Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Creative Space and iPad

tech, user experience, work & writing 4 min read

Probably the single biggest question about the iPad is: who or what is it for? Common answers to that question are usually directed towards casual computer users, where indeed the iPad has a significant potential market. But I’m not a casual user; I’m a developer. I want to share a few thoughts about what iPad means to me, and how I’ll be using it.

As a software engineer, I not only spend the bulk of my working life using a computer, but I also probably spend more of my leisure time in front of one too. What interests me is how iPad can fit into and enhance both of those situations. Let’s deal with them individually.

Work

Before there can be code, there should be design. Features and specifications, requirements, use cases, mockups, architectures and so forth. It’s incredibly difficult to meaningfully create those things when sat in front of a computer. There’s a tyranny of the machine that seems to interfere with big-picture thought; an invisible force-field relentlessly dragging your mind down to the specific.

In this profession, it’s critical to have a break-out area where you can think without the computer looking over your shoulder; where you can do your most valuable work without the siren song of an IDE. For the same reason that getting up and even walking to the bathroom can provide new perspective on a heretofore intractable problem, it’s in your own best professional interests to do as much of your work as possible before you handcuff yourself to your desk each day.

iPad understands this. The very form-factor of the device subtly discourages you from using it extensively at your desk; it’s more comfortable on the couch or in the armchair. It wants you to be somewhere that your mind is clear.

iPad and coffee mug on small wooden coffee table

My new desk, for as much of the day as possible.

Focus and perspective are our bread and butter. We have to think carefully about problems in multiple fields in the course of a standard workday, and poor quality of thought invariably leads to disproportionately significant repercussions later. There’s almost no limit to what I’ll pay to increase my focus and productivity without a corresponding increase in pain; iPad would be cheap at three times the price.

As much as possible, I plan to move architecture and UX design, UI sketching, feature decisions and such tasks to iPad, and away from my desk. It’s stress-reducing and it’s conducive to creative thought, and it helps me maintain a balance between time spent at my desk and the sort of work I can do whilst at least in Lauren’s company and in a more relaxing environment.

As an aside, iPad arguably fits uniquely well into the lifestyle of living the “indie dream”. It’s a support email-handling and ticket-managing machine, it’s great for quick UI sketches, you can use it for firefighting server admin tasks, and so on and so forth. You can do all those things at the coffee shop or in the park or out on the balcony or sitting in the car at the lake (or loch), without resorting to a laptop - which is just a smaller version of the same tyranny of the desktop.

Leisure

It’s not an exaggeration to say that iPad has transformed my leisure computing in just a few days. If I’m not actually coding, it’s now more likely that I’m on my iPad than on my Mac; four days ago I would have always been on the Mac.

The most significant realisation is that, for many day-to-day computing tasks, iPad is actually faster than the Mac. That’s not a statement of processing performance, of course - the opposite is true - but rather a testament to the iPhone OS’ UI design. For the most common cases (managing the last few hours’ worth of email, catching up on today’s tweets, having some IM conversations), the necessity of making the various apps’ UIs work on a touch-screen device has created a better, more focused and efficient average-case user experience than their desktop equivalents. I find myself using the iPad to perform certain tasks even when I’m at my desk.

As I remarked on Twitter last week, for me the potential of iPad is to decouple as many tasks as possible from my work environment - and to keep me away from that environment when I’m doing things that don’t actually require me to be there other than to use a computer.

I was always going to enjoy using this device, but I confess to not having been prepared for quite this sort of transformative experience. I truly wouldn’t want to be without it from now on, and (work notwithstanding) I’ll be making a concerted effort to use it as my sole travel/portable device whenever possible.

Of course, it’s one thing to say all this and quite another to walk the walk, but with iPad you truly do find that you’ve gone hours without using any other machine, without even realising it. Yesterday, for example, I had a long lie. I woke up and brewed some coffee, then whilst listening to music I checked my email and cleared my inbox. I moderated some comments, and wrote and published a blog post.

I caught up with my Twitter feed and wrote a few tweets. I made some notes about an application idea, and I looked up an address for a trip later in the day. I read the news and my RSS feeds, and quickly logged into my web server to perform some maintenance tasks. I had a brief chat with a friend online, then I made plans for lunch.

I did all these things, and I did them without difficulty or compromise, and without feeling I was constrained by the machine I was using.

I also did them without using my Mac.