Saturday, 3 September 2011

iPadding Around

I am sure I am not the only person in a job, even in these hard recession times, who is told that there is a ‘budget which needs to be spent’. Many companies have an approach that a budget is allocated for a time period and if it is not spent by the department it has been given to then the money has to be returned. In addition, it is likely that the department will not receive as large a budget in the future, at a time when it may have far greater need of the money. Consequently as the deadline for having spent the budget approaches, departments find ways either to ‘carry over’ the money to a time when they have more need of it or do what my department is currently doing, i.e. spending it as fast as they can. Of course, you cannot simply spend money on anything that you want, because budgets are usually attached to some particular kind of cost. The most flexible are project budgets because almost anything can be seen as appropriate for carrying out a budget. However, others are wedded to things like furniture, entertaining or technology.

In my department we have a technology budget that has to be used so my boss decided she would equip a number of us with iPad 2s to see what we could use them for. Consequently I have been playing around with mine to see what I can do with it for a work purpose rather than entertainment. What I discovered may be useful for you. The first thing I discovered was that I could not even get it started within the company’s premises. This is because to register your I-Pad and get it running you have to log on to iTunes and download it to your iPad. The only problem with that is that my company specifically blocks iTunes from any of its computers. This meant I had to take it home and register it there.

You can connect a memory stick (a.k.a. a flash drive) to your iPad but in general it is very dependent on almost constant internet connection. It was fine at home because where I am living has a very good wireless signal that in fact goes with me quite a way up the street if I choose to forget to switch my iPad off. However, again once inside the company’s premises things got harder. The company has good IT support, though at this time of year its opening hours are not as long as at other times of the year when people are not taking summer holidays. First of all I tried following the online guidance without any joy. I then went to one IT helpdesk which was closed for the day. I ended up at another which does not specialise in connecting to the work wi-fi, but they saw it as a challenge. After 30 minutes of working with a knowledgeable IT colleague he was able to finally connect me to the wi-fi.

The iPad does not count as a laptop, it comes under the heading of a smart phone. In many ways that is accurate and worthwhile bearing in mind if trying to connect yours to someone’s system. Of course, if you have the money and a spare 3G sim card you can slot that it using Apple’s low-tech modified paperclip helpfully supplied with the iPad and then phone into the internet. For me, without those resources, I am dependent on what free (or paid for by someone else like my landlord or my company) wireless signals I can get into.

Now I was up and running. I have found some problems that others have done, such as every time I move it the screen tips. I know you can lock it in place, but that is not what I want to do, because some things are better done in landscape and some in portrait. It is just that it never seems to go in the direction I want it and I often end up with it upside down from how I am viewing it. It is ideal if you have small fingers, because often when I am trying to ‘click’ on to something (which is done by jabbing your finger on to it on an iPad; very much more forcefully than you see people doing on the advertisements) I would end up hitting something else and it constantly seemed to think that I wanted to bin whatever I was working on. If it was my own device and not the company’s I would stick a big arrow on it saying ‘this way up’. The ‘Home’ button is small and looks pretty like the camera at the other end. Consequently using the various camera functions, I ended up finding I was holding the iPad ‘upside down’ but only when I emailed the image to someone else.

Taking photos is pretty easy. However, getting the right exposure and lining up a camera which is as large as an exercise book to take pictures is quite a challenge. The images are not bad but with no way to focus in except by moving closer nor to adjust the exposure to light conditions, it can be harder than even using your mobile phone to take a picture. Some things are very easy. One is connecting to YouTube though locating the volume control when music starts blaring out is far harder. The image is pretty good as is the sound. If you want to play clips and stand around discussing them, as I did with colleagues about clips from some film noir movies from YouTube, you can do that very easily.

You soon find, however, that YouTube is pretty much the limit of the video resources you can get into. I tried accessing BBC I-Player and Channel 4OD without any success, just messages saying that what they were offering was not suited to the device I was using. Some of the problems appear to come from tensions between Apple and other companies, notably Adobe. This means that neither can you watch anything which needs Flash nor can you even read PDF files which is an obstacle in the average office.

