One-bit Internet: The iPad is/isn't a content creation device

In the conclusion to my Retina MacBook repairability post, I wrote: "on the Internet, it often seems that everything must be compressed to a one-bit image: black or white, triumph or catastrophe, the very best or the absolute worst."

So it goes for the eternal debate over whether the iPad is a "content consumption" or "content creation" device -- a debate given fresh impetus by the new round of starting to sound a bit credible rumors of a 7.85" iPad. The theory goes is that the 10" iPad will be for content creation and the 7.85" one for content consumption, like there's some sort of absolute line in the sand you cross at 9" screen size.

This is, as I am sure you are aware, a debate as old as the iPad itself. "A computer without a mouse or keyboard," went the argument when the iPad was announced, "is no kind of computer at all." Then people started using iPads to write books, paint pictures, make music, and much, much more. Harry Marks recently summarised the position of most of the Apple blogosphere when he dismissed the "iPad is made for consumption" idea as "thoroughly-debunked".

Is Harry right? Frankly, I don't think it's that simple. I think this is another instance of the Internet compressing a nuanced issue down into an ill-fitting soundbite, and I'm hoping to convince you of the same.

Drawing up battlelines

First, we need to define exactly what we might do with an iPad.

The "consumption" part is pretty easy to define -- reading books, browsing websites, watching Netflix, and so forth. Anything with minimal interactivity. I think most people will agree the iPad is fine for these tasks -- you might say the screen could be a bigger for video, the speaker certainly isn't fantastic for music, and you may prefer an e-ink screen for novels. By and large, thought, the iPad is a good choice.

Other apps have a lot of interactivity (so aren't passive, like consumption) but where you aren't making anything new either (so unlike creation). Games are the most obvious example of this, and again, games are enormously popular.

"Creation" is trickier to nail down. We can all agree that writing a novel in Pages or sketching a design in Paper counts. Call that "macrocreation". But what about writing a Facebook status update, or adding an item to a to-do list, or sharing a quick snap on Instagram? Clearly, some content has been created, but these "microcreation" tasks take far less time and effort. Some apps, like Mail, can be used for consumption, microcreation, or macrocreation as the situation demands.

This differentiation is important because any inadequacies of the iPad's input devices will be far less annoying when doing microcreation, so those types of creation aren't less interesting for us to consider. Even if you despise touchscreen keyboards with the nuclear fuelled heat of a thousand suns, you can probably manage to peck out a tweet without killing anyone. As such, I'll be focussing on macrocreation tasks in the rest of this post, as that's where the rubber really meets the road.

Before we dive in, though, a brief survey of the App Store might be illuminating. In the UK's top 50 iPad apps, I counted 41 games, five content creation apps (iPhoto, GarageBand, Pages, iMovie, and Numbers), and four miscellaneous apps. Thinking that content creation apps might be more expensive, and hence skew towards lower sales, I then checked through the first 100 entries on the Highest Grossing Apps list instead, which included the following content creation apps:

  • 5th place -- Pages

  • 21st place -- QuickOffice

  • 24th place -- Numbers

  • 37th place -- GarageBand

  • 40th place -- iPhoto

  • 41st place -- Keynote

  • 58th place -- iMovie

So, depending on how you measure, 7-10% of the iPad's top apps are for content creation. I don't think that's a lot, and futhermore, I contend this is representative of people's interests when they buy an iPad -- heavily skewed towards, but not entirely about, consumption.

Why might that be the case?

The iPad's shortcomings as a content creation device

The iPad has one primary input mechanism: a capacitative touchscreen. This compares to traditional computer's two mechanisms: a keyboard plus a mouse (or trackpad or similar pointing device.) As such, the iPad has definite downsides:

  • When you're typing, you're hammering your fingers against an unyielding and undifferentiated sheet of glass; this is objectively less comfortable than a mechanical keyboard.

  • The keyboard hides number keys and uncommon punctuation on a second screen, making numeric data entry or programming tedious.

  • The keyboard takes up more than half of the screen, leaving you squinting at your content through a truncated letterbox.

  • When tapping, you're using a squishy and imprecise fingertip rather than a pixel-perfect pointer.

  • Finally, the iPad's relatively small 9.7" screen can be a limitation for some tasks.

That's not to say that people haven't successfully written novels on an iPad, or made artwork with it. People have also made sculptures from scrap iron, cityscapes from toothpicks and written novels by blinking their eye. Great content can be produced with even the most awkward of tools, but it's clearly silly to suggest this intrinsically means that all interfaces are equal.

Other creation tasks are less impeded by the iPad. If the primary interaction is with a custom UI made up of buttons -- such as GarageBand or iPhoto -- then the iPad doesn't have many downsides. The screen's a bit small, which can be a pain; I love to see as much as possible when I'm working, which is why I bought a 27" iMac. Still, though, that's usually a minor point.

