blind people

4 Replies to “iPad: Seven weeks on”

  1. Hey there Rob, very interesting read and a great writeup. It’s nice to also see more people I know in Perth taking the time to contribute back to the industry through blogging. It all amounts to something.
    Take it easy dude! & I’ll link mine up to your site.

  2. A further note on this: I gave a guest lecture today and the iPad was excellent as a prompt. I was flicking between pages of a PDF export of the slide notes every time I changed slides in PowerPoint. Only comment would be that Royce made the point it’s more efficient with keynote in combination with a vido output since the video output has the slides and the iPad shows the notes for the slide. That way you only have to transition once and boggy the slide and the notes change.

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