iPad Epigenetics: Changing Your Office Work Flow For Mobile Access

I wrote about the difficulties I had in using my iPad for office applications shortly after I bought the device. Since then, changes to applications, the operating system, and perhaps changes in my attitude have resulted in me being able to use the iPad a bit more effectively. During a recent short trip for work I took the plunge and traveled without my laptop. The ‘experiment’ was a success (albeit frustrating at times) and I detail below the issues I faced and solutions I have found, some with shortcomings.

  1. No native file system. It is sometimes difficult to transfer files between programs due to the lack of a file system. While creating a PowerPoint presentation, I found that I needed to use a combination of editing applications (CloudOn and QuickOffice) because neither have all of the features of the desktop application.
    Solution: In this case, the only way I’ve found to go between applications is to store the file on DropBox (Google Drive may work as well). With both cloud-based applications, you are able to mark files as available for offline use. However, when working offline, you can only edit the file in one application.
  2. Lack of presentation sophistication. I have yet to find iPad presentation software which has all of the options of desktop applications such as PowerPoint. Mac fans are always trying to get me to try Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, but at $30 it is a hard sell when I’m not sure about switching to the Mac platform. Adding images, hyperlinks, animations, and comments are all lacking or difficult with the PowerPoint apps I’ve tried. Without these options, the quality of the presentation can be affected as well as the use of the document as a resource for the audience (e.g., hyperlinks).
    Solution: Because of these issues, as well as those noted in #1, I suggest you finish the bulk of the presentation before you leave on the trip. Choose the template and add the ‘problem’ items as needed to blank slides. We like to provide all hyperlinks from our talk on a bookmark sharing site such as Delicious or Diigo with a unique tag so that audience members can access.
  3. Mail and contacts. I often rely on my desktop mail application to search for information and I keep at least two years of email archived. I haven’t merged my contacts and I often rely on my desktop email’s autocomplete function to address emails. Sometimes I’ve gotten stuck needing an email address or other information while on my iPad.
    Solution: I put the question out on Twitter and someone suggested I increase the number of emails the iPad stores. I thought I had it maxed out at 200, but it turns out you can now download 1000. I did this and I also make sure to keep copies of all emails on my ISP for web access when needed. I should also look into ways of conflating contacts. Any suggestions?
  4. Files. Of course, there is often a need to access random files that I have stored on my computer. For this last trip, a client needed me to send a tax form.
    Solution: I’ve migrated everything to DropBox. It wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped, for example I still haven’t figured out how to move ‘special’ Windows folders such as ‘My Documents’ but overall I’m happy with the decision. As noted in #1, you can mark files for offline access–just add them to ‘favorites’ by selecting the star at the top of a document.
  5. No USB access. Not being a Mac aficionado, perhaps I’m not in the know and I don’t have all the accessories, nor do I want to carry them around when the whole point is simplicity. USB access becomes important in a few cases, and one is having a copy of your presentation file when you’re asked to use another computer or if there are issues with having the right cable (accessories, again!). On my recent trip I gave a presentation and I was very paranoid about not having this backup.
    Solution: Email the file to the presenters or add it to DropBox or Google docs. Show up early with password in hand in case you have to download the file. In my case, to make things as simple as possible, I uploaded the presentation to comprendia.com. I used GoodReader to FTP files quite easily. Of course, often you’ll need to circumvent the lack of a file system by using DropBox to move the file into GoodReader. FTP access will also come in handy when I need to upload files for web edits. Speaking of file uploads, note that the limited features of iPad browsers will also prohibit you from doing seemingly simple things like posting to Craigslist, as you can’t upload photos.
  6. Limited multitasking. On the plane I wanted to think through my talk by typing notes for each slide. Because I didn’t have a printout (remember, the idea is to simplify!) this meant I’d need to look at the presentation on the iPad while typing notes. Of course, this is easy on a laptop, but how would I do it on the iPad with only one window?
    Solution: I found an app called Side by Side which will display a PDF in one pane and notes in another. Of course, this would mean saving the PowerPoint as a PDF on DropBox while online, so that it can be opened using Side by Side. Then, the notes would need to be emailed to yourself or saved in DropBox.

Perhaps someday soon I will laugh about the lengths I am going to so that I can travel light and have instantaneous access to my ‘office lite’ device. While the trip was a success, the machinations I needed to go through to get things to work are part of the reason I’m not switching to the Mac platform in other areas. I’m writing this post on a new Dell PC. In short, I continue to view Mac products as ones that push the envelope, but PCs are what I need to get work done consistently. The lack of a file system on the iPad is one ‘feature’ that really gets to me–if the outside vendor DropBox can figure out a way to serve this function, why can’t Apple provide this innovation to us in an iOS update? I am happy however that it forced me to migrate to storing files in the cloud for easier access and backup security.

The ‘closed vs open’ architecture differences between Macs and PCs keeps rearing its head. Since I’m an advocate of open development, it makes me more apt to choose a PC and Android phone. I tested an iPhone during the maps debacle, also emphasizing to me Apple’s need for a closed system which resulted in a clearly inferior product. Three times in the past six months I’ve seen people struggle to work through hardware issues while giving a presentation from a Mac. Speaking is stressful enough and I really don’t want to be the person standing there waiting in front of an audience. Also, when considering more easy mobile access, it makes sense to go with the more open platform. I’m sure there is a place for both innovative and widely accepted platforms in the market. Until someone proves to me that I need to be a ‘work flow innovator’ on a daily basis, I’ll stick with PCs, however uncool that makes me.

Image for iPad background courtesy Flickr user AJC1

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  1. In a word the solution to most of your issues is the cloud. Dropbox is mentioned here, as well as Google Drive. Add to that cloud email, such as gmail (we use branded gmail at work, and I use the generic product privately) and cloud syncing of contacts. That should cover most of your pain points.
    Throw in Keynote for slides (you’ll never look back) and you have it all.

    The fact that iOS has no filesystem is a really good thing and should have been standard ever since DOS went the way of the Dodo. If only Apple eased up a bit on cross-app data access and we’d be fine.

  2. Hi Christoph, nice to hear from you!

    Interesting comments, especially with regards to the desktop–the only time it really hinders me to use Dropbox is when I’m on a plane. For some business travelers, this time is vital to finish up work on a trip.

    I looked at your company, it’s impressive and I’m glad Drupal is treating you well!

  3. I totally agree with you that the native iPad apps are far from the functionality of PowerPoint. Keynote is good, I’ve tried it, but it’s not PowerPoint.

    That’s where we’ve seen an opportunity to develop an app that will let you transfer your ppts to the iPad easily, and present with it along with built in presentation tools such as laser pointer, whiteboard and speaker notes. The app is called Presentation Note and I’ll send you a promo code if you’re interested to try it.


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