Tools We Use: iPad Edition

Fake Steve Jobs (AKA Daniel Lyons) wrote a letter to “The People of the World” saying “You’re welcome.”

Spiritually speaking, we are living in the Great Depression, and you are waiting in line for sustenance. We, all of us, are experiencing the world that Deleuze and Guattari described so presciently in Capitalism and Schizophrenia… The truth is, all over the world, across every culture, there exists a sense of yearning. A kind of malaise. An emptiness. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss: There is a hole in your soul. That is what we’re addressing at Apple. That is the hole we aim to fill. Sadly, as you may have begun to suspect, that hole can never really be filled. The truth is that modernity, the condition of living in our modern world, has inflicted terrible wounds on your inner self. These wounds can never be healed. They can only be treated. At best we provide palliative care. Not a cure. Because, my dear fellow human beings, there is no cure for what ails you. The products we create provide only temporary relief. Their magic eventually wears off.

So, having received my iPad via special delivery from a friend who was attending a conference in Denver last week, I thought I’d write about it before the magic wore off. I should warn you that I am an über-apple-fanboï. Sure, there are a lot of things I hate, like DRM and iTunes, but I back in 1984 I used to go to Macy’s after school to play with their demo original Macintosh. I even owned an original Newton. So if you don’t think Steve Jobs is Willy Wonka, you might wish to take what follows with a grain of salt. But I like to think my early love of Apple came from an intimate knowledge of the alternatives. I’d learned how to program BASIC on a computer so big it was in a separate room, connected by cable to a glowing green terminal. I’d used TRS-80s at school with floppy discs that were actually floppy. I’d programmed robots using the LOGO programming language on an Apple II. My family had one of the first PCs, the DEC Professional. So when I saw the Apple Lisa at a computer trade show in middle school, I knew I was seeing something different, something which would change how I used computers. When the Macintosh came out I was ready for it.

I feel I can say the same thing for the iPad. A lot of people are joking about how it is the electronic device that nobody needs. But I need it. And I think you might too. Very simply, I’ve been waiting a long time to get rid of paper. I started scanning all my papers to PDF and throwing out the originals long before there was Google Scholar or AnthroSource. Sort of stupid, actually, because now it is easier to download those files from the internet. But either way once you have the PDF it is a pain to read it on your computer monitor. But I also hate printing them out. For one thing, if I print it out and mark it up, then I have to either re-scan it or keep the original around in order to keep my notes. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of having everything in electronic form. I also hate wasting paper every time I print out the same article again for class to just review it before I give a lecture. So I really, really, wanted an end-to-end electronic solution for handling PDF files.

What are the options? Before the iPad there was the Kindle DX, the iRex illiad, and a handful of other e-ink readers which had big enough displays to properly display a PDF file. However, the reviews I read of these products all suggested that the experience of reading a PDF was less than ideal, and the tools for annotation were even more lacking. Not to mention the fact that they were all pretty expensive. Making do with what was at hand, I actually managed to read a few PDF files on my iPhone using the excellent Good Reader app. But even with all the thoughtful features designed to make the experience of reading a PDF on a small display less painful, it was still pretty painful. And there were no tools for annotation. But then the iPad came out…

The iPad is competitively priced when compared with large format e-Ink readers, and offers much, much more than just reading. You can watch movies, surf the web, even play games. In fact, it can do so much that a lot of the reviews focused on the iPad’s limitations as a netbook. But I never saw it that way, from the beginning I thought of it as a superior eBook reader. I’ve already read at least a dozen novels on my iPhone, and so I knew that I didn’t mind reading text on a decent, high quality LCD screen. And with the larger display I knew that PDF files wouldn’t be a problem.

After a couple of days playing around, I’m glad to say that I was right! Although Good Reader is working on annotation features, it still doesn’t have them. Till then, however, there is a perfectly good alternative in iAnnotate PDF. And the makers of Sente have said they will be making an iPad version of their bibliography management software which will hopefully have some PDF annotation features as well. With Good Reader and iAnnotate I can download a PDF from JSTOR directly to my iPad, annotate it, and then upload it to my desktop computer. (iAnnotate doesn’t support downloading from URls like Good Reader, hence the need to use both applications.) I hope I never have to print out a PDF again.

There is no doubt in my mind that the iPhone, and the inevitable slew of similar devices running other operating systems, will transform the publication industry. Perhaps it will even convince people to eventually stop using PDFs, which were created with the idea of creating a printed product. My absolutely favorite way to read anything these days is with Instapaper Pro. Like Instapaper, the best reading apps on the iPhone understand that what we want is not to duplicate the experience of the printed text, but to improve upon it. If you click on some of the links in this paragraph you’ll see why in some important ways Apple still doesn’t “get it.” One way they don’t get it is metadata. Laura Miller had a good article about just this issue: “I could speculate on the reasons behind Apple’s choices, but I won’t here; it’s simple enough to browse on Amazon for titles to read on the Kindle for iPad app instead.” Which is exactly what I did. There is a lot of complaining about how the iPad is a closed platform (but see this), and there is some truth to it; however, Apple gives you the tools to read anything you want that is in HTML, PDF, or ePub form (not to mention CBR). It is only Kindle and iBooks which are wrapped up in DRM, but even there you can install competing book readers if you want (something you can’t do on the Kindle device).

