Matt Gemmell

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Rediscovering the iPad

tech & ipad-only 6 min read

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.

If you’re a maker of iPad apps that my readers would be interested in, you can sponsor this site for a week.

It started with two unpleasant feelings: It’s not reliable anymore, and It needs too much babysitting.

Harsh, but also fair. My beloved 2015 MacBook 12”, along with its complimentary 2016-model replacement, has been the source of conflicting emotions over the past year. A series of breakdowns on the controversy-stirring new keyboard, with week-long service times on each occasion. After more than two months, the 2016 replacement is behaving just fine, but still. My confidence in the machine has been damaged.

Then there’s the inconsistent state of software on the Mac platform, with some apps provided via Apple’s Mac App Store, and some sold directly by their developers — often because of limitations, prohibitions and frustrations of the aforementioned Store. The proliferation of menubar status items, and the essentially unchanged nature of the interface. Windows and pointers. Interfaces from several different eras. The baggage it carries along with it. The computer-ness of it all.

The MacBook is certainly portable; no question about that. Small and light and beautiful. But it also has a weight that’s not from its mass.

A few years ago, we were an iPad household. We had three of them knocking around (between two people), and they were invariably to be found sitting nearby on the coffee table, or by the bedside, or on the kitchen counter. We liked them. And we truly tried to love them. But it wasn’t easy.

The main problem was iOS itself. It was young, and the iPad variant of it was very new indeed, and its design was inherently cautious. Careful to preserve responsiveness, an approachable user experience, and some measure of performance, by curtailing the kind of features that would put undue strain on either hardware or human. It was ruthlessly simple, and — as ever — it was the third-party developers who found ways to do more with less.

I was a software developer at the time, and whilst the iPad was an attractive development target and potential market, it really wasn’t a tool for work. There were too many rough edges. Immature software, and a vexing lack of integration features like sharing data between apps, or even pervasive support for hardware keyboards. It was a point-and-tap device; attractive and intuitive, yes, but for the most part, unsophisticated.

I tried; really, I did. But it didn’t work out.

I haven’t been an iPad user in years. The latest model in our house, untouched in quite a while, was a third generation model from 2012. That’s a long time in the world of technology. And with the passing of time came forgetfulness.

I lost my grasp on what had attracted me to it — or at least to what it could be — in the first place. I forgot about the intimacy of holding a large screen and interacting with it directly; the removal of the pointing device’s barrier of artifice. I forgot about the feeling of seeing a glimpse of how things will inevitably be in the future. I forgot about the uniqueness of the iPad even amongst other iOS devices: an interface designed from the ground up to serve human needs, and finally at a human scale.

But it’s deeper than that. As a person who obsessively pursues and values focus above all — because it’s the only way I can work, and feel sufficiently at peace to produce things — I’m highly sensitive to cognitive load. If I’m using something, be it physical or virtual, and there’s a sense of competition for my attention, or a burden of required learning, or the archaeological evidence of compromised (or legacy) design, … well, I feel it. It sits there on my shoulders. My neck tenses up. I get a headache. I’m not speaking entirely figuratively, either. And computers are so, so heavy.

Decades of arbitrary decisions, designs that were the result of hardware limitations, and quirky choices that have passed beyond re-evaluation and into the realm of the absurdly sacrosanct. There’s so much stuff there, and none of it can be taken away for fear of the howls of the wounded faithful. Things can be added — and indeed apparently must be — but nothing can be removed. It just accretes, slowly being compressed under its own bulk, to form a vast, living fossil that we can’t stop feeding.

I can hardly recall a time when I didn’t feel trapped by it all. Caught between my learned expertise (or acclimatisation to idiosyncrasies, depending on how you look at it), and my fervent desire that someone would just sweep it all away and try something else instead.

And that’s pretty much what the original iPhone did. I remember the feeling I had when I watched the keynote. Steve scrolled the contacts list by flicking a finger across the display, and bam. For me, the excitement was only partly for the hardware and the novel interaction; beneath that, there was a sense of potential. A feeling that, finally, someone had seen possible way out of this mess we’re in.

But it was still just a phone.

The first iPad provoked a similar feeling, but to a lesser extent. It had all the features of its smaller sibling, and a few more besides, but there was a nagging sense that it was nevertheless premature. The greater space between the icons on the Home screen carried a certain subtext that I couldn’t articulate back then. If you asked me now, I’d say that it felt further from the potential of its form-factor than the iPhone did at the same time.

I instinctively had loftier expectations for the iPad, just because of its different physical characteristics. I wanted it to be more. I had dreams for this class of device that I was never going to have for a handheld smartphone. There was something there, at least as a vague outline, waiting to be discovered.

I wanted the iPad to make computers go away.

Fast-forward four years, and it seems a lot more possible. I have the comfort of implicit updates and backups, automatically and without the need for babysitting. I have my beloved Scrivener at last. A load of robust Markdown editors, and tools for text processing, automation, terminal emulation, web site management, and graphics work. But mainly it’s about the integration that’s now possible: sharing files and data between apps, importing and exporting, printing to PDF as well as printers, using keyboard shortcuts, app-switching and Spotlight searching just like on the Mac… the list goes on. iOS is a world away from how it used to be. The iPad doesn’t feel so sparse anymore. The potential is there again, much closer to the surface.

So I’m back.

I went out four days ago and bought a 9.7” iPad Pro, and an Apple Pencil. I’m making a commitment — to this device, to myself, and even to you, dear reader. I’m going to try using the iPad full-time, as much as possible. There will inevitably be some things I’ll still need a Mac for, particularly in the interim as I pursue this experiment and discover what’s possible, but I think (and I hope) that they’ll dwindle in number as time wears on. I’ve made a list of laptop-requiring tasks, and it’s short. I’ve also crossed a few things off it, just during the last couple of days.

My goal is simple: I want to need my MacBook less than once a week.

Some weeks, I won’t manage that (like if I’m doing design work on the site, and need to browser-test; or complex graphics work on big files for book covers or promotional material; or the nitty-gritty of producing PDF and ebook masters of novels, for example), but in an average week, I want to use the iPad nigh-exclusively.

I’m going to try, and I’m going to write about it along the way. When I hit a new challenge, or find a new solution, or just have a discrete observation to make, you’ll find it here on the site. I hope you’ll follow along with me. I’ll file such pieces under iPad Only.

There are a lot of reasons to complain about Apple’s controlled ecosystem, and the walled garden of the App Store — if you’re a developer, or a tinkerer, or a power user, or any of several other categories besides. But it’s hard not to see the wisdom of the user-focused dictatorship of enforced simplicity and focus. I think the iPad is probably the ultimate expression of it. At least potentially.

A computer-sized thing, that isn’t a computer. Computer-sized apps, that aren’t allowed to be computer-like. Discoverability and direct manipulation are the watchwords. The constraints of interaction density are of the order of a fat human finger, poking at the screen. No menubars and docks and dashboards, at least for the most part. Just honed, elemental user experiences — but now with apps whose developers have learned how to make the same sacrificial choices, and deliver the essence of what our tasks require. A kind of design from before the arbitrary compromises started pushing us down this ever-narrowing path we’ve been on.

I think that enough of the pieces are in place. I think I can really work on this thing, and socialise on it, and live my online life on it. I want this to work, as much as it possibly can. I want to get away from the old technology at all costs.

So I’m going to try, once again. Here goes.

This time, I hope the iPad can be my new computer.