Rediscovering infatuation.

Every summer, I seem to go through familiar cycles, examining how I do things, and breaking down well-worn workflows to experiment with new ones. I feel that this serves two goals: on one hand, there’s a cadence to this process, as a new iOS release looms in the near distance, but at the same time, something about this time of year leads me to question how and why I do things.

I’ll chalk it up to summer being one of my favorite times of year, where the warmth of the sun energizes me physically and mentally, and I find myself stirred into new modes of activity and thinking. Whatever it is, I’ve decided not to fight it, and I almost look forward to it each year, knowing it’s on the way, quietly wondering what I’ll decide to strip down to parts and rebuild.

Last year it was task management: the psychic overhead, the bifurcation of worlds, and the sheer tactical action required to make my world keep turning. This year, I’m focused on a vector into that and many other aspects of life. This year, I’m taking a different look at the iPad.

Background

I’ve been a fan of the iPad since day one. I got the very first model as soon as it was available and adored it from the start. I always saw potential and shades of the future in it, despite its initial limitations, its basic pedigree as an older sibling to the iPhone, and the seemingly unending stream of naysayers ready and willing to knock it down for not being all things to all people.

The core argument, of course, is that it’s not a “real computer”. It can’t do all the same things a laptop can do, so it’s not worth anything. As though every tool needs to do all the same things every other tool does.

There are two fundamental tenets to my position on this that are worth remembering:

  • computing is not a zero-sum game; there are many users, many needs, and many ways to engage with technology successfully
  • value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder

I’m not going to waste my time (or anyone else’s) retreading these arguments. It’s beyond uninteresting, and crosses into eye-rolling so severe that it risks permanent ocular damage. What I would like to do is explore a few things I’m truly excited about as the iPad continues its slow evolution into what I’d consider a worthy independent computing platform.

Overview

I’ve been using two iPad Pros since last fall: a 12.9″ model that I bought in the beginning of 2016, and a 9.7″ that I bought in October. I’ve explained some of the thinking behind this on our show, so I’ll cut to the chase. I decided that having a big iPad at home and a smaller one to travel with to and from the office and on trips was the right choice for me. It’s been a nice way to use the devices, and I’ve enjoyed always having the right device for the right context.

Lately I’ve been gravitating toward the 9.7 though, for a few reasons. I still like the giant iPad because it’s just so nice to have that extra room, but what I’ve been exploring lately just makes the 9.7 the better overall target for this type of use.

As such, the majority of these points I’ll make directly refer to the smaller of the two iPads. I’ll likely make reference to this in certain areas, but it’s worth keeping in mind as a frame of reference, so that you aren’t constantly wondering, or—more probably—saying “that would be ridiculous on the big iPad”. Much of this would. But hey, maybe it wouldn’t for some folks.

That’s what’s cool about everyone living their own lives. You don’t have to do what everyone else does, or listen to everyone else’s opinions as though they’re fact.

Also worth keeping in mind.

Always.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.

Topics

  • The Smart Keyboard
  • Using the iPad by itself
  • Using the Pencil, replacing paper
  • Portrait orientation
  • iOS 11 and next steps

The first four have been overlapping and working in tandem. The last one is obviously pertinent for this summer.


The Smart Keyboard

I’ve long been a fan of using keyboards with the iPad. I’m not a fan of bulky cases.

I would search to find what I considered the best option that mixed a standalone, iOS-ready (when possible) keyboard with an easy way to detach, because I always like to decouple the two and use the device on its own if I’m not doing heavy text entry. I’ve always been ok with a slightly smaller keyboard size anyway, as my hands aren’t that large and I get used to them fairly quickly.

I started this quest with the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard cover for the original iPad Air. It was a great solution for having a decent hardware keyboard while keeping weight fairly low. When I upgraded to the Air 2, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the same exact thing again, so I switched to this Microsoft keyboard because it was small, but with very good battery life and what I consider comfortable keys. It also allowed me to keep the Smart Cover attached and sit with it easily while using the keyboard. It didn’t attach the same way that the Logitech did, but it allowed me to use the iPad by itself as well.

When I bought the 12.9, I decided to take the plunge and try the Smart Keyboard. Yes, it looks a bit odd. Yes, the keys are a little weird at first. In truth, I despised them. Tried it in the store and was physically repelled by it. After 24 hours, I was a convert.

The Smart Keyboard may not be the best keyboard, but I believe it’s the best companion to the iPad Pro.

The Smart Keyboard will have its detractors, but when you get right down to it, it is the best compact solution to minimize bulk and still provide the functionality of hard keys. If you don’t mind extra heft, or need backlight, or want additional iOS-specific function keys, then move along.

I bought the Logitech Create for the 9.7 initially. I wanted something that was more like a notebook, and since I was carrying the Pencil with that device, the built-in loop was a big benefit. I used it dutifully for about six months, when it began to feel bulky. I started to think about the Smart Keyboard, but was struck with the idea that the Pencil wouldn’t have a nice little home anymore. To this day I’m shocked that Apple itself doesn’t have a better solution for this.

And no, this is not a solution.

But what I’ve come to realize is that the Pencil, the iPad, and the Smart Keyboard don’t need to be connected to one another all the time. They simply need to be in each other’s immediate orbit in order to deliver the value they can provide. The Smart Keyboard (especially at the smaller size) makes the 9.7 highly functional and barely adds any bulk.

I’ve been enjoying it way more than I anticipated.

