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David Sparks writes about writing with iPad screen keyboards after years of touch typing. Much of what he says resonates:

“It started with the iPad Air. On that machine I got quite good at thumb typing in portrait mode. It’s nothing like touch typing but still pretty great to sit on an airplane and thumb my way through an outline or a pile of email.”

Like Sparks, I started with light thumb-typing on my iPad 2. Nothing more than tweets and simple return email one-liners. When the lighter, slightly smaller iPad Air arrived I graduated to thumb-typing for longer stretches.

Using a real keyboard with an iPad

For anything more than a paragraph, I needed a physical keyboard. At least I thought so. Either I’d attach one of the many sample keyboards people had sent me to the iPad Air or I’d use the MacBook keyboard.

Sparks goes on:

“Speaking of airplanes, I recently took a flight where I was seated right between the window and a big guy that made pulling down the tray and using my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover impossible.

“I had four hours on that plane and was determined not to thrown in the towel. So I placed the iPad on my lap and started typing. I then went into one of those hypnotic work-states that I often feel on airplanes and before I knew it the pilot announced we were about to land.”

This echoes my first serious glass typing session. I was on a plane. While crammed in economy I tapped out an entire feature on the iPad Air screen keyboard. Like Sparks I hit the writing zone and tapped into a familiar well of productivity but in an unfamiliar setting.

Phoning it in

Something similar happened with an iPhone 6 Plus. Although it worked at a pinch, the iPad is a far better writing device, even in a cramped space.

Unlike Sparks who found himself writing on screen with the larger iPad Pro, my typing-on-glass-while-flying epiphany was thumb-typing on an iPad Air held in the portrait position.

I’ve used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the way Sparks describes. It works for me. At a pinch I can also do the same on the 9.7-inch iPad if I lay it flat in the landscape orientation and use the larger size keyboard.

Trains and boats and planes

Yet, I’ve become so adept at portrait orientation thumb-typing, it’s now my preferred way of working on an iPad. I find it is perfect for planes. I’ve done the same on railway journeys, the Birkenhead-to-Auckland ferry and, less successful, while riding in an airport bus.

It works for me in airport lounges, cafes and even when I’m sitting in an office reception before a meeting or in a quiet room at a conference. Sometimes I’ll write this way sitting at home on the sofa. When I was recently in bed with ’flu, I managed to type a long-form newspaper feature this way.

I wouldn’t say it trumps writing on the MacBook Air using a full typewriter keyboard, but it isn’t far behind. By the way, I’m writing this blog post using the thumb and portrait mode technique on my 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The iPad keyboards are gathering dust.

Natural born killer technique

Writing this way on the iPad or iPad Pro now feels natural. At first thumb-typing was slow. Now I’m almost as fast as on a real keyboard. I’m a long-time touch typist, so my speeds there are good. Achieving something close on a glass keyboard surprised me.

Typing on the iPad screen is more, not less, accurate. The iPad’s built-in spell checker almost never comes into play. I’ve no idea why I mistype less characters on the glass screen, but it’s real.

Another observation. As a touch typist, I don’t look at the typewriter keys when writing. My focus is on the screen. When thumb typing on glass, I do look at the keyboard. The distance from the on-screen keyboard to the text is only a few millimetres, so I can check my output as I go.

Application independent

iPad thumb-typing works well with all writing apps. I wrote this blog post using Byword, now my favourite writing tool. I could equally have chosen Microsoft Word. Pages or iA Writer. They all work just fine.

In his post, Sparks says he still has pain points:

“Text selection is still far easier for me using a keyboard. Also, typing on glass at least once a day my finger accidentally hits the keyboard switch button which brings my work to a screeching halt. On that note if I were in charge, I’d make the keyboard selection button something where you had to press and hold to switch between keyboards.”

From manual typewriter to glass keyboard

I don’t have either of Sparks’ problems. I almost never use text selection during writing. I learnt to type on manual, paper-based typewriters. That means I’m disciplined about not constantly moving blocks of text.

My technique is to write, almost as a stream of consciousness. Years of experience mean I can structure a story in my head before starting. I write, then walk away for a breather before returning to edit the words. This, by the way, is a good technique. Unless you are pressed for time, do something else before self-editing.

