Not Good For Business

A month into iPad ownership and I have to say that although I love some of the things it does, my feelings are still mixed. Setting aside those features which, in my case at least, are really for personal use, how will it work as a business tool?

Personally, I’ve never got on reviewing significant text on a PC screen, and tend to work instead on printouts. The iPad has already proven itself an excellent reading tool, so much so that I will now download any lengthy document from my PC at work, and read it on the iPad, rather than just print it out.

Three third party applications make this much easier: DiskAid runs alongside or in place of iTunes to make managing iPad documents from the PC much easier, providing many of the functions missing from the Apple software, like folder views and drag/drop file operations. Full two-way folder-level synchronisation is promised for the next version. It also works well over USB – this, combined with the fact it’s not iTunes, makes it a good bet for corporate environments.

The companion iPad app, FileApp, is the best file management and general-purpose viewer I’ve found. And if you want to annotate a PDF document I can strongly recommend iAnnotate, which produces fully Acrobat-compatible markup, and you can either export the result via DiskAid, or simply email it to yourself.

MS Office documents are a bit more of a challenge. For example, there are many apps which view or edit Word documents. They vary from acceptable to poor. None, as far as I can see, supports embedded files, embedded objects, or style-based formatting. More critically for document reviewing, there’s almost no support for change tracking. Most apps just ignore Word markup. The only current exception is Documents To Go, which at least displays the markup and preserves it in exported documents, but doesn’t allow you to add to it. The work-around is to just type your comments into the main text, email the document to yourself, and use “compare” against the original on the PC, but that’s just plain crude.

Support for other MS Office documents is even more patchy. There are lots of apps which will read an Excel spreadsheet, but most can’t export back to the same format. And there are plenty of PowerPoint viewers, but they all present the slides as a long scrolling document. None of them have the ability to effectively show a presentation full screen on the iPad with a simple “tap to advance” model. Surely I can’t be the only person in the world who recognises the potential power of iPad+PowerPoint for presenting ideas to people in small meetings, so why have all the developers ignored this opportunity?

I await the iPad version of SoftMaker Office with hope, because the SoftMaker guys have successfully delivered full Word compatibility to Pocket PCs for years. It can be done…

The iPad should also be an ideal note-taking device, but several things mitigate against it. Firstly, the applications seem universally crude, with no rich text or outlining support, and limited or no hierarchical arrangement features. Some are quite “flashy”, with good support for doing things like pasting in pictures from the photo album, but what I need is more structured. The standard, of course, is Microsoft OneNote, which has transformed my general note-taking and list management on the PC, but Apple and most developers seem to be studiously it’s example. The one ray of light is MobileNoter, which aims to be a partner application to OneNote. At the moment it’s incomplete – it does quite a good job of synchronising your OneNote notebooks from the PC, and displaying them faithfully, but input is a bit iffy and you can’t create new sections or pages on the iPad. The “quick notes”, which can be freely manipulated, are plain text only. That said, the developers promise that the abilities to take notes in OneNote format and add them into your synchronised notebooks are coming, so maybe this omission will be fixed.

Creating content is generally a bit painful because of the restricted text input model Apple have imposed. For a start, the multi-modal keyboard is very annoying. The main screen just has the basic letters, and you have to switch modes two or three times for anything else. This is OK for bulk text, rubbish for anything with numbers or “special” characters such as the dash or the colon! No wonder the youth of today are losing touch with punctuation…

I do wonder if Apple were influenced by this wonderful video of the “laptop with no keyboard” from the Onion News Network, and didn’t get that it’s meant to be satirical?

If you make a mistake while typing, it’s quite painful to have to roughly point with a finger, then steer the insertion point exactly with the magnifier, then make your corrections. There are no arrow keys to quickly navigate a few letters back, no reversible “undo”. I also find the lack of drag and drop very frustrating.

The predictive text / dynamic spelling is rubbish compared with other platforms, offering only a single option and then usually only when you’ve typed almost the whole word. Worse, if it corrects incorrectly, and you delete the text and type your version again, it just changes it again unless you manually over-ride it. The Microsoft version is much more intelligent, and gives you a “stop changing…” option after the first time.

Some of these restrictions and crudities make no sense at all. Others might make sense on the iPhone, but on a full screen tablet device they are just plain frustrating. But what really bugs me is that the pocket PC, despite originating in an even smaller form factor than the iPhone, gets all this right.

The iPad is a great tool for some purposes, but it’s potential for business use is thwarted by Apple’s inability to recognise good ideas in the non-Mac world, and a young application ecosystem where key capabilities are still developing. Getting business value feels like a bit of a battle, even if it is far and away the best platform for Angry Birds!

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