Using the iPad by itself

One of the defining factors of all of those keyboards I mentioned was the ease with which I could pull them off and use the iPad on its own. That’s been paramount to my use case for the device for as long as I can remember.

As the iPad got thinner and more powerful, I found myself simply marveling at the hardware and the way it felt to hold it on its own. With the 9.7 Pro, this has actually shifted from “isn’t this really something” to a sea change in how I use the device.

I was thinking one day about how I was more inclined to grab my phone to do something as opposed to the iPad. I stopped and really thought about why that was the case. Broke the action down to its most elemental level.

Pick up a device, unlock, use… right? Not that complicated.

But with the iPad, there was often a keyboard of some kind, or at least a Smart Cover attached. One extra tiny action that created imperceptible friction; that on a subconscious level resulted in me going for my phone because it would “be faster” somehow.

Then I watched my wife’s dad one weekend with his iPad. He leaves it around on the counter, ready to pick up and use, no cover, no keyboard. He has an iPhone too. He almost always goes for the iPad first, likely because it has a larger screen and is more comfortable. But then it dawned on me.

If both screens are available in the same capacity and without any extra steps, apart from an app not appearing in one place or the other, why wouldn’t I use the iPad first?

So I tried it. One day at work, I was walking around my office, Smart Keyboard on the desk, iPad and Pencil in hand. It was so light, so effortless, and so enjoyable, that it began to feel like I’d discovered something new. A way of using a device—of which I thought I knew every angle—that I’d simply never considered. Put it down, go do something else, grab it and unlock, it’s ready.

It sounds positively stupid, but this simple change has made a big difference not only in the amount of time I’m spending with the device, but also in the ways in which I’m using it.

Using the Pencil, replacing paper

One of the big benefits of the iPad Pro is of course the ability to use the Apple Pencil along with it. Unlike the Smart Keyboard, I was sold on this accessory from the instant I held it and used it. I’ve tried a ton of different stylus options, and the Pencil is the best around, full stop.

I also tried a bunch of different apps for handwriting. The one that feels the most like it matches my handwriting mechanics is Notes Plus. I’ve made a conscious shift in the way I capture and process information now on a daily basis. Revisiting handwriting as a way to gather information has forced me to slow my thinking and listen more, which has led to other creative benefits as well. With my mind engaged in this way, it is freed up to do other things as I work with colleagues, and quite honestly, I find writing by hand to be a relaxing activity.

I also frequently sketch concepts, diagrams, small bits of UI that I’m describing to others, and all manner of other things. Just having the ability to do this quickly–and then immediately follow it with a digital action (saving it, sharing it, etc.) is hugely beneficial to my workflows.

I carried paper notebooks for a long time. Getting myself into the habit of reaching for the Pencil has been a lot of fun and very cool. That’s worth calling out as well: making work fun can’t be underestimated. If I’m enjoying the tools I use, it makes whatever I’m doing more pleasurable, leading to a positive feedback loop. Increasing the utility of what I’m doing (because I’m a nerd this way) is also fun, which also funnels back into that loop.

Making the ways you do your work more enjoyable is a great way to improve your daily quality of life, trust me.

Portrait orientation

The last discovery was a complete shock to me.

From the moment I got my very first iPad, I defaulted to using it in landscape orientation. I’d watched Steve Jobs demo the device onstage, sitting in that iconic Eames chair, reading and relaxing, and I thought “well that’s nice” but it never felt right to me. I guess somewhere in my mind, I always saw screens as horizontal appliances–using it in a vertical capacity just felt odd. I’d occasionally read a magazine that way, or some other very targeted activity… but it never lasted.

That’s where this whole “isn’t it fun to try new things that I ordinarily wouldn’t” thing starts to pay off. I always use Notes Plus in portrait, because I like the layout and spacing of the page in that orientation far more than in landscape. I’m using the Pencil more and more… and I’m detaching the iPad and walking around with it. So one day I just turned it and held it in portrait while I was discussing some things with people. I was taking some notes, but I also was popping around and doing a few other things. I responded to a message and realized I could type fairly easily in portrait on the 9.7, especially with nothing else attached to it because it is so lightweight, and the balance of the device when held in this way is incredible.

The balance of the device when held in portrait, with no cover or other accoutrements, is incredible.

I literally had never considered this, ever, in all the years I’d used it. It was an epiphany. But Steve knew it. It was suddenly so obvious. The device was designed to be this way.

It can’t change computing if we’re always looking at it like it’s a computer.

All this time, and it felt like I was suddenly holding an entirely different device. Again, like the notion of using it without a cover because it’s easier to unlock, this was a moment in which I considered the fact that I was a total moron. But it was undeniable. I’d stumbled onto something a whole lot of people probably knew already, but it was brand new to me.

I’ve been carrying the iPad, bare, with the Pencil, like a single sheet of digital paper, and it’s changing the way I work, and the way I do just about everything on it.

iOS 11 and next steps

This year marks the most radical shift in the iPad’s software capabilities we’ve seen. iOS 11 is poised to enable new levels of functionality in the device, unlocking increased flexibility and moving the platform forward to a level of maturity fans have been clamoring for.

I’ve been a beta person in the past, and I’ve lived with the battery-cooking, display-busting, data-losing bugs. I threw developer beta 1 on the 12.9 when it dropped because I was really curious to see it in motion after watching the WWDC keynote. I played with it for a few days, but restored back down to iOS 10 because I’d rather be using the device in a stable capacity for the time being, and because I’ve come to realize the big release in the fall just isn’t as exciting if I’ve had it for months prior.

