The iPad as Workhorse: The Hardware is Ready, the Software is Not

Matt Alexander declares that today the iPad has replaced the Mac, by adding a new 128GB model.

. . . with a price immediately comparable to the 11-inch MacBook Air, Apple has ostensibly released an iPad that broaches into the realm of full-time workhorse device . . .

Today’s iPad, available for $929 with an LTE radio, improves upon the battery life, display, storage, portability, and connectivity of my 11-inch Air.

Perhaps I can’t perform all of the work I do on my Air on an iPad, but the knowledge is nevertheless stunning when presented in a side-by-side comparison.

I agree, particularly in terms of cellular connectivity and battery life, the 128GB iPad (or any full-size iPad) is a compelling “one-device.”

But if the Age of the iPad as one’s sole computer — for work and leisure — is upon us, I don’t feel like the software has caught up to the hardware. Despite all the powers of the iPad (or tablets generally) as a device, there are still so many tasks that are easy on a PC but difficult-to-unbearable on an iPad.

Thinking just in terms of what I’m doing now: writing. Yes, you can pair a keyboard (and I actually have almost no trouble with the soft keyboard). But that’s just typing. When I’m writing, for work or for this blog, or what have you, I’m not just dropping text onto a blank field. I’m also formatting, I’m editing, I’m adding links, I’m italicizing, adding images, cutting and pasting, swapping between open windows and tabs for reference. All these things are possible on an iPad, but they are a huge pain in the ass. (Press the screen, hold, wait for the bubble to pop up. Oh, that was the wrong spot. Smudge over to the right spot. Release? Release. Hold again. There’s the bubble, and tap the menu option. Wrong option. Undo? How? Undo button or shake the iPad? Should I have double-tapped? Etcetera.)

I imagine this is the case for many other kinds of work that folks would like to be doing on their glass slabs, but still find it too cumbersome. Surely, the iPad makes many tasks easier than they were on a PC, or if not, strips away functionality in such a way as to simplify and make more pleasurable certain tasks (like note taking, light photo editing, or maybe even demo-music recording).

Let’s stick with writing for the moment. The problem isn’t the hardware, really. The Retina iPad as an electronic device is a wonder. But as of yet, I have not seen a software solution, an app, that, for example, makes formal writing projects really feasible. Many apps do an admirable job of making up for the deficiencies of tablet publishing, but they are merely treading water. PC’s benefit from the ease of using a pointing device like a mouse or trackpad, in having a definitive cursor on the screen that can show the user (with no question as to where their finger might actually be pressing) where the action on the screen is. And that arrow can be easily manipulated right before our eyes.

Someone needs to develop a software solution that totally rethinks that entire paradigm specifically for the tablet environment. Right now, writing apps tend to mimic the pointer-cursor concept but without the pointer or cursor, and simply relying on presses and taps. That sucks when you’re talking about something as granular as text. It’s just too damn small, and our fingers are just too damn, well, mushy in action. They are imprecise, unlike the blinking cursor or the hovering arrow. So for writing and formatting to really work on a tablet, that entire setup needs to be junked, and replaced with something that suits the hardware (and by hardware in this case I do mean both the tablet itself and the fingers operating it).

There was a time when I was eager to replace by own 11″ Air with an iPad, but it was this kind of work that made that a fantasy. (And would it kill Apple to make a MacBook Air with LTE and a battery that’s not a joke? No, but it would probably kill my wallet.) My Retina iPad is gone, replaced with a Nexus 7, in part because it did not justify its place in my life. It was not capable enough as a full-on work machine, and not small or light enough to be a leisure/reading machine.

And I still love my 11″ Air. It’s so adorable!

Anyway, Alexander is not all the way there himself.

Although many, myself included, are reticent to wholeheartedly embrace the iPad as a primary computing machine, there’s an increasingly large amount of people who are more than willing to do so. With each passing day, the compromises of relying upon an iPad for work are dissipating, whilst the Mac is steadily becoming more and more resigned to niche tasks for power-users.

