Apple productivity: 2015 edition

Apple is the only firm making its own version of all the productivity tools we use daily.

Thanks to iCloud these tools have worked well together for some time. Moving from working on an iPhone, iPad or Mac to another Apple device was never hard.

Last year Apple weaved the parts closer together with upgrades to iOS and OS X. Together, OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.1 tighten cross-device integration.

It’s a seamless user experience that you won’t find anywhere else — although Microsoft should give it a try.

This is smart technology. It is also smart business. Once you commit to using one Apple product, it makes more sense to use others. The deeper you dive into Apple’s world, the better your experience.

Apple’s walled garden

Apple has created a beautiful walled garden. But it comes at a price. Planet Apple is like a black hole. The gravitational pull is huge. Once sucked in you’re in danger of going past an event horizon where it becomes almost impossible to escape.

That poses a new problem. Apple is the world’s most valuable business. It shouldn’t fail. But if something does go wrong, moving data elsewhere in a hurry could be tricky.

Likewise, at times dealing with colleagues or clients living outside Apple’s world is frustrating. You can fall into the trap of assuming they are able to do everything you can do.

Apple productivity

Last year I spent a week working with nothing but Apple technology. That was before the recent updates tightening Apple’s integration. They make difference to my work and to my productivity.

The most visible change is that the OS X and iOS user interfaces have moved closer to each other. Until Yosemite and iOS 8.1 there was one set of visual cues and icons for each operating system. Now cues are common between the two.

Take the share button. The same box with an up arrow appears all over iOS and OS X. It works the same way when you click it from, say, Safari on an iPad or from Notes in OS X.

Not needing to look for different symbols as you move from desktop to smartphone is more of an improvement than it sounds.

Few surprises

Things almost always work just as expected, once you’ve tuned into Apple there are few surprises.

I wrote the word almost in italics in the last sentence because there are a few times when things still don’t gel. Not gelling is so rare that when it happens you’ll sit up in surprise. And in fairness to Apple, you’re most likely to see these disconnects when using third-party software.

Apple’s own apps, like, say, Pages, now behave the same when running on OS X or iOS. There are minor user interface differences due to the screen sizes. And there are functions that don’t appear in both operating systems.

Yet if you are familiar with the app on an iPhone, you’ll be able to use it on a Mac or iPad.

iWorks and Continuity

This goes for all the iWorks apps: Pages, Numbers and Keynote. It also applies to things like Notes and Safari. To a lesser degree with Mail.

Apple has taken integration a step further with a set of features it calls Continuity. They do what the name suggests. You can work on a Pages document on an iPhone, then move to a MacBook and pick-up working exactly where you left off. Apple calls this Handoff.

At first Handoff would sometimes feel like magic. It was almost if the devices could read your mind. Now it seems so natural that I find myself expecting to see it when using non-Apple products.

Handoff only works when all your devices use the same Apple account. They must all be on the same Wi-Fi network and have Bluetooth switched on. You also have to store documents in iCloud.

There are a lot of ducks to line up — I tend to switch off Bluetooth when I need to conserve battery life and can forget to turn it back on later.

Productive cloud

Despite this, the productivity gain is huge. I started writing this blog post on an iPhone while in town. Did the bulk of the writing on my MacBook Air at home. Edited, corrected and proofed on an iPad while sitting on the sofa then polished and published from the MacBook. In each case the document was ready and waiting when I switched device.

Handoff works with iWorks apps: Pages, Numbers and KeyNote. It also works in Mail. I find it helpful when I start drafting replies while on the move before deciding I need to write a fuller response using a keyboard.

Something like Continuity has long been possible with smartphones and computers using cloud services like Google Drive. Apple’s version is simpler and easier to use than any other.

With Continuity you can also connect to the internet through an iPhone from another Apple device. There’s near seamless device pairing. Pairing, or tethering isn’t new, but it is easier in Apple’s world.

Alarming

Continuity can get weird when you have many linked Apple devices and there’s an incoming phone call. Being able to pick up a phone call on an iPad or the MacBook is useful, but alarming when everything rings at once.

Getting an incoming text on whatever device you’re using at the time is a great time-saver. So is being able to look up destinations on Maps in OS X, then sending the directions to a phone.

For my day-to-day work as a journalist, the most important change is the way apps work with iCloud. Apple’s cloud storage used to tie documents to the app that created them.

Cloud hopping

iCloud now works more like Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. It makes switching an iCloud document from one app to another easier.

I need this when I write something in Byword or Pages but a client wants a Word document. Sure you can save the file in Word format, but it never hurts to take one last look in that format before sending. Being able to do this from iCloud makes life easier.

In the past you could hunt down iCloud documents in OS X. They are hidden in the library directory. Then load them into a different app. Or you could make a local copy and load that.

Now they just act like any other file and iCloud acts like any other filing system. This becomes powerful on iOS devices which don’t have their own file system.

Apple spent much of 2014 boosting its productivity story. Almost every change during the year makes it easier to work with Apple tools and get things done. It’s not perfect and some third-party apps have yet to catch up with the OS changes.

It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft’s promised 2015 Mac Office refresh uses Continuity features. At the time of writing the iOS iPad Office apps seem more modern, more power and more useful than the OS X ones. Fixing that and adding Handoff would be great.