I’ve not had Sparks’ problems hitting the wrong keys on the iPad screen keyboard. This surprises me, the individual keys on a 9.7-inch iPad screen in portrait mode are tiny, just a few millimeters square. And yet I rarely mistype.

There are no pain points for me. I’m more than ready to give up attaching a keyboard to the smaller iPad Pro. It’s reached the point where I can now attend a press conference or interview armed with nothing but an iPad and come away with clean copy.

For me, the iPad screen keyboard is a productivity boost. The story you’re reading now is around a thousand words long. I wrote the first draft on my iPad in relative comfort in about 45 minutes. I doubt I could do better on the MacBook with a full keyboard.

iPad Pro Writing

Apple says the iPad Pro is more powerful than most laptops. It is more portable. That should make it ideal for journalists and others who need to write while on the move.

How does the writing experience compare with PCs and is the software up to the job?

The sensible way to answer those questions is to give the device an extensive road test. Earlier this year I took the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a Smart Keyboard on an overseas work trip[1].

iPad Pro on the road

On paper the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is everything a traveling journalist wants or needs. It is about the size and weight of a thick magazine. I had the cellular version which is 725 g. Apple’s Smart Keyboard adds little bulk or weight. Together they weight a fraction over a kilo.

Apple’s A9 processor packs a punch. This means software runs smooth, there’s never any waiting. No hiccups. Word processing and writing are never processor-intensive. Yet on cheaper underpowered tablets there can be an annoying, productivity-killing lag. I’ve used Android tablets where the lag means hardware and software can’t keep up with my typing.

Battery

The iPad Pro’s battery lasts all day. It has more than enough juice to get from, say, a ten-hour flight from Auckland to Singapore.

It lasts about ten hours use before the low-power alarm kicks in. Perhaps more. Writing isn’t as demanding as say, watching video. It isn’t something you do for hours at a stretch. The iPad sleeps when you pause. It does a wonderful job of managing the power on your behalf.

Being cautious, I packed the USB-to-lightning connector in my carry-on bag. This was useful later in the journey. When charging the iPad Pro drains a lot of power. Airline seat USB power sockets often don’t deliver much current. I found it was enough keep the device running, not enough to recharge the battery.

Despite the bigger screen, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro fits well on an airline tray table. Best of all, you don’t usually have to get it out of your traveling bag when going through airport security. On my journey I only had to unpack it once.

The screen is a joy

Apple gave the 12.9-inch iPad Pro a glorious big, bright and clear screen. It’s great for viewing video or looking at photographs. It comes into its own when writing. The display has 2732 x 2048 pixels, that makes for 264 pixels per inch.

Which means text is crisp and sharp even when small or if, for some reason, there’s a spindly typeface. If you’re so inclined you can use smaller text and fit more words on a screen. The screen is brighter and clearer than on most MacBooks. It’s also higher resolution.

This makes it easier on the eyes. I need to use reading glasses when typing on a laptop, but not on the iPad Pro. While that’s personal, it underlines the difference between the iPad Pro and alternatives.

Better displays pay off for writers more than you might imagine. Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s much harder to proofread on a display than on paper.

I noticed I do a better job finding errors in text on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air. This is a huge productivity plus.

It’s not just a matter of screen resolution. The iPhone 6S Plus has a Retina display, yet it is the worst of the three for proof-reading.

Minor keyboard shortcomings

In practice the iPad Pro performs well. There are minor shortcomings, most are down to the keyboard. If the MacBook Air writing experience is ten out of ten, the iPad Pro would score a nine. This is still far better than most alternatives.

Apple’s Smart Keyboard is the same size as a normal computer keyboard and works in much the same way. At NZ$320 it’s expensive, but for serious writing work it’s essential.

The Smart Keyboard attaches to the iPad using something Apple calls a Smart Connector. This means, unlike Bluetooth keyboards you get a definite reliable connection. The keyboard draws power from the iPad, it doesn’t need it’s own power supply. There’s nothing extra to charge. And there are no extra cables to worry about. On a plus note, it is easy to detach when you finish writing.

Flowing words

While touch typIng is easy enough on the Smart Keyboard, the words don’t flow as well as on my MacBook Air. The keys are shallow. They’re easier to miss-hit, but that doesn’t happen so often that it becomes a problem. Most of the time, when the words are flowing there’s no need to reach up and touch the screen to scroll or do other things.