What I saw is a wonderful but complicated step forward. iOS 11 brings incredible new things to the platform, but it also ratchets up UX complexity in ways a lot of users may not be ready for. One thing iOS has traditionally done well is to add new features and functionality but not make it necessary to engage with it. This allows most users to keep doing things pretty much the way they always have, and gets power users happy about new stuff. iOS 11 makes some big modifications–for everyone–and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects things overall.

I’m certainly not hinting at some kind of backlash (although we all know the tech press will latch onto just about anything it can find that would indicate one). It’s just that we’re about to see a big shift in the UI that means another learning curve. Anyone who loves iOS as a productivity platform is ready and willing to accept and keep running with this change, and it’s been a long time coming. But the typical year-to-year balance afforded to mainstream users is about to change too.

Evolution is hard, and not without trade-offs. But it’s what’s necessary to keep moving forward.


Conclusion

The iPad has traveled a long, strange road to get to where it is today. I’m honestly thrilled that after all this time I can still find new things to love about it, and change how I interact with my world. This next chapter will be one of the most interesting in its lifecycle to date. I’m ready for this device to cross over into a new class of utility.

With the introduction of the 10.5 Pro, and my increasing love of the smaller of my two current sizes, I may also move to a single-iPad life again when I decide to upgrade. Won’t be any time soon because my current stuff more than meets my needs and I’ve never once felt like it’s lacking in any way, but it’s on my mind. The 10.5 looks to be a fantastic device, and a great compromise for someone like me who’s experienced both sizes and wants to simplify.

I’ve said it before, and I think it bears repeating: this is not a zero-sum game. I still love the Mac, and use it every single day. It’s the best tool for many jobs. But the gaps are shrinking–not entirely, but markedly, for many use cases–and it’s interesting to watch this process. I use the Mac because it’s a great platform that allows me to do work in the way I prefer. I love iOS because it feels like the future in a way that the Mac once did, and (let’s be honest) probably won’t again.

To the point of all these personal observations, however: the fact that I can still find these small bits of discovery and everything continues to feel new to me is testament to how interesting a device this really is. We’re on the verge of some very big changes, and it’s one of those rare times in which I am unabashedly excited about what’s around the corner.

They seem to be harder to come by as I get older, so I have to revel in these moments when they show up.

A return to form.

I type a lot. Hundreds, if not thousands of words, every day, across various devices. I’d say it’s a primary interaction model for most of us at this point. It’s changed the way I think about information, because since I can type, I often do, and it means that since I can type pretty quickly, I can capture quickly too.

Along the way, I’ve used lots of different notebooks as well. That was a vestigial practice–held from college, I’d wager–where I was never without one. But in my professional life, I could just never get it to stick the way I could in my personal life. I’d use a Moleskine or some Field Notes for a while, and then inevitably gravitate back to my Mac in most cases.

And I’ve tried to blend these ideas in the past, with various degrees of success. I’ve drastically increased my usage of iOS across personal and professional activities, but I’m still typing. A lot.

Earlier this year, I got the 12.9″ iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. I enjoyed the novelty of finally having a digital handwriting tool that almost exactly matched my writing style on paper. But I still wasn’t using it much for this. I’d pull it out and open Paper to sketch something quickly or explain an idea, or annotate something, but I just didn’t make the mental shift to embracing it as a real input method.

But in October, I attended a conference for work. And I decided to try something different: I would sit in sessions and meetings and just listen and only write down something that stood out to me as interesting or important. What happened as a result of this decision should surprise exactly no one: I listened more attentively and actively, as opposed to simply trying to capture every detail of what was communicated. The things I did capture were of more value because they were most likely the important aspects of the information, and the act of capturing them more deliberately by hand allowed them to gestate in my mind a little more.

This isn’t a new discovery. In fact, I already knew this to be the case, even on a personal level. But blending the idea of the digital notebook along with the act of handwriting triggered something new for me. Since then, I’ve been keeping daily handwritten notes in an app that was recommended to me by a friend. Each day, I start a new notebook, log anything I need to during the day, and at the end I export a PDF to Box for archiving.

The act of more consciously listening and being present in a discussion has been transformative for me. I think that for a long time, I felt obligated to log as much as possible but what’s really more important is engaging in the discussion when it’s actually occurring.

To the extent that this is a digital activity as opposed to paper-based, in doing it this way, I allow myself a quick and easy way to backup my notes and share them if need be. I can drop images in and annotate immediately, or record the entire session and take notes alongside. Distinct advantages over a paper notebook, but the biggest one is that I have one thing to carry and I can do everything with it, as opposed to a computer and a notebook, which I’d then want to scan in some way, adding another activity to the chain of events.

I’m dealing with information differently now, and I’m really pleased with how it’s been going. It’s been about a month, and I really enjoy the act of writing again, which surprises me. It might not be as efficient a method of capture, but part of that capture process is understanding what it is I’m keeping for later—and slowing my mind and allowing that information to breathe as it moves around has been a real change.

Of course this all led me to buy a second iPad too, but that’s a story for another time. 😉

Search wishes on iOS.

In iOS 9, Apple is extending Search’s (née Spotlight) built-in abilities in cool ways. There’s a lot that it can do now, with third-party developers able to plug into it via new API access. But in an effort to make iOS even more of a productivity tool, one thing it still can’t do is replicate the ubiquitous availability that it’s afforded on OS X.

