Almost every business software company sells the idea of productivity. Yet there’s evidence that it does not deliver on that promise.

This graph shows US total factor productivity from 1947 until 2020. The last 20 years are the flattest part of the graph.

total factor productivity chart USA 1947-2020

It’s a time that has seen the rise of cloud computing, mobile apps and agile thinking. None of which appear to have moved the productivity dial.

Until 1970 there is a sharp rise. Then, around the time business computers became commonplace, the productivity rise tapers off. We see a burst in the late 1990s and the start of the 20020s, then it flattens.

Austin Vernon writes at length about software’s negligible impact on productivity. It’s worth a read if you can divert yourself from your own productivity for five minutes.

Software a management technology

He gets into economic concepts. His key point is that software is not a general purpose technology but a management technology.

General purpose technologies drive productivity growth in ways that are easy to understand. That term covers technologies like electricity, railways and steam engines.

Software has more in common with assembly lines.

These have a slower, plodding effect on productivity. In part that’s because they deal with high levels of complexity. In comparison building railway networks is straightforward and easy to repeat.

He says their benefits don’t show up in society at large until the companies using them have a significant market share.

“The current status quo means we don’t get productivity growth until these software-driven companies become behemoths.

Amazon was founded in 1994, almost thirty years ago. In 2020, it was still less than 10 percent of total retail sales 1. Is it any wonder that we haven’t seen robust productivity gains? Amazon is still mapping and digitising processes at prodigious rates.

In other words, Vernon thinks we’re just getting started with software productivity gains. If he is right, then we can expect more productivity as the world’s technology giants grow larger. Of course, that brings another set of problems.


  1. I think Vernon is referring to US sales here. If you know otherwise please help me correct this footnote. ↩︎

There is a place for search engine optimisation. This site is not one of them.

You need SEO if you sell online. You may need it if you run a business and want people to find you online. Although good luck standing out among everyone else trying to rank for the same keywords.

Otherwise, search engine optimisation can be a huge time sink. This is even more true if you are not selling anything.

SEO busywork

SEO involves a whole string of busywork that has the appearance of being productive without getting you anywhere in practice. There are an endless stream of tasks and tweaks that, in theory, can improve your site’s ranking in Google search.

It’s a moving target. Get on top of one set of algorithm changes and new ones appear to drag you back.

Businesses that need to sell online can spend money on search engine optimisation consultants.

SEO is a task best left to professionals who can stay on top of the constant change. An entire industry exists covering a range of nuanced ideas and concepts that, frankly, are baffling to outsiders.

It has its own jargon, its own myths. The people who work in it would like us to think there is secret knowledge. Perhaps there is. More likely, it all comes down to a set of basic principles and being in the right place at the right time.

Time, energy, money

For most of us, there are better ways to use that time, energy and money.

A glance at Google Search Console shows this site rises and falls in the various rankings over time. The rises coincide with periods of more writing activity. Falls are in synch with when there are long pauses between posts.

It’s not an exact match. Yet one thing is certain. The less time is spent on SEO, the better this site ranks in Google. 

The strangest, non-obvious stories can be runaway successes on Google. Those considered, well researched in-depth explorations of important issues can be sidelined, eclipsed in search by click-bait and trashy opinions. Although sometimes they surface weeks or months later like sleeping giants waking from slumber.

Experience says the best investment of time and energy is building a quality site with interesting posts. Make that plenty of interesting posts.

No money required.

 

 

 

 

Sydney last attempted city-wide working from home in 2000 when it hosted the Olympics.

In those days people called it teleworking or telecommuting.

Auckland had a go in 1998 when the CBD power was out.

The Sydney Olympics ran for two weeks. Buffer zones around that time meant employees could have been out of the city centre for up to four weeks.

In Auckland the CBD power was off for five weeks. People set up office desks and equipment in suburban garages and other spaces.

Something similar happened in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake. The need to work from home was more open-ended.

Temporary working from home

In each case companies saw the need to work from home as temporary.

During each of these events, there was discussion about whether working from home could become permanent. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

The key difference between the two New Zealand events and Sydney is that people in that city had time to plan and prepare.

