Life on an iPad

IPad Pro with Smart Keyboard, and devil

The Mac went to the day of the dead, so the iPad had to step in

A couple of weeks ago, I opened my Macbook Pro as usual. The keyboard lit up, as usual. I waited – there’s that pause while the display gathers itself (it’s a 2012 model) and the processor pulls everything together and presents the login window.

Except this time, nothing. The display didn’t light. There was the quiet sound of the fans going, but nothing. Oh dear. Closed the display, opened it to catch it unawares – no, that wasn’t going to fool it. After a bit more futzing around, I concluded that it was not in the mood to work. But I had work to do, and so I turned to my iPad Pro.

That was, as I say, a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve been doing everything I’ve done on this iPad – a 12in iPad Pro, with Smart Keyboard. That means email, writing articles for papers, editing chapters for my book, composing The Overspill’s daily Start Up post, and so on.

A few years ago, this would probably have been impossible. I wouldn’t have contemplated it. Now? Getting along fine. In a number of ways, the iPad is preferable – particularly weight and connectivity. In only a couple of ways is it worse (the most notable being “lappability”).

The big advantage these days is that if you trust your documents to iCloud, then moving between Mac and iPad isn’t a problem. (OK, for the chapters in the book that has been a mixture of iCloud – for the Pages edits of Word documents – and Dropbox, which is where Scrivener, which I used to write it originally, stores documents.) I was able to go straight to my iPad and have all the tools I needed.

Let’s run through a few of those things.

• writing my book: wait, you didn’t know I had a book coming out? Yes, in May – Cyber Wars, looking in detail at seven big hacking incidents: how and why they happened. You can order it on Amazon. (US, UK.) I wrote it in Scrivener, which is wonderful, and has an iOS as well as MacOS version. Documents and “projects” are synced via Dropbox, and it detects if you’ve done something in one place or the other and offers to sync them up.

• editing book chapters: the publishers sent back chapters as Word documents with Track Changes. Import those to Pages (on the iPad), run through the Track Changes, export to Word documents (also in iCloud Drive) and send back. All lives in iCloud Drive, so will be available when (if?) the Mac revives.

• writing articles for papers: this is generally easiest in Google Docs (because a lot of papers are on Google Apps). Weirdly, although Google will let you write things in Google Docs in Safari on MacOS, it absolutely won’t let you do that on Safari on the iPad, even if you request the desktop site. You have to use the app. This is the only case I’ve come across where you can’t do it on the site and have to use the app.

• making and recording Skype calls for work.

• curating The Overspill. This involves spotting links, selecting content from them, perhaps adding a comment and an image from that link, and then collating all the links together in a specific format (using particular HTML formatting), and putting those into a timed WordPress post with a Flickr CC-BY licensed picture at the top. (The CC-BY has to include a link back to the original photo and the photographer’s name or username.)

The most complex part of those is composing The Overspill, where I use a mixture of Instapaper, Pinboard and WordPress for the raw content. On the Mac, I collect the links and content and comment using the Javascript supplied by Pinboard. But that’s not available (or wasn’t) on the iPad, so I used Workflow to write an Action Extension: when I’m on a page, I select the text, hit the Share button and choose “Run Workflow”, and I can put the selected text – with a comment – into Pinboard. It’s actually better than on MacOS, because Workflow has options so you can grab the author name from the page meta-content.

Workflow script for iOS

Workflow (now owned by Apple) means you can script across applications on iOS

On the Mac, I compose the daily Overspill post using a custom Applescript I wrote (it queries Pinboard and posts to MarsEdit). Fortunately, well before the Mac went into a coma I’d translated the script into Python for iOS, using Pythonista – which is a damn useful program that lets you write and run Python programs which will interact with web pages, web APIs, and the OS itself. I wish there was something like it on MacOS; it makes writing Python programs to do tasks so much easier than doing them in the Terminal and other interfaces. (Pythonista apparently can also sync files between devices, as Workflow does, if you enable a setting – I wasn’t aware of it.)

Python script, in Pythonista, with console output

Pythonista on iOS means you can run Python scripts – it’s even more convenient than on the Mac

(Please don’t laugh at my coding. It just has to get the job done, not be pretty.)

I don’t do any podcast recording (which I understand is still a problem on iPads, as Garageband fights with Skype), nor any video editing. But what I’m trying to do is “real work”, at least for me. It’s work that earns money, and isn’t that what we’re after?