How often do you think of something you want to search for from the Springboard? Now think about how often that might happen while working in another app? Wouldn’t it be great to have a universal search bar in, say, the Today view as a built-in widget like Weather that’s always there to quickly access?

I would love–LOVE–to see a search widget or some similar functionality within the Today view. I can’t tell you how immeasurably useful that would be for me. Having to back out of whatever I’m doing, return to the home screen, and having to swipe once, maybe twice to reach a search field just feels so… old.

Doing what I do every day, I fully realize the interface implications of doing something like this. But it makes so much sense to me, I can’t help but think it’d be worth it.

Using Drafts as an Alfred replacement on iOS.

Lately I’ve enjoyed working from my iOS devices more than ever, due in large part to the great changes in iOS 8. But every day, I still do a great deal of work from the Mac as well for reasons of control and speed. I use Alfred for a ton of functionality, for everything from launching apps and quick searches to basic calculations and defining words. It is a single point of entry for so much of the data I interact with on a daily basis, and I love both the quickness it employs and the flexibility it affords me. I can extend it in completely new and crazy ways with workflows and create chained events to perform actions in the background. If you’ve never tried it, you simply must, and shortly thereafter upgrade to the Powerpack because it completely changes the way you can use your Mac.

Due to the essential nature of how iOS works, something like Alfred simply can’t exist in the same way. The company has released a companion app called Alfred Remote, which is interesting, and allows you to create a palette of quick buttons to launch actions on your Mac. But it’s far from an analogue to the functionality you’d find on the desktop. iOS silos its data for a variety of reasons, and even with the great strides iOS 8 brought to developers, the idea of an always-running, ubiquitous utility ready to assist you from anywhere you find yourself simply doesn’t exist. Even Apple’s own Spotlight implementation, while providing some of that functionality, doesn’t run everywhere–it needs to be invoked from the Springboard.

With these constraints in mind, I began to think of how I could replicate the tools I enjoy with Alfred in an iOS environment. Since getting the iPad Air 2, I’ve attempted to set it up as closely to my MacBook Pro’s app/service configuration as possible, so that I can truly work from either device. I’m also going through a process of discovering how I can slim down the number of individual apps I have installed by replicating functionality in other apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro. It’s a fun way to pass some time, and I always like consolidating things. Sometimes it’s a little puzzle I want to solve, and sometimes the answer is to just use a dedicated app because the experience is better. But the process leads me to examine how and why I do things, and you know how I like gratuitous self-reflection. Ahem.

I had to examine what I do with Alfred on the Mac, and distill it down for iOS. There would obviously be sacrifices and redundancy in some cases, so I’d need to account for that. For instance, there’s no way I can toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with a key command or a keyword on iOS as I can on the Mac, and between Spotlight and Launch Center Pro, my app-launching needs are more than taken care of. (Although, now that I think about it, you’d probably be able to build a simple app launcher into an action group if you really wanted to. Maybe I’ll give it a shot to see how it feels.) That left the core of what I do with Alfred.

Drafts is an incredible app that I’ve been using since it arrived on the App Store, and one that I’ve spoken about before. At a glance, it’s a notepad, ready to accept input as soon as you launch it. But anyone who’s used it can tell you it goes way further than that. You can send that note to a variety of places, perform actions on that text, even script additional functionality to interact with it. There is a vibrant community around the app and the Action Directory is evidence of that. I don’t have the capacity to explain how truly interesting and powerful this app is in the course of this piece, so go see it for yourself.

Thanks to its robust handling of text-based information, Drafts became my surrogate for this experiment on iOS. Through its Notification Center widget, it’s actually accessible from anywhere on my device (can’t say that for Spotlight), so I can always pull down and jump directly to it. It would be the single entry point for text, and I would apply as many different actions as I could to it to emulate my flow with Alfred. I took screenshots of Alfred’s preferences on the Mac as well as the individual workflows I had installed on top of that, and built a list of what I needed to do.

(Note: I’m not going to cover every single action in this post, but apart from the obvious things like controlling Wi-Fi, I’ve pretty much covered this list or I’m working on something that will. Or I’ve decided to ignore something and use a separate app. Whatever.)

First, the basics. The stuff I use that’s built into Alfred.

  • App launching
  • Search (internet/file system)
  • Basic calculations ️
  • Tools/functions
  • Definitions ️
  • Direct file system access
  • Contacts
  • Clipboard history/management
  • System commands

Then, my custom workflow additions.

  • Send to Todoist
  • Send to Due
  • Post to Twitter
  • Append/prepend text files
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth toggle
  • Basic conversions
  • Down for everyone or just me
  • Whois lookup
  • Force empty Mac trash
  • Forecast.io lookup
  • Giphy search
  • IMDb search
  • iTunes Store search
  • Determine current IP
  • New calendar event
  • New text file
  • Open current Safari tab in Chrome
  • Random password generator
  • Custom search (Box files)
  • Custom search (Dropbox files)
  • Pinboard search
  • Quick access to Transmit favorites
  • VPN toggle on/off

Many of these can be handled deftly in Drafts without much, if any tinkering. Some of this can’t be handled at all. Some of it just takes a little finesse. Here’s how it looks.

I created action groups: “Actions”, “Search”, “Notes”, and “Tools” based on the type of functionality I was looking for. With Alfred, it all kind of ends up in one big pool as you are able to winnow down what you’re doing contextually as you type–it’s one of the things that makes the app so cool. In Drafts, you need to browse a little. Different, but not terrible at all. Hey, it’s still iOS.