There's an upside, too: interacting with an app by tapping on-screen buttons feels viscerally satisfying in a way that indirect clicking with a mouse pointer can't quite match. I'm very fond of mind-mapping software iThoughtsHD for this reason; most of my longer TUAW posts start life with me sprawled in a comfortable chair, iPad in hand, noodling away creating a detailed outline., intuitively dragging boxes around to re-order content. My MacBook simply can't bring that sort of ease to that sort of use case.

However, it's worth noting that these kinds of tasks are rather less common that typing and tapping on things. In particular, I don't think it's a particularly strong argument to use GarageBand as some kind of absolute proof that the iPad is capable of Serious Business. I think that for the vast majority of iPad users, GarageBand is a no more than a toy -- not because it isn't powerful, but because what it does is of limited interest for serious creation unless you are blessed with musical abilities. I own GarageBand, like a lot of people; I played with it for a few hours before growing bored and moving on, and I suspect that's like a lot of other people too.

It's also worth noting that some tasks can squeeze without serious compromise into the iPhone's 3.5" screen, let alone the iPad. The popularity of photo editing apps clearly demonstrates this principle. Even the iPhone can be effectively used for content creation, within its own constraints.

The Bluetooth factor

"Ah," you may have thought when you read the last section, "but what about Bluetooth keyboards? Doesn't that solve the typing problem? Lots of bloggers are forever writing about how an iPad and a keyboard is their perfect mobile setup."

It's certainly true that a Bluetooth keyboard helps. For example, I've written chunks of this very post on my iPad, coupled with the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover which I bought after Steve's positive review. I like it a lot.

But it's not without its own downsides; in my own review, I noted that the keys are rather small (my typing accuracy is noticeably lower when I'm using it) and when it's attached to my iPad you end up with a composite device that's barely thinner or lighter than the 11.6" MacBook Air that I would better off using. This is even more of an issue for accessories like the Incase Origami Workstation, which combine an iPad with a full-size Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

There's also difficulties with text selection, cursor movement, and operations like formatting text via button bars. The usual keyboard functions work for jumping around, but when you want to precisely select or move through large blocks of text there's no substitute for a mouse or trackpad. Tapping on the screen, by comparison, feels clumsy and slow (I find the little pause before the cut/copy/paste menu appears particularly maddening when I'm trying to work quickly). It's also tough on the arms to keep reaching up to the screen. "Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical... it's ergonomically terrible," said Steve Jobs in 2010, when explaining why Apple wouldn't launch a touch-enabled MacBook or iMac.

Of filesystems and multitasking

Writers are also peculiar in the demands they place on a device in terms of storage of work: we mostly just need to keep a handful of text files around, one per project we are working on, perhaps some fragmentary notes. There are some huge number of Dropbox powered text editors that are really good at this, which has led some bloggers to declare the premature demise of the user-visible file system.

However, other people have other demands. Some people need to keep tens of thousands of files in a structured archive. An accounts team might store invoices (in a wordprocessor format) with related to calculation records (in a spreadsheet). Pretty much everyone benefits from being able to search all of their files for a given word or phrase, but iOS's Spotlight is closed to third-party apps so it can't see most of your data. Most people need to print stuff from time to time.

iOS is beyond awful at all of these things. Files are locked inside an app; users cannot slice across apps to show, say, all the files related to a specific project, or all the files from May 2010. If you start running low on disk space and want to make room, you need to delete files -- most apps don't support any sort of off-device storage. Someone who used an iPad as their only computer for processing photographs would appear to be completely out of luck once the iPad is full, as the Photos app offers no facilities to help. Printing is fiddly; AirPrint support is confined to a handful of models and other solutions involve having a PC or Mac around to act as an intermediary.

A solution to these problems could take the form of a for iOS, as Rene Ritchie suggests. Or perhaps Apple has something else in mind altogether -- something involving tagging files and powerful searching functions, say, as proposed in numerous research projects over the years. Nevertheless, it is my belief that until something changes there are significant content creation tasks that the iPad will remain woefully clumsy at.

Battery life

Harry McCracken, who wrote one of the canonical "my iPad is my primary computer" posts, said:

And it was one specific thing about the iPad that made it so useful on the trip: I could use it for ten hours at a pop without worrying about plugging it in. ... I can't overemphasize how important this is to my particular workdays. Even when I'm not traveling, I spend a lot of time bopping around San Francisco and the Bay Area, attending conferences, visiting tech companies, working out of hotel lobbies, and generally having spotty access to power outlets.

So, hands up: who here spends their working life, or their personal life for that matter, "bopping around San Francisco", jumping from conference to tech company to hotel?