So a couple of weeks in, here’s what I find to be the good and the bad points of working full-time on an iPad to do things I used to do on a Mac laptop.

The good

the weight. It’s so much lighter (even with the Smart Keyboard) than a laptop. Put it in a bag and go and you hardly know it; that’s a big difference compared to toting around the MacBook Pro (5.6lb, v 1.6lb for the iPad plus 0.75lb for the Smart Keyboard – so half the weight).

• battery life. If it doesn’t last a couple of full days, then I’m disappointed and slightly surprised. Compare that with the laptop, where you’d expect to get a morning and an afternoon, and then be hunting for a power outlet.

• connectivity. I’ve got a PAYG sim from Three, with 1GB of credit, and I use that if I find myself somewhere without Wi-Fi: just hook into the mobile network. Yes, I know you can do this by setting up a hotspot from your phone to your laptop, but being able to have the device do it on its own is far more satisfying.

• focus. The iPad lets you work on two – max three – apps at once on the screen. If you tailor notifications correctly, you can get a lot done. So if I don’t want to be disturbed by email, then I don’t let it notify me, and I can go literally hours without being interrupted. (I don’t use email in the browser.) Then you go to your email and deal with it. Remember, you might think of it as “my inbox” but it’s actually composed of messages sent out of your control by other people. In general, “your” inbox is not under your control at all; it’s other peoples’ ideas of what you should do – a task manager compiled by other people. Not looking at email is good.

• aptitude. By which I mean that some of the scripts I write (with Workflow, with Pythonista) can do more than equivalents on MacOS. My Workflow one can get the name of the author of a page/article, which the standard Pinboard bookmarklet doesn’t. (Possibly a little bit of Javascript hacking could sort that, but when you roll your own you see the gaps in what you’re provided with.) On the Mac I use Viewfinder to get details of Flickr CC-BY photos, but the Pythonista script I’ve written gets the photographer name too, which Viewfinder doesn’t offer.

• the keyboard. I really like the keyboard. The odd thing is that I don’t much like the keyboard on the new MacBooks/MacBook Pros, but the Smart Keyboard uses the exact same key design. The crucial difference is that the Smart Keyboard covers them in a layer of fabric, which has two huge advantages: it makes them much quieter (because oh my lord the bare keys are CLACKY), and it proofs them against the specks of dust which have been the downfall of recent designs. Double win. If they could make a MacBook with these keys covered in fabric they’d have solved their problems, but I’m guessing that there would be thermal dissipation problems with that – most laptops vent plenty of heat out of the gaps around the keys.

The bad

• ‘lappability’. Laptops have the huge advantage that they’re designed to work in your lap: the big flat base sits on your lap and the screen can be adjusted to your taste, and then the keyboard has a solid base too. With the iPad and Smart Keyboard, it’s difficult to get the same effect, because it’s so light and the screen angle is fixed. (That wouldn’t be improved by the Microsoft Surface’s adjustable leg, because I can’t adjust the length of my femur to cope with where the slide must rest for a specific screen angle.) With the iPad Pro, you really want a table to rest it on – or else something that can go on your lap. (I’m writing this sitting in a car, so it’s not impossible.)

• lack of keyboard shortcuts for one’s own scripts. On MacOS, I can use Keyboard Maestro (and some of Apple’s custom keyboard shortcut offerings) to create a keyboard shortcut to invoke scripts which do tasks such as adding text or HTML to a clipping. On iOS, there’s no such option. So I invoke the Share menu and Workflow a lot.

• grab problems. Sometimes it’s difficult to select a chunk of text, especially if it goes past a photo on a page.

• can’t grab inline image URLs. There isn’t a way that I can see on the iPad to find the URL to an image on a Safari page and directly copy that. It might be possible with a bit of scripting (input some text before and after the picture; script grabs the source, looks for image links between those words). Solution: presses on the image and choose “open in new tab” and grab the link from that tab. But it’s an extra step, and isn’t always available – take the example below from Techcrunch.

Confusing choices on an image menu on Safari on the iPad

An image on Techcrunch (though it happens on many sites). It’s not obvious that “copy” means “copy the image URL to the clipboard” rather than “copy the whole image to the clipboard”.

