The iPad as a writerly tool/space

Before I get too far along but also without going into a lot of detail, let me say a few things about my general “writerly” locale habits and how they’ve changed.  When I was in my PhD program, I worked with a tiny laptop (a PB 100!) at a very large desk set up in Annette’s and my “study” in the second bedroom of our small apartment. Then for years, my writing locale of choice were area coffee shops and my primary writing tool was my laptop.  Even at home, I had a small desk and a laptop.  Then both my interests in working with video and my work environment changed, so now I have quite a large desk area again, this one quite a bit nicer than that Bowling Green apartment. My primary writing station is an iMac souped up with extra RAM and such, and with a second monitor.  With this space, my writing habits have changed in that I now routinely have a dozen different windows open, two or three different applications going, etc., etc.  Plus I do about 80% of my work at this computer and this desk– teaching online, writing, commenting on student work, etc.

So, for the foreseeable future, my iPad is going to remain a sort of “second banana” as a writerly device, something to use when I’m writing and not here, which is to say not that often.

iPad backyard writing (wine optional) Which is not to say never.  Besides travel and the occasional coffee shop trip, I do like to get away from the desk once in a while.  Here’s a picture of my iPad set-up in the backyard on a Saturday or Sunday early evening the other day.  A couple of features I’ll note about this layout:

  • The Apple iPad Case holding up my iPad is a must:  very convenient, and when it isn’t propping up the iPad as shown here, it also folds over to the perfect angle for in lap typing on the iPad’s landscape keyboard, and it closes up like a portfolio.
  • The bluetooth keyboard.  As I wrote about previously, the dock that Apple sells for the iPad is completely useless; this keyboard on the other hand is great.
  • Wine and iPhone optional, though I will say the iPhone does help me deal with some of my multitasking needs. The wine not so much.

The iPad won’t link up with a mouse– yet.  I saw a hack where someone did connect a bluetooth mouse to an iPad, and I will bet that some kind of app will come along sooner than later to either connect a mouse or to make your iPhone behave like a touch screen/trackball mouse.  That’d be sweet.  Anyway, what this means is if you want to do something other than type, you’re touching the screen– not a big deal, but not all key controls, either.

Oh, and while there is definitely some glare off of the screen, it’s not as bad as this photo implies.  It’s still readable/usable outside, especially if you’re under an umbrella.

So far, my writerly iPad work has been pretty much limited to Pages and Keynote.  As has been widely reported/noted, neither are as good as the desktop versions.  While I understand why Apple called these iPad versions “Pages” and “Keynote,” it probably would have been more accurate for them to call them something that distinguishes these versions of the software from the real versions of the software.  I dunno, maybe “Not Pages” or “Keynote Sorta.”

The other thing that is very annoying is that getting stuff from my desktop to my iPad and vice-versa:  I believe the
technical term for the rig-a-ma-roll one has to go through to get things from the computer to the iPad and then back again is “pain in the ass.”  There’s probably a better/smarter way to do it than all the synching, importing, and exporting that I’ve had to go through, but it isn’t obvious to me how to do that yet.

That said, both of these programs are  usable and even have some interesting advantages over their desktop versions. In Pages, you don’t have a lot of menu “junk” on the screen, a factor of its limited menu options.  But there are a couple of different word processors and similar software out there (Scrivener immediately comes to mind) that sell this lack of “distractions” and just the words on the screen as a “feature,” and for those uni-tasking writing moments, I agree with that.

Once I got the hang of Keynote on the iPad, I found it easy and even kind of fun to use because you can shuffle around the slides a lot more like index cards. I also figured out that the best way to build a Keynote presentation that I intend to show on my iPad is to make it on my iPad.  So for example, I’m giving two talks at the upcoming Computers and Writing Conference at Purdue: one part of a round-table on virtual mentorship, and a presentation about using YouTube to supplement my online teaching. To write them, I did the “words in a row” and video editing part of things on my desktop.  But then I pretty much put the Keynote presentations together on the iPad set up on my desk next to the computer.

For the conference itself, I’m going to try taking only my iPad and print-outs of my script/text of my presentations– plus I’ve already created “plan B” in the form of putting my talks up online so I can access them there in a pinch via Dropbox and the blog/web versions I link to above.  I’ve got an adapter that I can use to hook the iPad up to a projector, though that adapter is unfortunately limited– I can use it to project Keynote or to show a slide show, but no “movie night” with the Netflix app, for example.  I’ll also be reading my talk off of old-fashioned “paper.”  We’ll see how it goes.

Um, okay– but what are the advantages of using an iPad like this over using a laptop?

