05/4/12

Gone to the Dark Side


iPadYes, I have been recruited to the Dark Side: I have an Apple iPad now. Well, it’s a loaner, but they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers if they want it back. Unless they offer me a 64GB model in exchange…

And, yes, I have been reduced to the fatuous abuse of capitalization in its name: iPad, rather than a more proper Ipad. You know, you can’t even type Ipad on the device because the auto-correct feature will change it into iPad every time. Sigh. Auto-correct is the reason there are still exorcists in business these days.

Some of the features of the iPad are cool and definitely a “wow” factor. Some are remarkably opaque or clumsy. Ever try to copy files to an iPad from a PC? No simple click and drag there. You need to follow some Byzantine process through third-party transfer programs or through iTunes (which requires numerous settings changes on your PC and iPad) or via a cloud service. I can easily copy files to and from every other USB deviceI own except the iPad. It won’t accept files. It’s got to be the least useful USB device on the planet.

And how the hell do I turn off auto-correct? Doesn’t come with a manual: I need to download it online. I haven’t figured out how to store the PDF manual on the iPad, either, and from what I can tell, that’s impossible. That means it’s only available when I’m connected to the Net.

Even the manual doesn’t tell me how to save itself on my iPad for offline reading. I’ve had to put everything on Skydrive for the moment until I figure out how to save files. But Skydrive only works when you’re connected, so it’s useless without the Net.

iPad cartoonFor a 25-year veteran of PC use, this is awkward, having to unlearn so much. However, I did have an original Mac in the late 80s, and played heavily with an Apple ][ in the mid-80s, so I’m not entirely a virgin to Apple products.

Unlike the Mac, the iPad comes with a scarcity of apps or programs, and you need to spend several hours hunting for files on the App Store if you want to add some zing to the device. It has a handful of basic apps installed, and it’s usable out of the box for music playing, or video watching, and with some setup you can browse the Web and read/send email (assuming you can recall all your user names and passwords for your services and wireless access).

You will really need more to turn the iPad from a high tech toy into something seriously useful. First thing I recommend (aside from the free CBC Radio and Tunedin Radio apps…) is the trilogy of Apple iWorks programs: Pages, Numbers and Presentations. These are reasonably serious productivity tools that allow your iPad to do real work. Price is modest at $10 each. Compare that to the MS Office suite for Windows at $200 or more! (I’m told there is an MS Office suite for the iPad but I’ve never seen it in the app store, so I went with the Apple package instead.)

And you need a real keyboard because as easy as the virtual keyboard is, it’s nowhere near as efficient as a real one when you want to type something longer than your username.

No, the iPad is hard pressed to be a serious business/productivity tool out of the box, but it is a good in-between tool when your laptop or desktop isn’t available.

The iTunes store browser is so stupid it makes Windows 3.1 seem like the work of geniuses. It reverts to the same display every time, even when you just go back a screen: iPad and iPhone apps are displayed no matter how many times I specify iPad only, and any categories like rating or price are wiped out, and need to be reset with every tap of the back arrow. When you select an app to install, it closes the store and loads the app. You have to re-open the store to look for more apps. Sigh. What genius designed this mess?

And don’t get me started on the ugly store screen display… designed for children or illiterates. Why isn’t there a straight text listing? I’m okay with the simple tap & swipe interface, but there really needs to be more options for power users. This November marks my 35th year as a micro-computer owner-user-hacker (Thanks for asking…), so it’s hard for me to really appreciate dumbed-down devices.

ipad cartoonWhile many of the apps are brilliantly executed and beautifully presented, there’s no way to identify which free apps are stripped down versions of for-pay programs, full of ads, clumsy and butt ugly. I don’t mind paying for something but to me advertising something as “free” simply to trick people into buying other services or features is vile. Warn users up front if it’s feature-limited and we need to shell out money to make it work or to get the extras.

The information screens on many store items are woefully inadequate this way. It’s easy to get lured into installing something that’s just a hook to get you to buy more. You have to install an app, then test it, to discover its worth or usefulness. I’ve deleted almost as many free apps as I’ve installed so far. It really discourages me from paying for apps if the quality is to be measured by what the app store tells you.

An iPad is nonetheless a nifty little device, but compared to a full-blown PC it’s pretty limited. So why then, does a techie like me have one? Because I’m the tester, the guinea pig, for council use. And despite my qualms about the store, I’m giving it thumbs up because it’s the perfect device for councillors.

This year the council laptops turn five years old; ancient as far as technology goes. They’re scheduled for replacement. We’ve already upgraded the OS from Windows XP to 7. Some have required new parts. Their screens are small and old, compared to today’s machines.

The cost of new laptops is in the range of $1,200-$1,500 each. Each one requires a licensed operating system (Windows 7 soon to be 8), plus licensed versions of MS Office, all renewed annually. Installation and setup time for each machine means considerable staff time and effort. Plus councillors also need cases, a mouse, cords, cables and so on. Batteries wear out, mice break – things need to be replaced fairly often.

Life cycle cost of a laptop over a term of council, including licence renewals, is probably over $2,500 (not including taxes). It’s a lot more if staff tech support and maintenance time is added in. Town computers were originally on a three-year replacement cycle. That grew to four (to save taxpayers money), but right now the council laptops are running about 4.5 years and some are creaking along. So the iPads make sense from a financial point of view.

Given that most councillors use their laptops for simply checking email, browsing the Web and reading Word or PDF documents, it’s like giving Ferraris to old ladies to go shopping once a week. Why do councillors need PowerPoint when they only view presentations, not create them? Why Excel when no one (except me) will create spreadsheets? Why have USB ports, DVD drives and so on when most council members don’t need them?

This is why I use my own laptop rather than a town-owned one: it’s crammed full of my own programs, data and work.

Voila the iPad. It does email, browsing, displays documents without needing a single additional app. Add a case and keyboard, some basic apps, and the life cycle cost for a council term is still under $1,000, taxes included.

Not to mention the iPad is more portable, easy to carry to conventions and events, and is so simple even a municipal councillor can operate it. Tech support time is considerably lower.

Well, it may take a training session to explain some of the nuances… it isn’t THAT simple. The single button and tap-for-functions system is actually somewhat of a disadvantage when you’re coming from a feature-rich computer-and-mouse environment. But for the majority, it’s a great little device that solves our technology needs at a lower price than a PC laptop.

I figure I’ll need the 64GB version if I’m going to load it with all the apps I need…