(OK, so people on Twitter have pointed out that the “copy” there is “copy the image URL”. I have to say that isn’t self-evident, and I didn’t try it because I didn’t want to destroy what was already on the clipboard. Anyway, there you have it: the solution is to “copy”.)

• information density. If you compare the number of pixels on an iPad with those on a laptop, it doesn’t seem like that many more. But the action targets (the things you have to hit with the mouse) are way smaller on the laptop than on the iPad, where they’re larger because it must expect that people will only use their fingers to operate it – even if the Pencil is an option. Smaller targets and more pixels means a lot more space can be used for information.

• you’re using a tablet? Some sites still don’t expect that. Yes, I’m looking at you, Flickr, and your impossible-to-copy text in the “embed” link. On a Safari page, this comes up as it does on the desktop – a floating window with some HTML. But trying to tap-to-select the necessary part of that code – which begins “https://farm…” and ends “.jpg” is a fight, and copying precisely what you want a truly vexing process. (I haven’t found a way to script the grabbing of the necessary code, and the Flickr app is unbelievably useless: can’t restrict a search to a specific licence, can’t do a view by date/relevance, and so on. It’s mindless crap meant for the most passive user imaginable.)

• missing web page functions. I use Instapaper to collect links through the day/week; in Safari on Mac you get icons to delete links after you’ve used them. Not on Safari on iPad. (The Instapaper app does, though.)

• easier to miss stuff. The Overspill Start Up daily email requires a specific set of things to be correct about the WordPress blogpost (correct category, launch before a certain time). I’ve made more mistakes with the WordPress interface in Safari on the iPad in three weeks than I did on the laptop in three years, which has led to missed blogpost launches and missed email deliveries (sometimes both, sometimes just one). It’s very annoying; partly it’s that some of the work was done before by Marsedit (see below) and that the web interface for WordPress is appalling when it comes to the scheduling/category stuff. (Ought to be at the top of the page; instead is relegated to the side, sometimes well down the side.)

• miss having a newsreader. I use NetNewsWire on the Mac, which I’ve been using for about 15 years now. (It’s not as good as it was.) I know it’s available for iOS; I just hadn’t set up the synchronisation, so it would have been a big slog.

Room for improvement

• Mail needs work. Quite a bit to bring it up to speed. Though you can filter your inbox(es) by all/unread/flagged/has attachment/to me/cc me, there are no Smart Mailboxes (I can’t create a virtual inbox of messages with particular characteristics, or from a particular sender or domain or set of domains). I also want to be able to see more emails on the left-hand pane – if you get any appreciable number of emails per day, they’re going to overwhelm those you were previously dealing with, which screws up your workflow.

• I’d really like a good blogpost editor, ideally scriptable – basically, MarsEdit for iPad. MarsEdit is a wonderful blogpost writing/editing program which can deal with multiple blogs, and is also scriptable so that you can fire up a script and get things done. The WordPress app (in which I’m writing this) is OK, but not very intuitive. Although – as soon as I made this complaint to myself, I realised there might be a solution. And so there was, via Workflow (which can control WordPress – you can do pretty much everything up to scheduling the post) plus Python(ista). With a bit of finagling, I had a solution which did slightly more than the version I run on my Mac.

In many ways, this post is like the real-life experience that I wrote about more as a theory in Benjamin Button moves from an iPad Pro to a MacBook Pro. But it’s reality. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it’s just the mother of getting on and discovering what tools are actually available.

I eventually got a Genius Bar appointment for the Mac. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (including a disk wipe that turned out to be unnecessary, but that’s for another post) the diagnosis was a problem with the NVidia video card – a known fault on my model. Weird that it took over five years to become calamitous, but that’s computers.

In the meantime, I’ve got the iPad, and over the weekend wrote a combination Workflow/Pythonista script which automates almost the whole process of compiling and scheduling The Overspill. Of course, rather as we redefine artificial intelligence to be “anything that computers can’t yet do” (where the goalposts move from “beat humans at chess” to “beat humans at Go” to “be better than us at Where’s Waldo”), the definition of “real work” has probably moved so that, because everyone knows you can’t do “real work” on an iPad, it’s now all the things that I don’t or didn’t try to do – the podcasts and video editing.

But you know what? It works for me. Plus it’s improved my Python.

TL;DR: want to do pretty much everything you do on a Mac, but on an iPad? Get Workflow and Pythonista.