Another thing I experimented with was using the iPad for tweeting. I am pretty sceptical of the purpose of tweeting and as a result of playing a lot of ‘Total War; Shogun 2’ ended up writing tweets in the style of medieval Japanese death poems (translated into English of course) constantly reflecting on the ephemeral nature of what I was writing and the fact that you toss it into the ether with no idea if anyone pays attention to it. As you will know, I have had similar thoughts around blogging.

The shortness of tweets means we tend to see that as ‘lighter’ and so unsurprisingly rather than the lead tablets I throw out here, they seemed more like messages scribbled on scraps of paper or even dead leaves. Interestingly, dying Japanese warriors seem to have had a similar view on their lives and their significance after their death, with lots of reference to dead leaves, falling blossom and melting snow. What happens to a tweet that no-one reads? Anyway, my scepticism of tweeting has not abated. However, having attended a conference recently at which the audience was regularly harangued for not sending sufficient tweets during the proceedings and me not actually having any device on me that would enable me to do it (nor a Twitter account in fact), it did seem that now I had the iPad, the tool of choice for tweeting during conferences, I should at least equip it with that functionality.

In many ways I was trying to use the I-Pad in the way I might other devices. One was to use it like a Kindle. Certainly you can download e-books on to it. I accessed some by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the Guttenberg site. This was fine except for the functionality you get, i.e. the book appears like a very long scroll that you unroll with your finger. Much of the iPad functionality depends on you pulling things around with your finger. This can be a challenge with even a comparatively short novel, but might work well enough for short reports. The only benefit is that when you go away from the book and return, it brings you back to the point that you were at before.

Moving away from things you have opened is the toughest part of using the iPad and I found myself constantly hitting the Home button. However, this did not resolve the problem because if I clicked back on to the internet browser (Safari) or the iTunes or YouTube buttons, I would simply find myself back at the document/video/audio I was at previously. You can sometimes press a button to bring up all the panels you have opened and then close them from there. However, sometimes the functionality seems to disappear causing difficult situations. I had heard about iTunes U which is a variant of I-Tunes that universities put written, audio and audio-video content on to. I download a Basic Chinese course for free from the Open University which probably unsurprisingly is a big user of the site. This was great. However, once I ran the first lesson all I had on my screen was a large image of a dragon and no buttons to pause or stop or even quieten the rather loud declaration of ‘ni hao!’ booming out across the office. This issue of going away from things is not helped by the fact that the functionality seems to differ depending what kind of item you are looking at and at times seems dependent, as in the case of the Open University material, on choices made by the provider rather than you.

The fact of being 'locked into' something worsened as I used the iPad more. I found that the web browser became fixed on to Google Docs which I had been using. No matter what I pressed it would not go back from the page or go to any other website bar Google Docs, effectively rendering the search engine useless. Unlike with a PC or even a laptop, I am unable to reboot, as even if you switch it off entirely it always comes back to whatever you had it set on when you switched it off.

You might expect the iPad coming out of the iTunes context to be good with audio/video content, but using it in the workplace I was interested in what it could actually do that was not about entertainment. You can get on to a range of websites very easily, so checking out a company before you get there is straight forward. There are diary functions and maps available in a range of formats such as relief and street map, so you get the functions of a PDA and a bit of a sat nav in there too. At least the iPad can tell you where you are and unlike most sat navs does not assume you are in a car making it easier to navigate as a pedestrian, useful in London.

What I was interested in was whether I could effectively use the iPad as a laptop when I got to the meeting. There is a notebook function, but that did not seem appropriate for the kind of thing I might be doing. This is when I realised that it was fine for my company to give me an I-Pad but without a budget to buy supplementary packages, i.e. ‘apps’ then I was limited. Apple do produce a wordprocessor package for the iPad, Pages, but this costs $9.99, I was not able to find a UK price. Similarly, Keynote for the same price allows you to do presentations, though I am pretty averse to this, given the unhealthy dependency so many office workers and their audiences have on ‘slides’.

If you want things like spreadsheets and other office packages, then you need iWork which has Pages and Keynote in it plus Numbers which is the spreadsheet package. I have been told there is an iPad version for $80 but tend to only find the Macintosh version online. Someone noted to me the other day, that if we only ever go after free stuff why will companies ever both producing packages if there is no money in them. This is a good question. However, even if I had had a £100 budget then I would have bought some products from Apple. Given how tight my money is, I am not in a position or willing to subsidise my company. Any company that is thinking about equipping their workers with I-Pads should either buy all the necessary packages before they dish them out or give the workers a budget to buy the apps that they feel are most appropriate.