I ran in to a problem when for some reason, the keyboard would type a capital at the start of a word. I’m not sure if it happens with every app, but it does happen with more than one. The caps appear almost at random, I couldn’t find any pattern to it.

At times, maybe while editing, there’s a lot of moving the hand from the keyboard to the touch screen. This can stress the wrist more than using the touchpad on laptop. Chances are, like me, you’ll adapt and find ways to stay comfortable.

Touch typing

Touch typists usually don’t need to find keys in the dark. If you do, you’ll miss the MacBook Air’s keyboard backlighting.

You can’t adjust the screen angle which using the Smart Keyboard.  Laptops and the Microsoft Surface have an edge there. This can be a problem with some airline tray tables.

Keyboard aside, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro beats laptops for writing productivity. Unless you are using the split-screen feature, each app appears full-screen.

The other advantage of the iPad Pro is that it is less distracting. You can set up a laptop to keep interruptions and other distractions out of the way. Apple baked this into the iPad Pro by design. The advantages of the iPad Pro offset the disadvantage of the less than perfect keyboard. Of course, if you don’t like the Apple Smart Keyboard there are third-party alternatives.

Writing on glass

If you wish, you can ditch the attached keyboard and use the onscreen keyboard to type. This works well with the 12.9-inch model. Here the virtual keyboard is the same size as an everyday physical keyboard.

Lying the 12.9-inch iPad Pro flat and typing on the screen is easy enough. Because it is glass you get no feedback in your fingers. This makes touch typing tricky. Not impossible, but harder work than on a real keyboard. In practice typing is slower, but not much slower.

I tried this while on a flight. At first I laid the iPad Pro flat on the tray table in the landscape position to type on glass. Soon I found myself picking it up in the portrait position and using my thumbs to type. The bigger iPad is a little heavy to hold in your hands for extended periods. Typing with thumbs on while the screen is in the portrait position is comfortable for a short time. It might get tedious after an hour or so. Thumb typing works a lot better on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch version

It shares most of its technology with the larger version. Yet Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro[3] is a distinct writing experience. It is more portable again, which can be an advantage some of the time. On the other hand, the smaller size means the screen isn’t as good for longer writing projects.

You lose some, not all, of the proof-reading advantages you get from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro fine for writing emails and short pieces of text. Anything long gets tiresome. Having said that, I typed 1000-word stories holding in my hands and using my thumbs. It’s less productive than using a separate keyboard. But the added mobility and freedom can sometimes be a bigger benefit.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro can take photos without drawing too much attention. This is useful at, say, a press conference. Trying to take a picture with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a press event looks weird.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to get an Apple Smart Keyboard for the smaller iPad Pro[4]. Instead I’ve been using the 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard Cover. This is a great keyboard for a smaller iPad, but the keys are cramped compared with the 12.9-inch model.

You can use the smaller iPad with a full-size keyboard, but you lose the portability benefits. One is to use the 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s screen keyboard or a keyboard cover while on the move. Then, plug the device into a bigger keyboard at home or in the office.

Writing on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: Verdict

Many aspects of writing are software dependent. I haven’t mentioned them because I plan to write a separate post looking at the best iPad Pro writing apps.

Putting that to one side, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro writing experience is solid. The tablet has clear benefits over writing on a laptop like, say, the MacBook Air. The screen is better and there is less distraction.

The keyboard is worse than you’ll find on a decent laptop. This comes close to cancelling out the productivity benefits. Close, but not all the way to cancelling them. If you’re a busy keyboarder, you may feel otherwise. It is a matter of taste.

I rank the writing experience on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro at a nose ahead of working on my MacBook Air. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes in as runner-up, a short distance behind the MacBook Air.

Since returning from my trip I’ve taken to using the iPad Pro as my main writing tool. This speaks volumes. I find it faster and more efficient than the laptop. There are a few tasks that need, or that work better on my MacBook Air. Yet for my writing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a better, more productive option.


  1. The Apple Pencil came for the ride, it didn’t get used for anything serious. I found handwriting recognition software. I’m keen to road test it, but I’m nervous about testing it on an important job without some form of back-up.  ↩
  2. One is coming. Look out for the review.  ↩

The WordPress.com OS X app is beautiful and almost pointless.

WordPress has wrapped its app around the most recent browser version of the WordPress.com software. That’s it.