Up to a point the earlier New Zealand working from home events gave an early foretaste of 2020 lockdowns. Managers, technology professionals and workers improvised and reacted overnight to changed circumstances.

Planning for working from home made things easier. Yet preparations started as Australian technology professionals were grappling with Y2K and getting ready for the introduction of GST.

Not the first time

Teleworking was not new in 2020, nor was it new in 2000 or 1998.

Los Angeles had various attempts to encourage teleworking. The ’84 Olympics, ’89 and ’94 earthquakes saw the US federal government-lead programmes to help people work from home.

Let’s put aside the Christchurch experience for one moment. All the other attempts at teleworking were low-tech by modern standards.

The internet wasn’t in widespread use before the mid-1990s. There were ways to log-on to company computers that involved low-speed acoustic modems. If you were lucky and clued up you could use pre-internet services like Compuserve.

Data speeds were slow. It was easy to send text files, word processor documents or spreadsheets. Video wasn’t possible and even transmitting a photograph could be a lengthy process that might take many tries.

Landlines and fax machines

People had landline phones and fax machines. That was enough for a lot of office work. You had to keep your wits about you and be understanding of the limitations.

It wasn’t unusual for people to drive across town with floppy discs or external hard drives. If you didn’t have time, couriers could do this for you

Despite the restrictions, a lot of people felt comfortable working from home. It looked and felt like this could be something that might catch on.

In a limited sense it did. Privileged managers and professionals needing to focus away from the office would take complex jobs home. Report writing, editing and serious number crunching was suitable candidates.

A few managed to build teleworking into their lives. Technology companies encouraged the idea.

Working from home technology

One thing that we can overlook as we cast our minds back is the technology needed for teleworking improved at a steady clip. Dial modems got faster and faster. The internet arrived bringing email. Then we got Gmail and other basic cloud services.

By the early 2000s dial-up internet was giving way to early ADSL. People began talking about broadband. Scanners replaced faxes. It became practical to send or receive photographs: low resolution and first, then higher and higher.

Applications appeared making it easier for people to work and collaborate from home.

The main reason for encouraging teleworking during the Sydney Olympics was to keep commuters off the roads and rail networks. Both were stretched to the limits with a special, non-commuter railway timetable.

As the games started and commerce ticked on without a glitch, there was optimism that telecommuting was here to stay.

Back to normal

The first days after the games ended, it looked as if that might happen. The roads remained clear and rail passenger numbers remained low.

Yet two weeks after the games finished, traffic was back to normal levels. If a section of society continued to telecommute at all, the numbers were less than a rounding error.

In the wash-up, journalists and researchers investigated what happened. Why didn’t something that seemed to be such a good idea get dropped?

The problem was not the technology. That coped well despite the limitations. Nor was it the workers. Many were happy to continue working from home at least for part of the week.

Sydney’s switch to telecommuting was temporary. Managers hated not being able to look out over their open plan offices and see rows of workers beavering away. Never mind, they were more productive working from home. Bosses hated the idea they were not in control.

This time things are different. At least for now. Workers have proved they can be productive at home. The technology is better and dysfunctional controlling bosses have all kinds of dystopian tools in their armoury to check up on remote worker performance.

Insecure managers

It’s going to be harder for insecure managers to insist on a full return to the office when the pandemic is no longer an issue. Harder, but not impossible.

There are roles where people have to be on site. That is not everyone.

Yet that’s where things are really different this time. A sizable slice of workers relish the idea of returning to the office. Another sizable slice doesn’t want to, and, in many cases, have decided they don’t have to.

If their employer gives them no choice in the matter, they can always find another one who does. This is especially true of people with in-demand skills.

The race to attract talent has never been tougher that today. Any insecure boss who refuses to embrace teleworking is going to struggle to find compliant minions to order about.

On Tuesday the Amazon Australia website began taking orders from New Zealand customers.

If the Australian experience is anything to go by, things won’t change much in New Zealand.

At least not at first. But Amazon is happy to take a long term view.

Amazon Australia experience

Amazon’s first year in Australia was not a success. Sales were behind the company’s expectations.

The AFR reports that last year Amazon Australia had sales of A$1.2 billion. That’s double the figure for a year earlier.