I then thought of using Open Office, the free rival to Microsoft products. Unfortunately, as you will see discussed on forums, because the operating system of the I-Pad is different from that of the Macs and is more ‘closed’, the Open Office people have not been able to develop a version for iPads. This may come in the future. So, what do you do if you have no budget, are as poor as I am and want to wordprocess on an iPad? The one solution I found was to use Google Docs. You can set up a Google email account, gmail, for free. Then you can access Google Docs. The documents you produce in Google Docs are incredibly primitive with no formatting. You can do carriage returns but little else. However, you can email them to yourself as .doc or .rtf or a range of other formats that allows you to work on them on a proper computer. This works fine for my note taking. I can type pretty fast so found it not much slower than handwriting the notes. The key problem is the predictive text approach that Google Docs uses. I found it changing many of my words, sometimes into very American terms. As these were notes, I abbreviated a lot but found ‘mkt’ for market for some reason became ‘MIT’ and ‘wkplace’ for workplace turn into ‘ail lace’ the first time (ail being the French word for garlic) and then ‘sip pace’ the second time. I will have to explore if I can disable this function.

Accessing email accounts is pretty easy off the iPad. Leaving a particular account proves much harder and I found that when I clicked to the email facility (you can go in through Safari or connect your favourite email account to the separate Email button) it kept returning to the email from my girlfriend that I had opened as the first one that morning. This could be embarrassing, but I battled to get away from this email. This issue of ‘dismissing’ things you have finished with is one of the most frustrating when using the iPad. The next issue is attaching things. I am used to creating a document or an image and then attaching it to an email. You do this a lot with an iPad as you need to get the item off that machine on to one where you can work on it more with formatting, etc. However, you find no matter what email account you use, and I went into a Hotmail one, a gmail one and an Outlook one (through web access not a client) that I could not attach anything. With the iPad you have to do it in reverse, i.e. go to the item whether an image or a document and click something like ‘Share’ or ‘email’ and then it goes back to the email account you are using and attaches the item. I suppose being so used to different ways makes it harder to adapt.

I find it funny that when Sir Clive Sinclair produced the home computers, the ZX80 and ZX81 unsurprisingly in 1980 and 1981, people criticised the touch keyboards that they used. By the time he produced the ZX Spectrum in 1982 he was compelled to include rubbery keys. Subsequently all home computers have had ‘fully travelling’ keyboards which move and clunk like typewriters used to. Now, however, with the iPad I find myself slapping my fingers across the screen hitting letters (and additional one with my cuff links; for these sort of devices wearing a teeshirt and not having flabby wrists is advised) as if I was back in 1980 or working a till at MacDonalds. Apple emphasises how easy it is to use such approaches and no-one seems to be complaining. Though the IT man who helped me connect to the wi-fi said he always used a Bluetooth keyboard instead, but in some ways I guess that reduces the portability and increases the danger of finding you have left either your keyboard or your I-Pad somewhere different from where you are with the other. The other thing is that the face of the iPad looks like the panel of an arcade game at a fun fair in the 1980s, covered with greasy finger marks. I am sure some enterprising crime writer is producing a story in which fingerprints and even DNA are taken from an abandoned or dropped iPad.

Anyway, this was what I discovered in the first four days of being assigned an iPad. I guess if you are in a company more set up for using them, especially connecting them to the company’s wi-fi and especially if you have an allocated budget to go with the device, then it will be easier. The lightness (1.4 Kg) and the decent battery life (10 hours) means that it is a portable device. My colleague sees the main function being to keep him entertained while travelling on the train and it is decent for this though he will probably need a sim card for it. For office work, the main thing it has replaced is my paper notepad that I used to take to meetings. If I can scrape together $9.99 then I may invest in Pages; but this month I was down to £32 with three weeks left until pay day. Years of fixed-term contracts, three mortgages and rising fuel prices mean I am dependent on left over sandwiches from meetings to make up my evening meal at present, so not really in a position to splash out on apps.

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