iPad: First impressions of a sceptic

Anyone who has followed my jottings over the years will know that I am an Apple sceptic. I have spent the money and taken the time to get to know the Mac and OSX, and concluded that claims of superiority over Windows are vastly exaggerated. Indeed the two MacBook Pros that we have in our household have now been reformatted to run Windows 7, which provides the same level of performance and stability as the Apple alternative, the equivalent user experience, but with a lot more freedom and flexibility.

I also spent 18 months regretting the day I signed up with O2 for an iPhone, which I found limited and awkward, with an appalling battery life and an overall experience that was simply not in the same league as the BlackBerry for the kind of things I want to do with a handheld. While I continued to use the iPhone as a personal device, I was not willing to take the performance and productivity hit in a business context just for the sake of appearances. Perhaps I missed an opportunity to enhance my image, but at least I could get my job done efficiently.

Of course these are personal views and experiences based on my own requirements, likes and dislikes, and I accept that others have a different lifestyle, different work related requirements, and put the emphasis in a different place when it comes to the importance of form versus function.

So why did I even bother to consider an iPad?

Well ironically, it all started with a few minutes playing with a Windows 7 touch screen tablet a few months ago. While the touch screen interface always seemed to be more of a gimmick to me on a handheld, particularly the iPhone, aiding casual activity but hampering routine or heavy use, that didn’t appear to be the case on a larger screen where the gestures were less cramped, and the buttons, icons, and menus, and the keys on the soft keypad, were easier to hit accurately when moving quickly. In a nutshell, the larger real-estate seemed to allow the touch screen interface to flourish. It was then that the penny dropped.

The trouble with the Windows tablet, however, was that it was still pretty bulky and obviously had the overhead of a full blown operating system. But when I thought of the characteristics of that interface along with the basic concept of an instant on lighter weight device, I could see the potential of the iPad. I then remember tweeting that the iPad was probably the only Apple device I could see me actually using and sticking with since the original iPod Nano. Not surprisingly, after saying this, I got it in the neck from colleagues and friends on the basis that I had been so critical of the iPhone in the past, and that the iPad was simply a larger version of the same idea with all the same constraints and limitations. It was also pointed out to me that the iPad lacked some basic features such as a standard USB port, a standard printing mechanism, and a camera.

Despite all this, there was no getting away from the fact that this was the first genuinely new form factor to hit the mainstream for a long time and my instincts were crying out that there was something worth checking out here. A few days ago, I therefore picked up a 3G iPad from the Apple Store in Southampton, and have been working with it ever since.

So what are my early experiences?

At a general level, while the operating system, software and connectivity are essentially the same as the iPhone in terms of mechanics, and anyone who has used the smaller form factor device will instantly have a level of familiarity, the overall experience is far from iPhone like. I was pleased (and a little relieved after spending the money) that the initial views I formed from playing with the Windows tablet I mentioned earlier were upheld. The touch screen interface works so much better on a larger screen, and even the soft keyboard is effective for relatively fast typing (this post is actually being typed with it).

With regard to data entry, the one thing I would highlight is the extremely important role played by the standard iPad case. Apart from protecting the device, it has a neat mechanism that allows it to fold back on itself for holding the iPad at just the right angle on a desk or on your lap for typing. This might sound like a trivial detail, but believe me, it transforms the iPad from a consumption only slate to a content production device – obviously not as effective as a laptop with a proper keyboard and mouse, but certainly good enough for reasonably rapid note taking or text only authoring, which deals with quite a lot of my requirements on the road.

The bigger screen obviously then has a big impact on the general usability and effectiveness of applications, from email and productivity apps, through viewing documents and other content, to, of course, web browsing, though the lack of Flash is a bit annoying with the latter, and I keep coming across sites that don’t render properly. I guess Safari users in general must be accustomed to some of this.

In terms of business content access, I am still experimenting with viewers, but have found a promising couple of apps that allow different types of documents to be downloaded, managed and accessed on in the device. This is important as I like to carry around a lot of reference material with me (research reports and charts in particular) for use in meetings, and unless I could do this conveniently, I would need to continue taking a laptop everywhere with me.

At the time of writing, I have downloaded Apple’s iWork suite of productivity apps (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software) but apart from using ’Pages’ to type the words you are reading, I haven’t had a chance to explore its capability properly. In theory, there should be everything anyone would need in terms of office capability on a mobile device, but our previous experiences piloting the full Mac platform taught us that transferring anything other than relatively simple documents between iWork and Microsoft Office is a bit hit and miss from a format preservation point of view. I expect my authoring with the iPad will be largely restricted to emails, blog posts and articles, so I will probably end up transferring things back and forth via email messages. A neat feature that helps here is the ability to send a document as a Word *.doc file from within Pages itself with just three taps on the screen, and to open incoming Word documents attached to email just as conveniently, with no explicit import/export action required in either direction.

Other things worth mentioning – the battery life is excellent, on both WiFi and 3G, so a big change there from the iPhone. I have been using the unit for a few hours at a time and have not yet seen the battery meter drop below 75%. I have also had no problems with the weight of the device, which I find perfectly comfortable to manage, even for long periods, despite reports I have read about this being an issue.

The only real problem I have experienced in terms of the unit not working as it should is with WiFi. We have two access points, one at either end of the house, and the iPad only works reliably with one of them. On the other, it will connect fine, but will not automatically reconnect after going to sleep and waking up again. This is a known issue that I have yet to troubleshoot properly.

There’s a lot more I could say about the consumer/entertainment functionality, which is pretty good as you would expect, but my main question with this new entrant onto the market was whether it was going to be suitable as an all-round mobile productivity tool in a business context. So far, I would say it looks very promising, but I will report back again after a few weeks of serious use.

In the meantime, rest assured that I have not gone soft on Apple or the subjective and often dubious justifications we hear constantly for the use of its products from so called ’fanbois’. While I really like the iPad, it is because I can see the point of it – it fills an important gap – but I still don’t buy the arguments people make for the Mac and the iPhone, which in my view continue to represent unacceptable compromises in most business scenarios. I guess the obvious question is whether I will change my view once the Windows and Linux alternatives to the iPad hit the streets. We shall see.

In the meantime, while I would hesitate to make a firm recommendation, I would not discourage anyone from considering the iPad as a business productivity tool – provided of course, you are willing to pay the premium price.

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.