Tablets as productivity devices

Just before Christmas, I bought myself an iPad Pro, complete with its flagship accessories Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, and I have been using it exclusively during my well-needed vacation. As a previous non-user of tablets, I would like to share with you my opinions on tablets as productivity devices.

When Apple announced the first generation of the iPad, I was quite disappointed to be honest. At that time I did a lot of drawing and design work, using a Wacom tablet, which is still today my preferred choice of input device when it comes to work that require precision beyond the trackpad. A large screen without a pen just didn’t seem very useful to me. The one-app-at-the-time nature of iOS of course made the multi-task junkie in me more skeptical as well.

The tablet revolution came though, and while I understood it – the iPad Mini has empowered my 60+ years old mom like PCs never could – it never really found any place or purpose in my life that my laptop or smartphone didn’t already fill. I had the first Google Nexus for a few months, with the belief that the more open system of Android would make the tablet format more useful. Unfortunately it didn’t click with me; nothing ever felt truly intuitive or stable, and I felt that it had more potential as a cheap media device than a productivity tool.

The tablet dream

Since the first iPad, I’ve been longing for a good portable device with a Wacom pen. The Samsung Note intrigued me for a while, until I tested it in a store and discovered that the stylus would get laggy with time. I wanted something as small as an iPad Mini, as light as a Kindle Paperwhite, as easy to use as an iPhone, and with a stylus as accurate and as ”lag-free” as a Wacom pen. A dream, or maybe fantasy, device.

Fast forward to the announcement of iPad Pro in September 2015. Or rather, the Apple Pencil, because that was what initially caught my attention. Apple finally did it! But when it became apparent that the pencil would only work on the gargantuan iPad Pro, the disappointment immediately rained down on me. I consoled myself with the hope that an iPad Mini with Pencil support would eventually be released, but I would skip this one out again because tablets were still not for me.

So why am I writing this post on this device that I just a few months ago deemed pointless? The change has been gradual. Since the release of Microsoft’s Surface, and recent announcement of Surface Book, I’ve slowly warmed myself to the idea of owning a device with slightly larger dimensions than I had previously envisioned. All the iPad Pro user impressions and previews just made me realize faster the possibilities of a tablet that I not only could bring out to sketch or write down ideas on, but also let me do some serious creativity and productivity work.

The ultimate eco-system

Today we have laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc, and it’s very important that the experience going between these devices is as seamless as possible, and it often is, thanks to cloud services. But will the “smart device” eventually replace the laptop? Apple has so far chosen to separate the desktop experience from the touch experience in its eco-system of devices, to ensure that neither experience is compromised, and clever solutions to sync or pass data between the two platforms have long been the company’s answer. On the other side, we have Microsoft, who’s betting everything on the one system to rule them all; Windows 10 seamlessly adapts its user interface to the screen size or input devices, making it possible to produce “hybrid laptops”, laptops with detachable touch screens that can be instantly transformed into tablets.

The reality we live in

On paper, Microsoft’s way is clearly the more superior approach: How great would it be if the iPad could automatically switch over to a OSX (the operating system of Mac computers) like interface when a trackpad/mouse is connected! That’s a future I’d like to live in.

But we live today, and today, iOS is at least in my slightly biased opinion the better touch OS (Operating System). Not necessarily better feature-wise, but the better supported one, and its touch experience is arguably the best. As for the choice of desktop OS, it’s really a matter of preference, as there’s basically nothing you can do on either system that you can’t on the other, if you don’t start counting exclusive apps that is. And “apps” is really the answer to why I believe that Windows 10 is not yet ready as a tablet system, and why I ultimately decided to go with the iPad Pro: When it comes to the crunch, you don’t really buy a tablet for its technical specs, or to use a mouse and keyboard, but because you’re intrigued by the intuitive touch interface experience, and more importantly, because you want to be where the best apps are created.

The Microsoft paradox

The scenario Microsoft hopes for, is that a person buys a hybrid tablet in hope that it can replace his/her laptop with something more portable, as the Surface Pro for example claims to be capable of, and having both the classic mouse-driven interface and the modern touch interface in the same box is a great assurance. Whether or not the strategy proves fruitful in growing the company’s tablet market share remains to be seen, but there are certain pitfalls to this all-in-one tactic. While the company has arguably been one of the biggest innovator as of late, it will always be held back by its more conservative user base. The ability to fall back to a mouse driven interface is an incredibly cool feature, but why would developers even risk the investment to push the limits of what you can do with a multi-touch interface if there’s seemingly a “better” option for its users, who are persisting on the traditional experience?

Apple is less prone to fall into this Catch-22 situation, as its platforms are clearly distinct from each other, and its users are often early adopters and historically more used to radical changes. The company has also consistently proven that it can attract developers that strive to create change and innovation, which gives its users confidence that great apps will always come to their platform first.

To be frank, I have a hard time believing that touch will ever become the de facto standard input method for professional users, but I’ve been using Apple trackpads exclusively over computer mice since 2007, so who am I to say? If Force Touch or 3D Touch and haptic feedback becomes the norm for bigger touchscreens, a revolution can definitely happen.

Final words

The more I use my tablet, the more my view changes about it. Just three weeks ago I couldn’t even imagine myself viewing only one or two apps at the same time, or navigating without the trackpad, but now I find myself enjoying the slower pace and focus the iPad brings. Whether or not I’m confusing this with actual productivity, I guess time will tell. I will post my detailed iPad Pro impressions very soon.

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