So, the actions. Anything dealing with plain text/notes–nailed. You can create, append, prepend, modify, and pretty much anything else you want to do as long as it’s text and your destination is somewhere Drafts supports. So all my Dropbox actions are buttoned up. Drafts can write to iCloud Drive as well, so that’s an option too for quick zaps between iOS and the Mac.

Same for quickly adding to apps like Todoist, Due, and Calendar to create new items. As long as a URL scheme exists or someone’s built an action and posted it, you can probably do it. Drafts has advanced clipboard handling, so that’s in there too, as is posting to Twitter.

In as many cases as I could, I applied URLs to these actions to open in a browser. Obviously, this makes sense for things like searches, especially since a lot of local apps don’t support any kind of URL scheme beyond opening. In some cases, I preferred native app integrations to web actions, though. It’s much better to open the Twitter app to do a search with its new deep integration than have to boot over to the mobile web, which frankly, sucks. I created a Pinboard web action for searching my own archives, since the app I like to use (Pinner) doesn’t support a search from outside currently. It’s a great app, but it just doesn’t do this one thing I want it to. I also repurposed some of my focused Duck Duck Go searches here, creating a master list of all the places I might want to hit, as well as a few app favorites (like 1Password).

Where things get pretty interesting is within Drafts’ advanced tagging system. It allows you to logically interpret certain things like dates, times, and even latitude and longitude–which came in really handy with the Forecast.io action. If I want the lookup for where I am right now, I don’t even need to enter text, since the URL adds the location tags independently. If I want to search a different location, I can type in “Austin, Texas” and run the Google weather search, which will take me straight to a page with a small weather module right at the top. I asked Greg about doing simple calculations right in the app, and he told me that’s supported as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. In addition to the action, there’s a script key add-on that does the math without needing to pull the drawer out. Hot.

Other cool things:

  • Giphy search goes right to the excellent custom UI in Launch Center Pro
  • iTunes Store search uses fnd.io which is fast and covers the entire store in a nice UI
  • Down for everyone and whois lookup use clipboard contents, and current IP is just a text-less action that runs, similar to the Forecast action

The things I can’t do at all? Well, as I said, toggling system states (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, VPN) is out, as is direct file access and search on iOS. What I discovered in my experimentation, however, was that while the Dropbox iOS app seemingly has no deep URL hooks, the mobile site supports a direct search as part of a URL string! So I’m able to pass a search term from Drafts to the mobile site, and after a few seconds (in my testing, under 15-20), I get a list of results, which I can then link to, or open in the native app. It’s not the real-time file access/search that Alfred provides, but it’s pretty damned cool for an iOS device, since my entire file system is based in Dropbox. Is it quicker to just open the native app and pull down the UI to search right there? Probably. But for the purposes of this experiment, this was a fun discovery.

As an extra bonus, I discovered that my WordPress site supports search in a similar way, so now I have a super fast path into my posts if I want to find something I wrote in the past to share with someone, which is something I do frequently.

Overall, it’s a big change in how I use my devices. I’m not sure if this will stick, but I wanted to try it, and see if I could map my Mac mental model of entry field-data-action to iOS. There are limits, but there are also cool things iOS can do that the Mac doesn’t. It’s interesting to me that on the Mac, my information flow out of my head to an action is so different than on iOS, based on how the environment differs.

It did get me thinking about what could be possible, though. I think that someone could definitely build something like Alfred for iOS and have it be as close to the Mac experience as possible, by which I mean that it would require some serious pre-configuration on the part of the user, and you’d still be limited by the iOS filesystem constraints, but between URL schemes and extensions, something really compelling could exist. I think you could build a UI on iOS that intelligently provided target actions based on what you type. I’m sure it would be a ridiculous power user tool, but I think it could work. I have no idea about what potential market this kind of app would find, but I’d love to see someone try. If it was done well, I see no reason why it couldn’t be sold at a premium to people like me who want to get every bit of power and functionality out of their devices.

In the meantime, this has been a really fun experiment for me and I figured out some cool things both about Drafts and how I can modify basic existing URLs to become more action-oriented. As our iOS devices gain more abilities, I look forward to seeing this process evolve. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.

Thinner, lighter, gone.

Although I purchased last year’s iPad Air and was perfectly content with it, I found myself in an Apple Store yesterday, purchasing the iPad Air 2. Part of it was that I wanted an excuse to use Apple Pay, and groceries weren’t exciting enough. But the other part was that after I held the updated device, I couldn’t leave without it.

When it was announced last week, the incremental changes in weight and size seemed almost negligible to me as I read about them. We’re talking grams and millimeters. Tiny, insignificant adjustments to the body of the device. How different could it possibly be?

Put the two devices side by side, and it becomes glaringly apparent. Not to mention the ridiculous internals this new model has. Plenty of people have voiced opinions along the lines of “I’d rather have a little more battery than a thinner device, why is Apple so obsessed with this?” and it got me thinking about exactly what that means. Clearly Apple feels that current battery life is reasonable and is willing to make other changes to the physical nature of the device to optimize in other dimensions. But why? Why the relentless march to thinner and lighter?

I think it’s because Apple doesn’t want us to notice that we’re holding chunks of metal and glass. We should think about these devices as extensions of ourselves and the closer the company can come to making them nearly weightless (in relative terms), the better. In the same way that you get dressed in the morning and feel your clothes but quickly adjust and your body stops sending those input signals, your devices should follow similar paths. If Apple can create a device that is so comfortable to use that it’s forgotten as it’s held because it’s so unimaginably thin and light–while still maintaining the performance users come to generally expect without decrement–it’s going to do it.