Well, for me, I guess there are four, maybe three and a half:

  • The iPad is lighter (even with the keyboard) and more compact.  Now, I don’t do a lot of traveling of the sort where it makes a big difference to me if I’m packing/carrying something that weighs three pounds instead of a pound and a half, so the literal lightness doesn’t make that much difference to me.  But lighter is still lighter, and a bigger advantage is the iPad’s compactness.  I haven’t tried this thing out on an airplane yet, but I assume it will be a lot easier to work with than a laptop.  Probably sans keyboard, I admit.
  • The battery life is super-duper long, which is always a problem for me with a laptop.  Even with my relatively new Powerbook Pro, I can run off of three hours on the battery only if I’m not doing much– e.g., not online, not doing any video, etc.  The iPad laps that three or four times easily.
  • It is much MUCH more responsive than the laptop, and for a spelling-error prone typist like me, it does a MUCH better job of auto-correcting my errors.  In that sense it has a much more “snappy” feel than my laptop, and like I said, I’ve got a pretty decent laptop too.
  • It does kind of “disappear” as a device a bit, which I think does make me think of writing a little differently, more akin to typing or writing on the page.  I don’t want to make too much of this (this is the “half” part) because I’ve always been a little dubious of various writerly habits like requiring a certain kind of paper or a certain color of pen or specific chair or whatever.  Those claims always strike me as somewhere between too pretentious and too precious.  And it could simply be the newness of the device.  Still, there’s something there about that.

More than you perhaps want to know.  As I’ve said before, the iPad is no substitute for a “computer”– that is, a more full-blown work station, be that a desktop or a laptop.  But for me, it’s starting to emerge as a reasonable substitute for a laptop.  We’ll see how the iPad only experiment goes at C&W.

8 thoughts on “The iPad as a writerly tool/space”

  1. Thanks for this, Steve: I’ve been looking forward to the post since your TechRhet tease. While I agree with the “precious” part of the material conditions of production ending, I think the “half” reason is a full and meaningful reason of its own, worthy of a full bullet point.

    I would be interested in an extended entry on apps versus applications: I like what you write:

    While I understand why Apple called these iPad versions “Pages” and “Keynote,” it probably would have been more accurate for them to call them something that distinguishes these versions of the software from the real versions of the software. I dunno, maybe “Not Pages” or “Keynote Sorta.”

    I’m thinking through how apps change software development, and your user/writerly review is potentially revealing about device customization and how it changes the exhaustive application feature creep part of making Word do “everything,” as I wrote on TechRhet.

    Love the outdoor workspace pic, btw: Maybe ask folks to dump pics of their workspace in Flikr or Photobucket? Material conditions of writing.

  2. Thanks, Steve. I agree with you about the Apple case and the Bluetooth keyboard; I love those.

    I thought I’d point out, though, that my iPad works especially well with my iPhone. I have the WiFi iPad, which links to the “MyWi” server app on my iPhone (sharing my phone’s data plan with any WiFi device within 10 meters, getting me high-speed internet access for my iPad wherever).

    Since Apple seems to be enabling the contentEditable JavaScript functionality in the upcoming Safari for iPhone 4 OS, Google Apps, Feng Office, and most web-based content management systems will work well with the iPad. I think it’s going to be an excellent platform for creating content soon. :)

  3. Huh– a jailbreak on the iPhone, right Geoff? Remind me to get you to show me how to do this at #cw2010….

  4. I thought I’d point out, though, that my iPad works especially well with my iPhone. I have the WiFi iPad, which links to the “MyWi” server app on my iPhone (sharing my phone’s data plan with any WiFi device within 10 meters, getting me high-speed internet access for my iPad wherever).

  5. Steve, (Nice to be able to call you Steve, now that we’ve more thoroughly met today.)

    I don’t mean this as a suggestion (at all), but I was just wondering if you’ve tried messing with Google Docs on the iPad? I’m trying to switch to using that as much as possible, instead of Word, and I’ve also come to absolutely love TweetDeck and Evernote. If Google Docs were more workable, that might push me over the limit. (And also, if you’ve maybe tried it at all, any feedback on a self-hosted WordPress interface? I like it as is, and I’m guessing it’s okay on the iPad, but I was just thought I’d ask.)

    Nice work on your presentation today, too.


  6. Google docs is a “read only” interface right now– but as Geoff Sauer mentions above here, that is likely to change as they update the java stuff (he understands this better than I do). I hope that Google doesn’t prevent this from working on the iPad and/or iPhone because of some pissy battle between the two companies.

    I don’t use evernote, but there is an app for that (as they say.) There’s a TweetDeck app for the iPad that is okay, though curiously, it doesn’t allow me to synch up a Facebook account along with a Twitter account. I don’t know why; I can do this with my iPhone and on my desktop computer….

    And good meeting you too! Now I won’t call you Trow-Man in my head anymore! I thought the round of presentations we gave was pretty interesting and a lot of fun. Not sure I like being the “old dude” but it was good meeting/mingling with the young ones.

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