Back To The Mac

11 May, 2019 01:45PM ยท 8 minute read

It’s been a long series of experiments beginning in the mid-2000s when I moved from Windows Vista to MacOS Tiger, then to the iPad in 2011 running iOS, back to Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 4, back to an iPad Pro in 2016, trying a sole-Apple Watch LTE as my daily device and finally now back to a Macbook Pro Touchbar running Mojave.

Either I’m completely unprincipled in the use of technology, or then again perhaps I’d prefer to think of myself as being one of the few stupid and crazy enough to try every different mainstream technological option before reaching a conclusion. Whilst I admit that Everything is Cyclic it is also a quest for refinement. Beyond that sentiment naturally as the field of technology continues to evolve, whatever balance can be found today is guaranteed not to last forever.

If you want the TL;DR then skip to the Conclusion and be done with it. For the brave, read on…

Critical Mass for Paperless

Ideally computers would replace paper and ink for communicating ideas in smaller groups in person, and replace overhead projectors and whiteboards as well for larger groups, but they haven’t. The question is simply: which is easier?

We are all able to pick up a pencil and write as we are taught to at school and despite typing being an essential skill in the modern world, many people can not touch type, and with keyboards on small glass screens now all non-standard sizes, even that 80s/90s typing skill presents difficulties for skill level equalisation among the populace. (I’m now beating most 15-25yr olds in typing speed tests as they’ve learned on smartphones, away from standardised physical keyboards)

The iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil represented the best digital equivalent of an analogue pen or pencil and hence for nearly 2-12 years now, I have not needed to carry an ink-based pen with me. At all. An an engineer I’m not interested (generally) in sketching and whilst that’s something I can do I’m not particularly good at it, so I use the Apple Pencil to take notes. Unlike an ink pen on paper notes though, I can search through all of my notes easily with handwriting recognition.

The use of iPads for this purpose has increased significantly in our office (no, not entirely because of me though I was the first I am aware of to do that in our office), and it has increased because it is so much better than ink on paper. The amount of photocopier and scanner usage has dropped significantly and it’s only a matter of time before there is a transition away from them altogether. Like the fax machine shortly there will be one photocopier per floor, then one for the building, and then none at all in a matter of a decade.

The paperless office may finally arrive; a few decades behind schedule, but better late than never.

Fighting the Form Factor

A term I’ve come across in programming is “Fighting the Framework” which is meant to illustrate that Frameworks and APIs are written with an intent, with data structures, methods and objects within all cohesively designed around a specific model, view and/or controller, inter-object messaging and so on. If you choose to go around these structures to create your own customised behaviours, doing so represents significantly more work and is often far more error-prone as you are going against the intended use and nature of the frameworks.

I’d like to propose that there are people that love technology that are obsessed with taking devices with a specific form factor and making them “bend” to their will and use them in ways that fundamentally conflict with their design intention. Irrespective of whether you believe pushing the boundaries is a good practice or not, there are limits to: what is possible; what is practical; and what can be expected realistically when you fight the form factor.

Examples include the commentary around the iPad or tablets in general, still “just being a tablet” meaning that they are predominantly intended to be used as consumption devices. Of course that’s a reductive argument since content comes in many forms, written, audible, visual at a very basic level, and within each there are blends of multiple including newspapers, comic books, novels, TV Shows and Movies. The same argument works in reverse whereby according to the currently popular trope, it’s “too hard” to create content on a tablet and therefore it is and can only be a consumption device.

The fundamental structure of the iPad (iOS more specifically) and the constraints of a single viewport, the requirement to cater for the lowest common denominator input device being a human finger makes the form factor difficult to directly copy ideas and concepts from desktop devices which have 20 years or more of trial, error and refinement. As time goes on more examples of innovation in that space will develop for audio (eg Podcast Audio) Ferrite and video Luma Fusion and although these will not satisfy everyone, only a few years ago there were no equivalent applications on iOS at all.

In the end though there is no easy way for the iOS form factor (both physical and operating system) to permit certain important, proven aspects to all a specific class of application designs and use cases. For these unfortunate classes, fighting the form factor will yield only frustration, compromise and inefficiency.

Multiple-Screen

You can’t beat pixels (or points). Displaying information on multiple screens on an iOS device in a way that allows a user to display information side-by-side (or in near proximity if not perfectly aligned) and importantly to visually compare, copy and paste seamlessly between, is a feature that has existed and been taken from granted from desktop computers for decades.

On larger-screened iOS devices this feature has been added (to an extent) with slide-over and side-by-side views, however the copy and paste between the applications isn’t widely supported, comes with several caveats, but most importantly there aren’t enough pixels for a large number of side-by-side review tasks. The larger the documents or files you need side by side, the worse it is on an iPad.

iPads have supported application-specific monitor output which isn’t just a mirror of the iPad screen, however support for this is rare and bound to the application. There’s no generic way to plug in a second, independent monitor and use it for any general purpose. Then again, there’s no windowing system like on the desktop so without a mouse pointer or a touch-interface on the connected screen, how could the user interact with it?

Some have proposed in future multiple iPads could be ‘ganged’ together but apart from this being cost-prohibitive, it’s unlikely for the same reason that ganging iMacs together isn’t supported anymore (Target Display Mode ended in 2014). Beyond this no existing iPad (even if it supports USB-C) can be chained to support more than one additional monitor. If you have a laptop or a desktop currently, most support two additional displays with a combined cost of significantly less than the multiple ganged iPad Pro solution.

Navigation Methods

Scrolling and navigating around large documents is slow and difficult on an iPad with few short cuts, many applications lack search funtionality, loading large files can take a long time and there’s a lot of fast-flick-swiping to get around a document. These issues aren’t an issue on a desktop operating system, with search baked into practically every application, Page Up/Down, scrolling via scrollbars, trackpads and mouse wheels all of which are less obtrusive and overall much faster than flicking for 30 seconds to move a significant number of pages in a document.

Functional Precision

The capacitive touch screen introduced with the iPhone and subsequently with the iPad made multi-touch with our highly inaccurate built-in pointing devices (our fingers) a reality for the masses. As an input method though it is not particularly precise and for that a stylus is required. The Apple Pencil serves that function for those that require additional precision, however pixel-perfect precision is still faster and easier with an indirect positioning mechanism like a cursor.

Conclusion

My efforts to make Windows work the way I needed it to (reliably) weren’t successful and the iPad Pro met a great many of my computing needs (and still does for written tasks and podcast editing). However I was ultimately trying to make the system do what I needed, when it fundamentally wasn’t designed to do that. I was fighting the form factor and losing too much of the time.

Many see working on the iPad Pro exclusively as a challenge, with complex workarounds and scripts to do tasks that would be embedded or straightforward on a Mac. Those people get a great deal of satisfaction by getting those things to work but if we are are truly honest about the time and effort expended to make those edge-cases function, taking into account the additional unnecessary friction or resistance in so doing, they would be better off using a more appropriate device in most cases.

For all of the reasons above I came back to the Mac and purchased a Macbook Pro 13” 2018 model and I have not regretted that choice. I am fortunate the my company has provided a corporate iPad Pro 2, which I use every day as well for written tasks. I feel as though I am no longer fighting against the form factor of my machines, making my days using technology far less stressful and far more productive. Which in the end is what it should be about.