It runs well enough, but it doesn’t do anything that can’t be done in the browser. Moreover, there are some things it doesn’t do, so you are sent back to the browser version anyway.

There are only three reasons to use the app:

  • To keep Safari or another browser set aside for non-WordPress tasks.
  • To go straight to WordPress.com from the Dock or Application launcher.
  • If you want to store data locally on your Mac.

None of these are compelling:

  • WordPress.com works well in Safari. But even if you hate working that way. like it or not, there will be times when the app sends you there.
  • If you keep WordPress in your Safari bookmarks you can get there in two clicks instead of one.
  • Local data may help if you have a poor internet connection, otherwise, it’s rarely an issue. When I feel the need to compose a post outside of WordPress, I use a Markdown editor like iA Writer or Byword.

In short, there may be a  case for people who spend all day managing WordPress sites to use the app, but for most people it’s just clutter.

Update: There is one flaw with the app I forgot to mention. It doesn’t appear to automatically update. If it does, then the updates are infrequent. And there’s no obvious refresh button to hurry updates along. This matters if, say, you want to watch the traffic roll in after a new post.

 

platform, ecosystem, envirnomentPlatform, ecosystem, environment: people selling technology often use these words.

Almost everything in the tech world is one of the three.

Some are all three. Hence: the Windows platform; Windows ecosystem and Windows environment. Are they the same thing are are they each different? Likewise Apple, Android, AWS and so on.

The words are a problem because they are non-specific, even ambiguous. They rarely help good communication.

Often you can replace one of these words with thing and the meaning doesn’t change.

Platform; redundant, used badly

Or you can remove the word altogether. Usually Windows, Apple and Android are good enough descriptions in their own right for most conversations.

The other problem is that the words are used interchangeably. People often talk about the Windows platform when they mean the ecosystem.

There are times when you can’t avoid using platform or ecosystem. That’s not true with environment, the word is always vague or unnecessary.

Ben Thompson offers great definitions of platform and ecosystem in The Funnel Framework:

A platform is something that can be built upon. In the case of Windows, the operating system had (has) an API that allowed 3rd-party programs to run on it. The primary benefit that this provided to Microsoft was a powerful two-sided network: developers built on Windows, which attracted users (primarily businesses) to the platform, which in turn drew still more developers. Over time this network effect resulted in a powerful lock-in: both developers and users were invested in the various programs that ran their businesses, which meant Microsoft could effectively charge rent on every computer sold in the world.

An ecosystem is a web of mutually beneficial relationships that enhances the value of all of the participants. This is a more under-appreciated aspect of Microsoft’s dominance: there were massive sectors of the industry built up specifically to support Windows, including value-added resellers, large consultancies, and internal IT departments. In fact, IDC has claimed that for every $1 Microsoft made in sales, partner companies made $8.70. Indeed, ecosystem lock-in is arguably even more powerful than platform lock-in: not only is there a sunk-cost aspect, but also a whole lot more money and people pushing to keep things exactly the way they are.

Thompson then goes on to discuss why platforms and ecosystems are no longer as important as they were in the Windows era. His point is that in the past owning the platform and ecosystem was the key to sales success, today being the best product or service for a consumer’s needs is more important.

And that is great news for users.

…and I’m sure if you dig hard enough you can find a few old ones with my byline on them. In my defence, back in the day journalists didn’t write their own headlines.  

typewriter

My blog set up is nicely tuned. It could be better.

As the moment I write posts with Byword on my MacBook Air.

Sometimes I start a post using Byword on an iPad or iPhone while on the move.

Although Byword can post direct to WordPress.com, I publish posts as drafts. That way I can do a final tidy before adding categories, tags and featured images.

When I hit Publish, WordPress sends a link to Twitter, Google+, Linkedin and FaceBook.

In What I want from a blogging platform Dave Winer says he’d like:

The full text should be sent to Facebook or/or WordPress, including a link back to the original post. Revisions to the post flow to Facebook and WordPress.

Now that’s something I’m about to work on. I thought of using the Mac’s automation tools to do this, but Rajeev Edmonds suggests I use an IFTTT recipe to meet the same goal. So that’s my next rainy day project. Adding Google+ to this would be good.

The tough part will be getting those revisions to flow back — somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen soon. If you know how I can manage this, please let me know.