The iPad's 10 years old this month, and so there's a lot of retrospectives going around.
Most of them express a disappointment with it, a sense that an opportunity has been missed.
And they're right. From UI design flaws to bad pricing, the story of the iPad is one of exciting possibilities constantly frustrated.
For my part, I've owned three different iPads over the past few years. I've ended up returning or selling them all, and going back to the Mac.
My current iPad Pro is the one I've had the longest. It's made it a full year as my primary computing device, for writing, reading, and gaming.
But here I am, back typing on my 2014 Mac Mini instead of writing this on the iPad.
So what's making me switch back?
It's All About the Text
For a machine that should be awesome to use as a writer -- it's super-portable, it's always connected to the internet via cell service, it lets me actually touch the words on the screen -- the iPad is very, very frustrating in practice.
Most of that is due to the sheer incompetence of the UI when it comes to manipulating text.
Want to move a paragraph around? Good luck:
- You'll need to tap the screen once, to activate "entering text" mode on whatever application you're in.
- Then you'll need to double-tap, to indicate you want to select some text.
- Then you'll need to move two tiny targets around to select the text you want. Tap anywhere else than exactly on those targets, and you'll leave select-text mode entirely, and have to start over.
- If you should accidentally need to select text that's slightly off-screen, more fool you: once your dragging finger hits the screen edge, it'll start scrolling like crazy, selecting all the text you find. And getting back to the start means lifting your finger off the select area and scrolling, which will kick you out of select-text mode. You've got to start over now.
- Even if all your desired text is on one screen, those tiny endpoints you’re moving can start to stutter and skip around at the end of a paragraph or section of text. You know, exactly where you’d probably want to place them.
- If you should somehow succeed in getting just the text you want selected, you need to move it. Press on the text, but not too firmly, to watch it lift off the screen. Then drag it to where you need it. Try not to need to drag it off the edge of the screen, or you'll get the same coked-out scrolling from before. And don't bother looking for a prompt or anything to indicate where this text is going to end up. Apple expects you to use the Force, young padawan.
That's right. A process that is click-drag-Cmd-c-Cmd-v on a Mac is a multi-step game of Operation that you'll always lose on an iPad.
So I’ve gotten in the habit of writing first drafts on the iPad, and editing them on the Mac.
But that assumes iCloud is working.
iCloud: Still Crazy After All These Years
Most of the writing apps on the iPad have switched to using iCloud to sync preferences, folder structure, tags, and the documents themselves.
Makes sense, right? Use the syncing service underlying the OS.
Except it doesn't always work.
I've had docs vanish. I've popped into my iPhone to type a few notes in an existing doc, then waited days for those same notes to show up in the document on my iPad.
iOS 13 made all this worse, by crippling background refresh. So instead of being able to look down and see how many Todos I have left to do, or Slack messages waiting for me, I have to open all these applications, one by one, to get them to refresh. It's like the smartphone dark ages.
Since my calendars, email, etc aren't getting refreshed correctly, my writing doesn't either. I tell you, nothing makes me want to throw my iPad across the room more than knowing a freaking block of text is there in a doc because I can see it on my iPhone but it hasn't shown up in the iPad yet. Because not only do I not have those words there to work with, but if I make the assumption that I can continue editing the thing before sync completes, I'm going to lose the other words entirely.
But there's Dropbox, you say. Yes, Dropbox works. But Dropbox is slow, the interface is clunky, and their stance on privacy is...not great.
You Still Can't Code On It
I'm a multi-class programmer/writer. I write words and code. I need a machine that does both.
The iPad has been deliberately crippled, though, so no matter how fast they make the chip inside, it'll never be able to do the most basic task of computing: Allow the user to customize it.
You can't write iOS software on an iPad. You can't write a little python script and watch it execute. You can't learn a new programming language on an iPad by writing code and seeing what it does to the machine.
You can't even get a proper terminal on it.
You're locked out of it, forever.
And that's the ultimate tragedy of the iPad. Not that the UI was broken, or the original Apple pricing for its software was wrong.
It's that its users aren't allowed to take it to its full potential.
Because that's what it needs. Users have to be able to fix the things that are broken, in whatever creative way they see fit, for a piece of technology to become revolutionary.
And they have to be able to do it right there, on the device, without having to invest thousands of dollars in a different machine that can run the bloated thing XCode has become.
It's that barrier, that huge NO painted across the operating system, that ultimately frustrates me about the iPad. Because it doesn't have to be there. It was designed and built deliberately, to keep us out.