Monday, May 10, 2010

No, I Did Not Write This on my iPad

First the Obvious

Flash doesn't work, who cares. At Stanford Med we had a "No Flash" rule (much to the relief of the many underpowered older workstations). In general the web browser is no Firefox. Then again a lot of web sites aren't great either. You can turn on the browser debug and watch the Javascript errors fly by, especially the newsy sites with lots of ads. Some sites still think it's a phone and direct you to a mobile version that looks ridiculous on a 10" screen. I suspect a lot of that will improve over time. I know I can live without Flash, but the other day I heard about this roundtable discussion on the subject of the iPad starring one of my favorite technology journalists. I went to the site to watch and it said "Flash required." D'oh!

The second most obvious, this is a device for content consumption, not creation. I can type upwards of 100wpm on a good day, but on this touch screen I hunt and peck. Or I hold it with both hands and try to type with my thumbs. Gestures are excellent for navigating content. To write a blog post I need a keyboard.

As far as battery life, I haven't a clue. It lasts so long I forget to plug it in. I haven't put it down long enough to fully charge it, or used it long enough to fully drain it, so that should tell you something.

The Less Obvious
I don't believe in the "game changer" but I do believe in devices that help you make the plays. For me the real value of the iPad is technical documentation, and the first apps I looked for are document reading and annotation. Study is not a new thing, it's just easier if I can get up from my computer. The more time I spend reading these things the better. Since buying the iPad I have a much better understanding of the JBoss application server and emerging HIT standards (my employer will be happy to know).

Browsing the apps, it's pretty clear the development shops haven't had a lot of time with the iPad. Its UI capabilities are far from fully realized, and many apps are rushed and somewhat buggy. I can hardly blame them, trying to build on a simulator in a few weeks, the actual device sight unseen. Until you hold the thing and use a good touch gesture interface, it's hard to know what it can do, or even what it should do.

Another thing I noticed is that Apps which crash, tend to crash when the orientation changes. If you QA iPad apps for a living, do us all a favor and spin the thing around. A lot. See what happens to your video pointers in the middle of complex operations.

The apps that are well done, are really really neat.

Apps I Like
There are a few I like so far:

Zillow. If you want to see a demonstration of good use of the iPad UI elements, install this app. If you are building your own iPad app, study this one first. It has a full gesture map, listings you can change by touching the map, and a photo gallery in the corner. The real trick is, you can navigate in each of the screen elements independently, or together.

NPR is another good example of independent but related components. Each news category has its own scrollable library. I like it.

Kindle, no kidding. They've had more practice with this form factor than anyone. It's free, and my already-purchased kindle books moved right over.

iAnnotate. I have a lot of issue with the UI, especially the navigation. Pan and zoom tend to blank the screen so often it might actually stop being annoying, except it never stops being annoying. The table of contents widget is downright unusable. There is no forward and back button, no bread crumbs. Loading documents into it is a pain. In general it desperately needs a Version 2.0. That said, it's the app I'm using most. Simply because it lets me read and annotate PDFs.

iTeleport is so far the most usable remote desktop app I've tried on the iPad. It works well enough to do simple things which is all I really want to do without a keyboard anyway.

WolframAlpha on the iPhone is possibly the best pocket calculator ever, and I have high hopes for the iPad version. Right now, though, it's just a big iPhone app. Get it anyway.

GoodReader is a decent PDF reader. Smoother pan and zoom but the iPad needs a tree element for the table of contents like Adobe Acrobat, and not that iPhone multi-menu navigator. Ick.

I'm tempted to buy Omnigraffle, and I'm sure one of these days I'll need to draw a diagram, maybe a system diagram, a workflow, high level software design, or... okay I just bought it.

Pandora and are great, but useless without multitasking. Next fall I'll be able to use them with OS 4 if the rumors are correct. Until then it's just silly to turn on the radio and not be able to do anything else.

What I Really Want
The iPhone remote could do so much more on an iPad. I'm sure Apple is porting it but there's more. I want to run Internet radio, pandora,, and iTunes on my home computer and be able to change the channel without getting up from the morning paper (also on the iPad). So far there's not an app for that.

Guest mode. Has anybody else asked for this? I would like to be able to lock certain applications without locking the whole thing. People come over, want to use it, whatever, especially if it's the sound system remote. Is there some reason why I can't put a passcode on email, facebook, twitter, and other personal apps? Then everyone can browse the web, check the stars, or calculate differential equations, and I don't have to worry about people reading my email.

That's it. The apps are obviously 1.0, the multi-touch interface has yet to be fully exploited, and I'll probably be filing a lot of bug reports with some of these software makers.

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