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June, 2010

A Consultants Thoughts After a Month of Using the iPad

Sorry for the super long post.  This ended up being a lot longer than i expected

Given that I’m an Apple geek who loves gadgets and new technology it goes without saying that I picked up an iPad on launch day back in April. There is no shortage of reviews and demos of the iPad online these days. Like most product and tech reviews I like to use them in the field for a while before passing judgement.  It’s easy to like something when it’s new but that can quickly fade once you’ve had real experience.  Most people by now have probably seen an iPad. For the first couple of weeks I joked that if you went anywhere with an iPad add 10 minutes to your schedule for show and tell.  Lately I have noticed that people no longer ask me for a look at the iPad to play with but are more interested in what my opinion is after using it for a hike.

A large percentage of my time is spent meeting with customers and creating proposals. When I do these meetings I usually take notes that I can refer back to later. Unfortunately, my handwriting is atrocious. This precludes me from using a normal paper notebook so I usually grab my MacBook Pro and trusty Evernote. The down side to this arrangement is that I often end up with a screen between me and the person I am talking to which makes it a bit more impersonal. The up side is that my ores are indexed, searchable, and replicated among the many devices that Evernote supports.

Off and on over the last several years I have used other TabletPC type products made by IBM and HP. i found these devices way too restrictive and more trouble than they were worth. They used special pens, handwriting recognition (remember, mine is really bad), and usually overlaid a thin but resource heavy touch GUI over a normal Windows XP or Vista operating system. It just wasn’t smooth and elegant, making it inefficient.  On top of interface problems normally the hardware was low performance in an effort to extend battery life but that runtime still fell short of what a normal worker needed.

Enter the iPad from Apple.  Apple took a different approach with their vision. It is a purpose built device with a purpose built operating system.  The benefits of that are that it’s a very well thought out user experience. The interface flows well and is extremely intuitive. It does not feel like it was built by putting existing products in to a new offering but instead came about with purpose.  The down side of this arrangement is that while other Windows-based offerings give you, basically, a full computing environment the iPad does not. You can only run iPad apps, including all iPhone apps. Is that a problem?  It depends on your use case. This does limit the iPad from being a full notebook replacement. But, if your needs are met by the offerings available in the iTunes app store then it makes for a wonderful device.

The use cases for a device like the iPad are varied. My wife uses hers for eBooks, general surfing, email, and about anything other than a few apps she needs for work.  For many users it really shows the compelling push to appliance computing.  The Ipad doesn’t feel like a computer. It isn’t managed like a computer. You pick it up and it is instantly on and ready to work.  The touch-based interface is extremely intuitive and natural. Our 2-year old can use the iPad. These ideas aren’t unique to the iPad, or at least I expect they wont be for long. It is a new age in general computing. The full PC, contrary to some claims I’ve seen others make, isn’t dying, but it will be on the decline.

My iPad has replaced my home notebook almost completely and my work notebook by about 60%. In fact, I plan to sell my home MacBook Pro very soon. Unlike my notebook and its associated bag, the iPad is no bigger than a thin legal pad and you find yourself taking it almost anywhere. For most meetings the notebook now stays at home or in the car. Another benefit of this device is the battery life. Apple was not exaggerating when they claimed 10 hours of actual use. I routinely get more than that which makes it feel like it runs forever. I charge mine at night and it just runs all day with no worries about batteries, AC adapters, or plugging in to charge. I’ve done several all day meetings and conferences while using the iPad constantly and it’s great. I plan to leave my notebook in the hotel room every day at Cisco Live and just carry the iPad.

Usability overall is excellent. The first question I often get is about the keyboard. On a physical keyboard I’m a very fast typist at around 140 to 150 WPM. after a few days of use on the iPad I am probably 50% to 60% of that with the on-screen keyboard. In fact, I am writing this on my iPad while on a flight to Boston in a coach seat. Doing that with a notebook makes for cramped seating.

The next set of questions I often get is about which applications I use. In this area I’ll make a few recommendations but remember that this is coming from a technical consultant that meets with customers, takes notes, does whiteboards, diagrams, and gives presentations.

Evernote is my go-to application for notes. It’s a solid tool that runs on almost everything. I have the desktop client on my MacBook Pro and iMac, mobile client on my iPhone, and iPad version on, well, the iPad.  Notes get synced to the cloud automatically and are available anywhere. The iPad version of Evernote also lets you record audio, which is useful in some meetings. It currently does not align the audio with the text notes that you take, but I expect to see that in a new version. The base Evernote account is free and works well. The paid account is very reasonably priced but you may find you do not need it. I have been using a free account for almost two years but am about to finally move to paid.

Often I will do quick whiteboard diagrams. I’m not saying the iPad replaces a true whiteboard but often I’ll just want to sketch something small out for a customer during a meeting. The simplest, yet powerful, tool I’ve found for that is Penultimate. It’s inexpensive at only a few dollars but lets you do quick sketches easily. Writing with your finger on the iPad works far better than you’d think and there are 3rd party stylus if you want one.

Visio diagrams are a staple of the work that we do when presenting new proposals to customers. While I have not completely gotten rid of Visio for a lot of my work I use OmniGraffle as often as I can. I find it to be faster and more efficient than Visio. Luckily, the guys at Omni saw the potential in the iPad early and had OmniGraffle for iPad available at launch. Like the desktop version the mobile version can import Visio diagrams as well as stencils. I don’t recommend it for detailed diagrams but it can be useful during meetings or while mobile.

Recommending a PDF reader may seem odd as the iPad has one included, but GoodReader has a lot of really handy features and it’s cheap. GoodReader supports many different file types for display other than just PDF and I use it to organize my quotes, proposals, white papers, tech notes, study guides, and non-DRM eBooks. It integrates with several other cloud services such as Drop Box, as well.

It goes without saying that any good consultant probably has the Wyse Pocket Cloud and Citrix Receiver clients on their iPad. With these you can remote back in to the office to work on something or use them for some really interesting demos at a customer site.

Finally, there are some other good content creation applications. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote from Apple are usable but don’t import Microsoft Office documents as well as I would have hoped. I expect that to get better but for creating new documents they work very well.  I’ve just started looking at Documents to Go as a better reader.

The bottom line is that a device like the iPad can be a lighter, more efficient tool than notebook for many people. Several other Varrow technical consultants, account executives, and engineers have taken the plunge. Even our own Joe Kelly has, and if you know Joe you know it was painful for him to buy an Apple product. Are there limitations?  Absolutely. Is there a better pad or tablet device out there right now?  Not even close.  The choice between the WiFi-only or the 3G model is left up to the easer. Mine is a WiFi because I already carry a Sprint Overdrive 4G mobile hotspot with me and had no need for 3G on the iPad.

2 thoughts on “A Consultants Thoughts After a Month of Using the iPad”

  1. Don’t forget about webex, gotomeeting, and other screen sharing apps for participating in a conference call when you’re out and about.

    I use dropbox instead or evernote but keep wanting to switch.

    You can also import most Cisco VPN PCF files to the native Apple VPN IPsec client and Juniper now support their SSL VPN with the JunOS Pulse client.

    And what about the essentials? HootSuite, Meebo, Skype, Google Voice, Pandora and NetFlix.

    Great post… Thanks!

  2. FANTASTIC! I was looking a Penultimate – that’s how I happened across your blog. This is EXACTLY what I wanted. Thanks so much.

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