Not from My Cold, Dead Hand…

My regular correspondent Malachy Martin recently posed another of his “research” questions:

What would work look like if you only had an iPad as your computing device?

My first reactions focused on whether my iPad could replace my laptop. Then I had a horrible second thought:

“I hope he doesn’t mean taking away my phone!”

I suppose I could go back to carrying a separate phone (or bag of 20p pieces), diary, address book, alarm clock, notepad, dictaphone, GPS, map, camera (well, I do do that, but that’s different), puzzle book, music player…

Yes, the iPad can do all of these, but it’s just too big to carry around all the time. I’m certainly not going to strap it to my arm in the gym, or hold it to my ear in public. So let’s assume I’m allowed to keep my phone, and focus on my first interpretation of the question. Could the iPad replace my laptop? What couldn’t I do without the latter?

First, say goodbye to a lot of content creation. The iPad touch keyboard is just too slow and inaccurate for entering large amounts of text. The ZaggMate keyboard which comes combined with a cover for the iPad screen is great, and at least allows you to navigate and select text accurately, but it suffers from some nasty key bounce and the keys are a bit too small for my fingers. Even ignoring physical text entry problems, you’ve got the challenge that there’s no truly compatible version of MS Office for the iPad, so creating properly compatible structured Office documents is almost impossible.

The problem is even worse in respect of graphical content. Set aside the fact that I do a lot of image processing on my laptop, which requires both substantial horsepower and a proper PC-level operating system. The iPad just doesn’t hack it for fine graphical manipulation. I can reliably drive a PC with a mouse to an accuracy of 1-2 pixels (in 1280 on my laptop, and 1600 on my desktop). The iPad is designed for operation with a 1/2″ paintbrush, and is realistically limited to operations suited to such a tool.

I do a lot of development work, with 2 full scale databases, 2 web servers, various modelling tools, a Java development environment and no fewer than 6 versions of Visual Studio on my laptop, plus a couple of virtualised alternative PC operating systems. That’s not going to work on my iPad! I could cheat and move to “thin client” (Remote Desktop) access to the equivalent running on a server somewhere, but that would function only when I’m connected (I’m often not when I want to do such work), and the navigation and text entry limitations of the iPad would drive me bonkers.

Even for general “office” work the limitations of iOS would rapidly challenge my sanity and productivity. For example, when I’m developing complex documents I do a lot of multi-tasking, working across multiple open documents each of which needs to be in a fixed known state under my control. I also make a lot of use of drag & drop and working with multiple windows visible at once.

The other big problem is iOS’ lack of content management separate from the “apps”. I manage about 200GB of “content” on my laptop: client files, my own documents, photos, technical library, publications etc. This is all synchronized to the big desktop/server at home, but available offline. The thought of all of this being tangled up with individual applications is just horrific.

So no thank you Malachy, the iPad isn’t going to replace the laptop or the phone any time soon. Now if someone can come up with a Windows 7/8 slate with the same performance and capacity as my laptop, and the same battery life as my iPad, and capable of operation with either a finger or a stylus…

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