There's a quorum of superstar bloggers and CEOs who will tell you the iPad is perfect because it perfectly suits what they do -- they prize portability, battery life, and ubiquitous cellular Internet over all other concerns. These people are not normal, and no matter how big a pulpit they preach from -- no matter how amplified their voice is in the debate -- their argument doesn't extend to most people. Sure, more battery life is always welcome; but for most people it's just one factor amongst many, not the overriding concern. And who knows, maybe one day Apple will finally give us a MacBook with 4G networking.

Multitasking and distraction

Many, many pixels have been expended praising iOS for being a "distraction free" writing environment. It's great, people say, because it's "focused" and has nothing "competing for [your] attention".

I can only assume these people are using some strange version of OS X where the Twitter and email clients don't have quit buttons. On my Mac, I can close all the apps I don't want to see and remove distractions without doing anything as drastic as changing OS. Lion even has a button that can make most apps take up the entire screen, in case one's ADD becomes so bad that one cannot risk glancing at even one small corner of a Finder window.

Meanwhile, like many of the people who use computers, a lot of what I do cannot be served by a single app, which means iOS's weak multitasking becomes an issue. Blogging is fine -- Writing Kit integrates a text editor with a browser, so I can quickly do fact checking or find source links as I write without having to hop out of my app. I presume that's why you don't hear many bloggers complaining about this.

Other tasks are complicated by the way you can only see one app at once and because switching back and forth is relatively slow and relatively laborious (which is why many bloggers have asked for cmd-tab support on iOS.) Try making a calendar entry from details sent in an email, for example -- if the automatic tap-to-make-entry fails you, lots of tedious back-and-forthing between two apps becomes necessary. Try collating data from a dozen disconnected cells in a spreadsheet into a wordprocessor document. Try cross-checking two spreadsheets against each other. Try following a tutorial in a web page about how to carry out a task in your presentation software. Try plagiarising a Wikipedia page by subtly rewording it into a high school paper. And so on, and so forth.

These are all mundane content creation tasks that are much harder on an iPad than on a traditional computer, by virtue of iOS's sandboxed, one-app-at-once nature.

To add insult to injury, not all apps perfectly maintain state when you switch away from them and then back. Even Apple is guilty of this -- if you pull up the "tweet this" dialog in iOS 5, then switch over to Safari to check something in your half-written tweet, when you switch back the tweet draft vanishes. This has enraged me on several occasions.

Content creation is a niche

I cannot prove this, but I suspect for some of the more dedicated Apple pundits the debate about whether the iPad is a content creation device or not has bigger implications. Steve Jobs famously declared that the iPad was the future of computing, that traditional computers would become "trucks" and gradually fade away, left only to specialists.

If the iPad is just a "toy", of course, then Jobs would be wrong; and I think some people are, for whatever reason, emotionally invested in Jobs being right. This is why this argument won't die. Any suggestion that the iPad isn't a content creation device is perceived a challenge to the glorious "post-PC future".

However, there's an aspect to this debate which is rarely touched on, but was brought up by Jared Earle on Twitter recently: some large proportion of traditional computers are also content consumption devices. How many laptops spend their lives on a living room coffee table, used to browse Facebook and Amazon? Of the millions of laptops sold each year, how many are used primarily for the sort of tasks the iPad isn't great at? Surely not that many.

So it's my opinion that we can disconnect these two arguments. Suggesting that the iPad has its shortcomings as a content creation device doesn't imply that it won't be the future of computing, because I think the appetite that most people have for content creation on home computers has been somewhat overstated by people eager to portray the iPad as an underpowered novelty.

Work computers are different, however (and of course make up a lot of sales volume.) I think the iPad has a long way to go before it can supplant the workhorse office PC, but that's a debate for another day.

A choice, with side of compromise

It is my contention that the conclusion to the above analysis must be that the iPad is, at best, a compromised device for content creation tasks. Typing is inherently awkward and pointing is inherently imprecise, and most content creation involves quite a bit of those two things. Adding a keyboard can partly address the typing issue, but you end up with a device that's only minimally more portable than an 11.6" MacBook Air. Compromises.

If you can't afford to buy everything (who can?) and you spend more time reading than writing (most do), an iPad might serve you better than a MacBook. If you're (say) liveblogging an Apple keynote, where typing speed is absolutely paramount, you'll be wanting a physical keyboard, as Mat Honan says. If you're processing lots of photos and video, you'll probably want the CPU grunt of an iMac if mobility doesn't matter or a high-end MacBook Pro if it does. Again, compromises, everywhere you turn.

No device is one-size-fits-all, including the iPad. It's fine to acknowledge the shortcomings of an iPad for content creation, whilst keeping in mind that these are only shortcomings -- not hard limits. What's important is understanding your needs and the ways different devices can fulfil or frustrate them. What's important is the nuance; the shades of grey between the "the iPad is a toy" and "the iPad is the future of computing" extremes.