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Removing walls: how the iPad inspires new content creation


Yesterday, I spent some time debating about why keyboards and iPads didn't mix well. Many users find that iOS is not ideal for office tasks like writing and editing books, creating complex spreadsheets -- in fact, many typing-intense tasks are slower on the iPad or iPhone than on a conventional computer (aside from the fact that the best computer is the one you have with you).

iPad's design philosophy incurs some unavoidable compromises for many, despite successful word-centric apps like Apple's Pages, lean Markdown/research tools like Writing Kit, remote PC solutions like CloudOn or Onlive Desktop, or the revelations of mobile knowledge workers like Technologizer's Harry McCracken, who has made the leap to 80/20 iPad use on a daily basis. Adding a keyboard, in my opinion, simply transforms the iPad from a superior touch-based system to a less-capable typing-based one.

To complain about the iPad's relative weakness for office tasks, however, is to miss where the iPad excels: in enabling new and revolutionary creation efforts. Compare GarageBand on the Mac versus the same app on the iPad. The technology has advanced so much that we're at a point where we can now simplify things in new ways.

To stretch a metaphor, it's like moving from an electric guitar with all its amps and dials and hook-ups back to an acoustic system, where you can just strum it directly. With the iPad, it's just you and the strings, making music together. It's simple, it's direct, it's beautiful.

People are passionate about interacting with content creation tools on their iPad. From music to art, from photos to sculpture, the iPad offers a new creative language through touch.

iOS places far fewer conceptual "walls" between users and content. Babies and cats know how to touch -- they act intuitively and the device responds accordingly. That natural correspondence helps explain why the usability of these devices has exploded.

The Mac -- and all personal computers, to a greater or lesser degree -- presents layers of abstraction between users and the interface. Users have to learn to interact. Whether through a keyboard, or a mouse, or just by figuring out how to navigate a hierarchical menu system, nothing is necessarily intuitive. The iPad allows developers to strip abstractions away and create a physical reality that's just a tiny sliver of glass away from you.

Look at the beauty and variety of iOS software currently available on the App Store. Mac offerings, however worthy, just can't match this extent and assortment. So why didn't the Mac build things as beautiful? Why is iOS making this renaissance?

I'm of the opinion that moving to a true direct manipulation interface, where users touch their content, has created a more natural connection with that content. Abstraction and metaphor have fallen away before concrete physicality.

Instead of drawing on a Wacom tablet, or moving a mouse on its pad, or clicking on a keyboard, the iPad screen means developers can express creation tasks more imaginatively. Their interface vocabulary has become more tangible, solely due to the tablet hardware.

Add in the huge new customer base that's been drawn to an affordable tablet (compare and contrast with even the lowest-end Apple laptops) and Apple's commitment to human design considerations, and the developer base has a huge incentive to focus on creating luscious software that's a pleasure to interact with.

The types and scale of content creation continue to grow, with new apps debuting daily that continue to push the limits on the kinds and quality of data that can be built, manipulated, and finessed on the iPad.

None of them, however, seems to do the grinding job of writing out large quantities of text and meticulously editing them after. Even when you take voice dictation into account, a favorite new iPad feature for many of us, there's still plenty of work left to do on our old "general computing" machines, not the least of which is the development, debugging, and deployment of apps to new iPads.

While the iPad inspires new content creation, trying to fit it into doing old content creation workflows remains problematic. For me, and I speak only of myself, I've learned to leave the external keyboard at home.

When the iPad travels with me, it offers its compromise of usage: brilliant apps and fun games that work with its touch interface, but a much slowed-down toolchain for writing and a non-existent pathway for app development.

I often take advantage of it's mindmapping and sketching tools to lay out ideas, but my "real work" will happen back at the office. I don't think the South Park guys will be switching to iPads any time soon either. As wonderful as iPad content creation is, it's not the solution for everyone.

So what's your workflow? Are you using the iPad to create content for your job? Drop a note in the comments and let us know whether the iPad is your go-to for fun or for getting the job done.

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