We’ll see. I don’t think the kind of writing I’m talking about is the exclusive provenance of power users. So let’s watch what the devs come up with, and we’ll see.

11 thoughts on “The iPad as Workhorse: The Hardware is Ready, the Software is Not”

  1. There are a few major disadvantages to the iPad for pro apps.
    First is the touch interface. The touch interface is integral to the success of the smartphone/tablet, but it also means all programs need to be redesigned completely to take advantage of this interface, without keyboard shortcuts or mouse precision. This means a lack of depth with the interface, limiting useful toolsets.
    Second is connection. In design especially, most people use multiple apps for the tools each provide. Being able to pass files those between programs through a shared space like the desktop is vital. Along with that is an organizational issue, which might rely on a directory structure, but could probably be substituted with right metadata, content-aware searching and smart tag-clouds.
    The third is power. ARM chips are designed to be energy efficient, not powerful. A desktop system can pack a lot more processing power and storage space in the same price range.
    To be honest, despite being a major Mac guy, I have a massive jones for the Surface Pro. There’s a machine that has a touch interface to make use as a tablet easy, but also a desktop mode where the smart-cover and Wacom cintiq-style stylus allow you to use the desktop-computer depth and complexity. If I don’t get it I’ll almost certainly get it or a partner’s variation when the haswell processors come out.
    I doubt 3d apps, or Adobe Creative Cloud will ever be all that useful for the iPad, and it’s a toss up whether a product like the surface pro, which allows a single mobile device to be used as a touch tablet OR a stylus/keyboard laptop, will ever be popular enough to challenge apple to make an iPad/MBA convertible system.


  2. I think where Apple is headed is to a full blown OSX iPad and are just waiting for the right time. MS likely blew it by releasing the Surface too soon before the form factor could contain useful hardware. Actually even the Surface form factor is not that good either. It is a laptop that can not be used on a lap and a tablet too large to be used as a tablet.


    1. Agreed. Apple will have a better grasp of the ergonomics before they release anything into the wild, and being Apple, it will still be rife with Apple-imposed limitations based on what they believe we do and don’t need. Microsoft of course tries to stuff everything into every product. If the Surface were a little more well executed, I could actually see it as a real winner.


    1. I dunno. I used to say that was crazy, but now I kind of want the option. Maybe the stylus is the way to bridge the gap?


  3. I don’t think the hardware (well, more the form factor) is ready. And to get the ipad or any tablet to the point where i can use it instead of a desktop is pointless, because it would basically be a desktop.If i am going to do any writing i need a physical keyboard; if the screen is in a comfortable place for me to see, then it isn’t a comfortable place for me to poke, so i can’t use the touchscreen functionality and need a mouse. add all that, and i may as well have a desktop.
    If you are doing anything more complex than surfing the web or reading then a tablet really isn’t suitable.


  4. No one is going to be writing Nationa Science Foundation grants on tablets anytime soon. I’m a chemist: I need to format, particularly subscripts and superscripts. How am I supposed to type papers and proposals without that, and a lot more? I can’t even get my teaching work done on a tablet.
    Lots of professions have their things that they need that tablet software just doesn’t supply. Not letting my laptop go.


  5. Does anyone remember Wordwise Plus on the BBC Model B?
    That was an interesting concept in word processing. You typed your text in a 40-column mode (the only character-mapped mode available). It was automatically reflowed for an 80-column printer. Embedded codes (for things like bold, underlining and centre) shew up in green. Depending how much memory was available, you might or might not have been able to preview your text in 80 columns (high-resolution bitmapped displays are expensive when you have but 32Kbytes — yes, Kbytes — of RAM).
    It meant that you could devote most of your attention to the content, and let the computer deal with the presentation.
    Nowadays, of course, there’s LaTeX.


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