Eventually battery technology and wireless radios will advance to the point that our concerns about charging will be obviated. In the meantime, Apple will create devices that continue to advance the technical bottom line while somewhat disappearing in terms of our nerve endings’ perceptions. And while two days ago I couldn’t have cared less, holding the Air 2 now, I realize how quietly significant that goal is.

One notebook to rule them all.

At WWDC, I picked up a new MacBook Air. This machine simply changed the way I thought about computing entirely. I have never loved a Mac as much or used a laptop with the same feeling of absolute freedom as I have with this computer. In fact, I love the MBA so much that I thought about getting rid of my iPad entirely instead of trying to find places for it. The combination of the Air and the iPhone was powerful enough to handle almost anything I could throw at it. This fall, as the new iPads were launched, I marveled at how nice they were, but resigned myself to not buying one. After all, I was happy with my new workflow and saw no reason to complicate things by adding more moving parts. Then I used the iPad Air.

The iPad Air has reinvigorated my love of the iPad line. It’s obviously the fastest iPad I’ve ever used, but the size and weight change make the largest perceivable difference in my opinion. It feels only slightly heavier than the mini. The bezel reduction takes it from feeling enormous to feeling quite manageable. Its proportions are so much more favorable now. When I first used one about a month ago, coming directly from the mini, everything felt cartoonishly large. I got over that in about a day. Having a retina screen again is divine, too. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started using it again. I really loved the first generation mini, but there’s just no substitute for those extra pixels. Everyone’s already said it, but it bears repeating: there are no tradeoffs with the two new iPads, it’s simply choose your size and go to town.

The new objective: full integration of the iPad into my day as a work device. I have no games on it, no movies, and only a few leisure (read: Twitter, ADN, read later, etc.) apps, most of which would provide no distraction while I’m trying to get something done. I intend for the iPad to replace my paper notebook (which I do love, but is limited and great at certain things but not many others), but also to become something more robust – a device that allows me to do the things I was previously doing and extends my ability to do more, easily. It will allow me to leave my beloved MBA docked at my desk, attached to my second display. I can AirPlay docs and demos to the Apple TVs we have in the office, I have all my notes, docs, and anything else I can think of loaded up and synced, and my home screen is organized for maximum efficiency. I held off on getting the Logitech keyboard case I loved so much with the iPad 3 only to give the incredible weight reduction of the Air a fair shake. I’ll probably get one because it’s a terrific addition to the device, but for now it’s a Smart Cover and that’s it. I do have a few standalone Bluetooth keyboards, one of which I’m using right now, so maybe I’ll stick with them.

I’ve been doing more interface sketching as I work on projects, and I’ve enjoyed allowing myself to just sketch rough ideas quickly instead of waiting until they’re solidified mentally first and then going directly into a document. These usually live in my paper notebook as well, but I’ll be doing this in Paper on the iPad (yes, ha ha, isn’t that adorable) which is my preferred drawing app. I’ve tried tons of them, and keep coming back to Paper, because it just feels the best. I’m intrigued by the development of that custom stylus for the app as well. I have a Bamboo stylus currently, but I’m hardly a fan. Having something that makes the act feel even more natural and less gimmicky is a huge plus for me.

The other things that I’m looking forward to are the great music apps that come along with iOS. GarageBand and AmpKit are two that I really love to use, and there’s a host of other drum machines and sequencers/synth apps that are surprisingly good. I’m going to dive into Audiobus more this time around too, I think, and see how I can chain things together, ultimately ending in GarageBand for now (so I can move files back to the Mac in some cases). Granted, this is more of a secondary use case than the day to day productivity stuff, but it plays into the concept of the global notebook – a device that I always have, to capture and document (and in some cases expand on) my ideas.

I find that these things go in phases for me, so this may just be a new (old) phase. Either way, this device has incredible potential. I don’t think I’ve ever made a dedicated effort to use the iPad like this – I’ve always stopped short of going all the way. It’s important to note, though that I have no intention of replacing my Mac(s) with iOS; rather it’s a matter of choosing not only the right tool for the job, but the best tool. I’m excited to give it a shot with the Air.

I love the iPad mini.

When it was released, I got an iPad mini for the office for testing. I brought it home, put all my stuff on it to give it a proper test drive, and promptly decided it wasn’t for me. I liked my bigger iPad with its Retina display. I felt that Apple was being disingenuous with its promises of “iPad, concentrated” – it felt more like “iPad, crushed” to me. Sure, it was small and light, but honestly, there were too many trade-offs for my liking. I dismissed it, wiped the mini, put it in the testing pool at work and went on with my life.

Then something else happened. I didn’t go back to my larger iPad. I watched it, evening after evening, sitting on the TV console, fully-charged, ready to perform at a moment’s notice, but I never picked it up. I used the hell out of my phone, because the iPhone 5 is amazing, as we all know. But I didn’t feel like picking up that iPad. Every time I did, it felt so heavy. Like a really pretty manhole cover. Rene and I did a podcast in which he extolled the virtues of the mini, while I defended (theoretically, as it turned out) the need to have a bigger, nicer screen and a little more performance for the kinds of creative apps I was using.

Then it occurred to me: I wasn’t actually creating anything anymore on my iPad. It was, as I said, sitting. I watched and listened as my friends on the internet sang its praises, selling their large iPads, saying things like “it’s the best mobile device I’ve ever used”. I started to feel crazy, like I missed something… had I been too quick to dismiss the device? No, I know what I like, and my gut is usually right about things like this. Then I asked the people in my daily life who had them. Every single person said the same thing: it’s the best iPad they’d ever used.