Yet as the AFR notes, it is a long way behind the A$4 billion that analysts forecast for 2020 when Amazon first opened in Australia in 2017. UBS, an investment bank, now forecasts it will hit the $4 billion figure in 2023.

The number looks huge. But A$4 billion is about one percent of total retail sales and two percent of total non-food retail. This leaves plenty of room for local retailers.

Now in New Zealand

Amazon issued a press release about the Australian business selling to New Zealand. It says you should see is lower shipping prices, easier returns and quicker delivery.

All these are likely. But we need to put them in context.

Take delivery times. Dispatching a parcel from New South Wales to New Zealand will take less time because a plane takes three hours or so to travel across the Tasman. This compares with 14 hours from a US airport.

But the flight is only part of the journey. There’s packing and getting the parcel to the airport at one end. When it gets here local parcel carriers handle distribution.

If, say, that takes four days from the US. Then, unless Amazon Australia has speeded up processes, it will take three and a half days from Australia.

That’s not a huge difference.

Likewise freight prices are lower, but in most cases this is a small part of the total shopping cost. A 30 percent cut in freight costs might make a shopping order a few percent cheaper.

Amazon’s Australian store advantages are marginal when compared to shopping from Amazon US.

There are two things that could make a difference. The first is if Amazon’s Australian business opts for predatory pricing. It could undercut local retailers by a margin.

Second Amazon’s Australian operation has a section for New Zealand products. That could be useful for some local companies. Products won’t travel twice across the Tasman, Amazon will use local companies to handle distribution.

Slow pressure

While this puts extra pressure on local retailers, it is not as though they don’t already face competition from Amazon.

The immediate effect will be marginal.

Amazon already has the second largest share of online shopping in New Zealand behind Countdown.

New Zealand retailers account for 71 percent of online sales in New Zealand. In 2020 we spent NZ$5.8 billion online. Online is 11 percent of total New Zealand retail.

Amazon accounts for 11 percent of overseas online shopping from New Zealand. That is around three percent of the total.

Small but threatening

Let’s say Amazon doubles its New Zealand sales now it has an Australian store. The rest of the market continues to grow. Which means a year or two from now Amazon might be 5 percent of total online retail, not even one percent of all retail.

Amazon has always been happy to play a long game. Over time more retail will go online and, if Amazon uses its market clout, it could win a growing share. It has yet to offer a Amazon Prime service to New Zealand with ultra short delivery times and other lures.

There’s no room for complacency. Local retailers will have to work ever harder to earn a crust. That would be the case regardless of Amazon. Opening an Australian business serving New Zealand increases the pressure, but the serious threat lies a few years in the future.

Done well, technology can help small businesses thrive. None of the technologies mentioned here are expensive. Each offers a fast return on your investment.

Broadband

A fast internet connection is essential. If you live in a place where fibre broadband is available, seize the opportunity to use it. In New Zealand fibre is not expensive, prices start at around $80 a month for all-you-can-eat gigabit plans.

If you can’t get fibre, choose the fastest option with the most generous data allowance. This might be fixed wireless broadband, it may be HFC or a fast copper technology like VDSL. Failing that, use the mobile phone network and buy a plan with the maximum amount of data.

Video conferencing

One lesson from the Covid pandemic was the importance of good communications at a time physical contact was difficult. You don’t need to spend a lot to use video conferencing. Skype is a good free option. It costs nothing to make video calls anywhere in the world so long as the people at the other end also use the technology. If you’re an Apple user and you work with other Apple users, choose FaceTime.

Small business web presence

If you sell products or services in the real world, even a modest website will help you sell online, create an online brochure to promote your business. You don’t need to be an expert to set up a simple website. Start with a free WordPress account. Otherwise, you can choose one of the free online services to get started.

Small businesses prefer to use Facebook or a Google service to promote the business online. This can work. There are stories of people doing well. But take care: You don’t own the site so the terms or conditions might change at any moment. There is a track record of big tech firms pulling the rug from under small businesses.

You’ll be told you need to spend time or money on search engine optimisation to get the most from your website. Again, this can work well, but don’t bank on it.