I haven’t talked about the iPad as a device for creating texts, because I haven’t tried to do that yet. It does support bluetooth keyboards, and there is a version of Apple’s Pages application for writing texts, but I imagine I’ll mostly be using it for reading, watching films, and perhaps writing short e-mails on the road. As a frequent long-haul flyer, I love that it gets over ten hours of battery life, but if you are looking for something to bring with you to the field you might be better off with a proper netbook. The iPad solves a very specific problem in my workflow and is a good complement to a desktop computer for people who primarily work at home. But if you are often writing papers at the library or on the road, you will probably want something else. That’s what laptops and netbooks are for…

14 thoughts on “Tools We Use: iPad Edition

  1. I keep thinking that an iPad + Pages would make me no longer really need to carry a laptop around. I could have a Mac Mini and an iPad and i’d be set. The one thing that I worry about is typing, but I hear it’s not really an issue.

    Flights, of course, being another big plus.

    Good to see someone else who remembers the early days of Apple before it was all glam and hipster.

  2. Thanks Kerim; I was aching for someone to review PDF capabilities for the device. Are you on the Pleco beta for the iPad ? Any thoughts (assuming you’re allowed to discuss it) if you do ?

    Do you think the iPad would benefit from a “catch all” app like Yojimbo (or the many other alternatives), or do you think Instapaper + GoodReader + a separate notes app suffices ?

    Another huge question: do you see the device being an effective tool for ethnographic field work ?

    I just played with an iPad for the first time; a M.D. friend of mine is busy programming diagnostic software for use in hospitals / first responders, and he’s incredibly excited at the prospects of a tablet like device actually being ‘effectively used’ (many older Doctors have been turned off by tablets to date), most especially by paramedics.

  3. @Panamajack I use Pleco for the iPhone but I’m not beta testing the iPad version. I love Pleco though, and I’m sure the iPad version will be equally invaluable for me. Regarding “catch all” apps – I use Evernote which already has an iPad version. I have a pro account so I can store PDFs and other documents in Evernote. I quite like Evernote, but I find better for storage and search than for writing notes. For that I use Simplenote which still doesn’t have an iPad version. (Non-iPad apps run on the iPad, but are annoyingly pixelated if you run them at full screen resolution.)

    Like I said above, I would still recommend a laptop for fieldwork. Although it really depends on where the field is. The iPad is fine for simple note-taking (especially with a bluetooth keyboard), and it can record voice fairly well, but without access to a good wifi connection the device will be quite limited. I don’t know about doctors. The iPad is too heavy to hold for a long time with only one hand. I think doctors might prefer the iPhone…

  4. Simplenote just updated their app with an iPad native UI apparently. I do like the iPhone version.

    Asked my Doctor friend and he said the iPhone’s great but just not quite enough screen real estate for what they have in mind. The iPad will be used like a portable medical clip board, so you won’t be holding it constantly.

  5. I was recently thinking about the same issues with shifting from paper, and started looking at ereaders as well. The iPad was out for me from the start because I simply can’t read on an LCD – the backlight hurts my eyes too much. So I ended up getting a Sony PRS-600 with a touchscreen.
    I have to say, I’m very happy with it. The reading experience is great – unless the PDF was scanned with two pages on one; it’s a little cumbersome then, but manageable. Annotating is easy enough with the touch screen, though I don’t think annotations will transfer off the device. There’s no wifi, but I get all of my documents off the internet anyway – amazon, barnes and noble, et al wouldn’t have the things I read. It comes with Sony’s Ebook Reader software, but it doesn’t allow me to edit metadata so I use Calibre, which is free and open source. It doesn’t do as much as an iPad, but I’m not really a fan of carrying the internet around in my pocket anyway – I value unconnected time. I won’t say anything against the iPad (thought the DRM issues concern me a lot); I just wanted to point out that the ereader is still a viable option.

  6. I find using my fingers works quite well given the tools within iAnnotate. I’m not super crazy about the GUI, but it works well enough. You can buy a stylus which will work on an iPhone/iPad screen if you like.

  7. Do you guys ever make your own e-books?

    Scenario: I am going away for 2 years for fieldwork to (shockingly) a place where there are few anthropology books, and though I want to have access to certain books, space in my suitcase is limited (and budget for shipping is non-existent).

    I’ve looked into amazon and other ebooks sites, but they don’t really seem to sell the books that I would like to buy (perhaps because a lot of them are older?).

    Any ideas?

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