With this gnawing at me, I couldn’t take it anymore. Deeply conflicted and doubting my own judgment, I ordered one, a white (HUGE departure from my lineage of black) 32gb Verizon mini. I sat back, suddenly relaxed that the decision was made. A weight had been lifted. If I truly didn’t like it, I could always send it back. I was ready to give it another shot.

Then it took two full weeks to arrive.

Agony. Having made the decision, I was ready to begin my new experiment. But I couldn’t. I had to wait and watch as a seemingly prehistoric process unfolded in front of me. I’m so used to Amazon Prime shipping speeds, watching as my mini was manufactured for a week and then stagnating as it trudged around the world was excruciating. It sat in a UPS facility in Kentucky for almost three full days. Doing nothing. I’ve had a 60" HDTV delivered to me from Amazon in less than 24 hours. This was torture. I casually wandered into the Apple store at the mall while my wife and I were shopping, in the hopes that they’d have a model I could grab that would at least be close to what I ordered. I was prepared to be flexible; sure, I would take a black 64gb LTE model. No problem. But nothing. Wi-fi only, everywhere I went. The cellular models were either the hottest sellers, or seriously undermanufactured.

When it finally arrived, I opened it and wept. Not really, but I was so happy to be done refreshing a shipment tracking page, I could have. I got to setting it up, put all my stuff in place, and configured it just so. Paired it with my Logitech Ultrathin (which looks positively gargantuan next to it now). Attached the Smart Cover I ordered while I waited for it to arrive. Began using it, picking it up, making it a part of my routine.

Verdict? I’m a jackass. I learned some things about myself and what I actually value. All the lip service I’d paid the larger display was truly worthless in the end, because I wasn’t even looking at it. The mini? I can’t put it down. It’s so light, I take it from room to room. I’d never done that with the larger iPad. I read more, I play games more, I bang out email, journal entries and draft posts more, simply because it’s there and ready. Everyone said it takes a few days to get used to everything being compressed a little, and it’s true. It’s been a week, though, and I couldn’t imagine going back. I stopped seeing the pixels about two days in, which was about 47.8 hours longer than I’d given it the first time. If only I’d not been so shortsighted.

The lesson for me is not about buying more crap and filling my life with more screens. It’s about not making snap judgments anymore. I find as I get older that I think I’ve got things pretty wired; that I know myself and what I think I like. The truth of the matter is that I’m woefully inflexible in my own mind sometimes, despite my ability to adjust to things in my real life (I just had a kid, trust me, I’m getting pretty awesome at “adjustment”). I have to learn to put aside my preconceived notions about things, and explore my options, because I’ll never know what I’m missing out on if I don’t.

Seems like a grandiose conclusion to draw over a gadget, but the epiphanies that matter the most to us don’t always come down on a bolt of lightning.

App.net | Twitter

Rewiring my brain with Drafts and TextExpander.

Drafts has become one of my very favorite apps on iOS. Prior to this week, it was iPhone only, but a recent update has not only extended its usefulness on the phone, but added a new iPad app too. It’s not universal, but that’s no reason to overlook it. This app belonged on the iPad from day one, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s here.

I’m going to skip the review, since there’s already a whole bunch of those, and they’re far more comprehensive than I’d be. What I was thinking about is whether or not I could take a highly extensible app like Drafts combined with a tool like TextExpander and change the way I use my iPad.

Since iOS prevents apps from running globally in the background as they can on OS X, apps like TE have a hard time being as useful on the mobile platform. Sure, you can try to do everything in the app itself, but after years of training myself to jump between apps on my iPhone/iPad, it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to (or want to) live in a single new app and try to push text everywhere. TE can allow your snippets to be made available in other apps though, and this is fairly useful, but the app needs to expressly support it and not all apps do. However, an app like Drafts feels like it might work. It supports TE snippets, and I’ve already grown accustomed to using it on my iPhone. It’s worked its way into my workflow, being both an instant scratch pad and a brain dump for chunks of text that will end up in other apps. It’s highly configurable, clean, and fast.

On the iPad, the interface is very similar to a handful of other apps that I’m using right now (Byword, Writing Kit). There are a variety of attractive font choices and a few different interface color themes to choose from, as well as variable text sizes, word count, and some quick shortcuts to useful text insertions. The thing that’s making me really reconsider what I do on the iPad is that I’ve grown fond of using text snippets on my Mac lately (I know, I’m a little late to that geek party, but whatever). I want to do the same on iOS, but the limitations of the system prevent me from doing it smoothly. If I pair the functionality I want with an app I’m already using, can I rewire my brain to do a lot of my text entry from a single start point? Obviously, I’ll still need to jump into apps to read things like Twitter and email, but for things like quick bursts of creativity, blog posts and longer emails, it’s a pretty compelling option. OH. I almost forgot – half the reason I’m willing to try this is that Drafts 2.0 has added a sync option. So your text goes between your devices effortlessly. It’s not through Dropbox (awww) but it works phenomenally well in my testing (yay!).

I’m going to give it a shot. I’ll probably talk about how it works at some point. If you want to ask about it, feel free.

The tyranny of two screens.

