iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe)

Okay, one more iPad post, and then on with my regular (not necessarily relevant) postings.

Being an iPad expert (as I have owned one for an entire week now), I’m still pretty darn happy and impressed with it. So far, it’s mostly for me what it has been billed as:  a great “experience” for reading/consuming text, audio, and video.  It is not (for the zillionth time) a computer, though for me, it is something like a netbook.  I realize that this wouldn’t be true for everyone, especially non-Apple computer people, but since the rest of my computers are Apples, the iPad syncs and “just works,” which wouldn’t be the case if I was working with some kind of Windoze netbook.

Typing is an issue, but that’s the case with netbooks too, right?  For me, I can touch-type well enough on the iPad when it’s landscape mode, but if I’m going to type anything longer than a couple paragraphs or an email response (or this blog post), then I’m going to use a real computer.  I might break down and eventually buy a keyboard for the iPad, but that would kind of defeat the purpose of the lean simplicity of the iPad.

And it doesn’t strike me as particularly “magical” either, though given the fondness for fantasy and science fiction in my household, perhaps my standards and definitions of “magical” are different than Steve Jobs.  All the things the iPad does best– stuff like IMDB, Yahoo Entertainment, Netflix, various weather and newspaper apps, photos, music, videos, etc.– are all great, but not really beneficial for my job as a writing professor.  Safari is okay (very quick, but, as the entire world knows, no Flash) and email is great, but neither are reasons to get an iPad.

I have played around with Keynote and Pages a bit, and while there’s some potential, I have to say I’ve been a little disappointed.  On the plus-side (as I wrote about with this post earlier), both Keynote and Pages demonstrate that the iPad is indeed a device with which a user can make content.  But the problem with both apps is that they don’t quite synch with my desktop versions of the software– different fonts, not all the effects and builds work, etc. Plus there are the previously mentioned keyboarding issues. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does mean that if I take only my iPad to a conference or something instead of a laptop, I’ll have to make some adjustments.  Again, not a reason to get an iPad, at least not yet.

All that said, I do think there are so far two (or three, depending on how you look at it) potential “killer apps” for the iPad:  PDF annotation and books, both iBooks/Kindles, and “books” that are really applications on their own.  Too long of a ramble/review after the jump.

First, about PDF annotation: it’s all fine and good that the Kindle (and other readers I’ve seen) can deliver trade books and best sellers, but what I need is something that can read all the PDFs I get from academic journals.  This makes up the bulk of my reading for teaching– especially graduate courses– and scholarship, and it seems like more and more academic presses are making entire books available as PDFs.

So, what I’ve wanted for a very long time in a tablet reader device (and what I was hoping for with the iPad even when it was first announced) where I can read, search, annotate, and share all those PDFs I now have to print out and annotate on paper, printouts I inevitably lose, misfile, can’t search electronically, etc. This is probably not the kind of thing your “average user” is that interested in, but it is something that just about every academic-type I know says they want too.

Well, as the saying goes, there’s an app for that.  A couple apps, actually.

iAnnotate from Aji allows you to mark-up a PDF on the iPad pretty much the way you would with a highlighter and/or pen on a paper version of the text.  Here’s a video from them demonstrating how it works:

The process of getting PDFs to your iPad is a little wonky at this point because you have to use an Aji provided reader software that is running on a computer– in other words, you can’t just download a PDF directly to the iPad at this point.  I suspect there are some ways to work around this a bit with Dropbox and the like, but I haven’t figured it out.

What’s also nice is the annotations stay on the document when I transfer it back to my desktop computer and vice-versa, at least using Preview– I haven’t tried Adobe Reader or tried it on a Windoze computer yet. Assuming it does work as well with Adobe Reader though, I’m thinking that I might be able to use this to mark-up/comment on student work too, just making this that much more useful for me. It’s on sale now for $7 (the regular price is $10) and worth every cent.

Of course, if you just want to read PDFs, the iPad does that with no problems at all as it is, and you can extend the functionality of your reading experience quite a bit for $1 with goodiware.com’s Goodreader.  It doesn’t annotate, but it will read darn near anything and it is easy to get stuff– download, synching, etc.  Here’s a demo video from some folks at Tidbits:

I suspect these two apps will either join forces or copy each other, and when they do, both apps will be that much better.  As it is, iAnnotate is “killer” for me.

The other (potentially) killer apps that might in and of itself justify an iPad purchase for the academic-type is the various book applications. Now, there are books and then there are “books” which are really applications.  There’s already a lot out there on books as delivered by Apple’s iBook app or Amazon’s Kindle; Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a nice write-up about both on ProfHacker here. Basically, iBook or Kindle for the iPad (that’s right, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books– just the free app for either the iPhone or the iPad) pours the “stuff” of a book into these apps so you can read it very much like you would the old-fashioned paper kind.  iBook has the advantage of being able to display color, but otherwise, it’s pretty similar to the Kindle.

Since the format for iBook is the open format ePub, I think we’re getting closer to electronic textbooks, and I’m talking about textbooks from both the big publishers and individuals.  It is not particularly hard to convert stuff into the ePub format, and readers can read these things on all kinds of devices, including iPads.  I’ll probably be converting my own textbook to an ePub format over the summer, just for the heck of it.

But what I’m more excited about are books that are actually applications.  I’ve played around with two examples of what I mean here so far.  There’s a couple of Dr. Seuss books adapted to the iPhone/iPad by Oceanhouse Media.  Here’s a video of this working on the iPhone (it’s obviously similar on the iPad):

The other app that has really blown me away with this stuff (though I will admit it is a little buggy at this point, too) is The Elements: A Visual Exploration which is the first product from Touch Press.  It is an intensely multimedia experience of the Periodic Table– sound, moving images, links to Wolfram |Alpha stuff, on and on and on.   Here’s a little video for that:

In my view, these sort  of book apps have the real potential to revolutionize publishing and make things like electronic textbooks worthwhile.  The applicability with the sciences is obvious, but imagine a literary anthology that includes all sorts of multimedia or composition books that have various writing tools for writing (citation tools, for example) embedded right in them.  Seemingly every computers and writing anthology that  has come out in recent years has promised some sort of “beyond the page” experience in the form of a web site or whatever; well, now all that multimedia that we keep writing old-fashioned books about can truly be a part of the experience.

And here’s the thing: as far as I can tell, books as apps would completely eliminate the used textbook market, meaning that whole gimmick of coming out with a “new edition” every two years just to keep making money on new books could go away.  Eliminate that and the expense of production and textbooks might even become cheaper– well, might, assuming the textbook business is actually willing or able to change their business model and drop their prices for these kinds of books.

Anyway, that’s what I’m seeing after a week.  Get back to me in a year and see if any of this is remotely right, or maybe the iPad and its inevitable competitors will produce an entirely new need/killer app.

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