I have this habit that I’ve developed. On both of my iOS screens (iPhone and iPad) I try, whenever possible, to have all the same apps and icons in the same places. The reason I do this is because in thinking about it, I like the idea that no matter where I am, and on either device, I always have a quick mental map of where apps are located and the stuff I want is always where I expect it to be. It’s sort of interesting to go between the devices quickly and it certainly seems to work pretty well when I’m using my devices in tandem.

However, the truth is that I don’t really use the devices the same way. I have certain apps on my home screen on the phone that make no sense on the iPad. Like Messages, for instance. Used constantly on the phone, almost never on the iPad. Because the whole ‘get your messages wherever you are’ thing only works if everyone sends messages to your email address. And uses iOS. And not everyone does, and the years-long habit of using phone numbers to message people is not going away, no matter how much Apple wills it.

So I find myself using my iPhone intensely for a few days, then reaching for my iPad after a period of not using it, to find everything needs to be rearranged. And because I have mental problems, I often feel the need to do this before I do anything else because I’ve been looking at things the other (new) way so much on the phone that it doesn’t feel right the way it is now on the iPad.

I start to wonder about just setting up apps completely differently on both devices, as I did when I first got the iPad, the way most people probably do. Is it more valuable to have the perceived speed gain from mirroring the app layout in both places, or should my specific use for each device dictate how apps are arranged? Does anyone else ever think about this or should I just start looking for a decent therapist now instead of waiting?

Maybe I’ll just move them around.

Adding “value”.

Instacast released its 2.0 update yesterday to some Twitter fanfare. As a regular user of the app, I updated immediately. Now, to be clear, I don’t love Instacast. In fact, I have lots of personal issues with it. But as a regular listener of podcasts, it sucked the least of all the apps I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many. I wish so much that Apple would add even the most basic subscription support for podcasts to iOS within the native music app, but they haven’t, and it doesn’t look like they will any time soon.

What I found after updating was an interface that remained just as abstruse as the initial one, with the “added value” of reduced functionality. Most notably, the default behavior for podcasts downloaded within the app was altered. The original behavior of the app was that when podcasts were downloaded, they would stack up in a list, from oldest at the top to newest at the bottom. Now that order is reversed, to list the newest at the top. Which fundamentally changes the only way I listen to shows.

For a $1.99 in-app purchase, it appears that I could add functionality that would allow me to edit this playlist, and (I assume) change the order to something more palatable. I’m assuming this because I’m not going to make that purchase. And believe me, it’s not because I’m cheap. I buy tons of apps. I buy apps I don’t even plan on really using if I want to support the developer, because I believe in doing things like that. I won’t be adding that in-app purchase for two reasons:

1) because I don’t like paying again for what I was getting as a previous paying customer

and more importantly

2) because I have a hard time supporting something I don’t even really enjoy.

Instacast was originally a purchased app, not a free one. I understand completely if the developer of a free app wants to monetize through in-app purchase, but having paid for the app initially, and not expecting anything more than the basic continued functionality I was experiencing, to be forced to use the app differently is annoying, but then being told that I can use it the way I was using it if I pony up a few more bucks is really annoying. I’m not talking about adding new abilities or allowing some additional features. I’m talking about simply making it work the way it was previously working, one day earlier.

Furthermore, as I said, I don’t really love this app. And I know I might be in the minority, but I paid for and used the iPad app too, and I don’t like it either. Both UIs are needlessly complex, and expose inconsistencies throughout. The iPad app is almost unusable in my opinion because between the arcane controls and the spotty iCloud integration, I can never tell what’s actually happening within the app, and as such, I just stopped using it. I know a lot of people who wrote great things about it when it launched, and it was pretty as all get-out, but I’d be curious to know how many people are still actually listening to podcasts on their iPad at this point with it.

Listen, despite how this all came off and how my cranky tweets read, I don’t hate this app, nor do I hate the developers, their families or their pets. I just really believe very strongly that if you’re going to refine a UI, then really refine it. Don’t add things that seem like new controls yet obfuscate purpose. Don’t take gestures that were slightly difficult to discover but very useful and replace them with even more confusing options. If you have an overcomplicated hierarchy, make it simpler. And for the love of all things holy, don’t up-end the way people (especially previous paying customers) use the app and then tell them they can buy “great new features” in order to restore the basic way they’d been using the app to begin with.

I’m fully aware that these choices were most likely not arbitrary, and actually based on feedback. They represent a conscious choice on the part of the designers and developers to respond to feedback and provide what they feel is an improvement to the existing model. Choices are hard. I get it. The craziest part of all of this? Instacast is still, after all of this, significantly cleaner and easier to use than almost every single other podcast app in the App Store. Don’t even get me started on the other app everyone endlessly recommends to me (because I have it, surprise, and I have even fewer things I can point to as good).

Bottom line: creating in-app purchase options is a tricky choice, and I give a lot of credit to devs who pull it off successfully. But this kind of purchase isn’t adding value. The only thing it’s adding is frustration.

Update on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This post was picked up at iMore and there’s some discussion over there about it. I was challenged as to the harshness of the post, and I defended my reasoning behind writing it if you’re curious about my motivations. (Hint: it wasn’t because I wanted to conduct a witch-hunt today.)

Update on Thursday, June 21, 2012

Since it was brought to my attention earlier today, it is worth noting (and I should have posted it as soon as the change took place) that Vemedio has since reinstated the features that were pulled from Instacast and placed behind the in-app purchase. They listened to their user base, respected the feedback, and in turn, I respect that decision. It was a tough call, and I disagreed with it initially, but I certainly harbor no ill will, despite how cranky I was the first time around.