Book-keeping or accounting software

Don’t wait until you visit the accountant to know whether your business is profitable. There are low-cost packages from companies like MYOB that will allow you to create invoices, fill out tax forms and track the flow of money through your business. Some options are even simple to use.

Alternatively, choose an online service like Xero. It’s more expensive but takes a lot of the hard work out of tracking your finances.

Reliable power

Mains electricity is usually reliable and safe. Yet there are times when it can damage sensitive electronic equipment. Invest in anti-surge devices that prevent power spikes from wrecking your hardware. Better still, get an uninterrupted power supply so you can save important files and conduct an orderly computer shut down when there’s a power outage. Or you might try a power back-up battery.

Backup important data and store it off-line

Sooner or later your computers will fail or online criminals will shut you out from your data. It pays to make regular copies of all important digital data and documents then keep them away from your office in case of fire. It may also pay to have two or three external hard drives to keep multiple back-ups. Make sure you get decent software to automate your back-ups.

Share files with other small businesses

This is closely related to cloud storage. Online file sharing services like Dropbox and Box make it easy to share documents with people over the internet. Services like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 offer something similar. They also allow you to work with remote colleagues on shared documents.

Paper Shredder

Yes, paper is old school. Yes, you try to avoid it at every stage. Yet you’ll still get a lot of official or important information sent on sheets of paper. You may also have online material that you’ve printed.

Eventually, you’ll want to get rid of some of them, but crooks have been known to dive through waste bins in the hope of finding valuable information to help them commit fraud. Get a shredder and destroy every document before throwing them out.

Better still, get a scanner and make electronic copies of every document that comes through your business. Then shred the paper.

Technology investment is paying off for New Zealand’s dairy farmers. In the past year the industry produced 21.2 billion litres of milk containing 1.88 billion kilograms of milk solids. That’s up 2.4 per cent on the previous season.

We’re producing more milk with fewer cows. The total cow population decreased 0.9 per cent on the previous year. Cow efficiency is improving at a clip.

Wayne McNee, CEO of LIC, says some of the growth in milk production has come from farmers learning to do more with less. He says we are world leaders in precision farming. We’re also seeing the benefits of the same technology revolution that has changed almost every other aspect of our lives.

By me at the NZ Herald.

Source: Dynamic Business: Farmers ‘learning to do more with less’ – NZ Herald

Impressive speed

The speed of improvement in New Zealand’s dairy herd is impressive. Even more so when you realise the results come from breeding, not genetic modification.

LIC refers to one of its innovations as a “Fitbit for cows”. This is a wearable computer used to monitor health and performance.

Fitbit for cows is an internet of Things (IoT) application, essentially a way of embedding internet connectivity into everyday objects. Often there are measuring sensors that collect data then send it to the cloud (remote data centres) for processing.

On Tuesday small business minister Stuart Nash kicked off the Digital Boost Alliance. On Thursday a report from the Productivity Commission told us why business needs a digital shot in the arm.

The Digital Boost Alliance is a group of 20 companies. It was pulled together by Craig Young who heads Tuanz.

There are multinationals like Microsoft and AWS in the mix. You’d expect that.

Business support

The local companies in the alliance are more interesting.

Money, an important part of the digital equation, is represented by the five main banks operation here. Then come local tech companies: Datacom, Xero and, if we accept Australia as local, MYOB.

New Zealand’s telecommunications sector is represented by Spark, 2degrees and Chorus. Vodafone is a notable non-starter.

CertNZ and MBIE are in the mix. So is The Warehouse. While founder Sir Stephen Tindall is a keen personal supporter of initiatives like this, the Warehouse Group sells a lot of technology and supporting products to small business.

Mindlab is a member. It hosted the launch event.

Access and training

Alliance members aim to improve small business access to digital technology. More important they will help businesses get the training needed to make use of technology.

Each partner offers something different. There are offers of discounts of products and services, extra support, employee training and research.

It’s a big, ambitious goal.

World beating

Nash says he wants New Zealand to have the world’s most digitally-enabled small business sector.

We have been here before. Other initiatives have had similar goals. The difference this time is there is more money, broader industry support. It is a public-private joint venture.

Nash says the government kicked-in $44 million for digital training and advice in this year’s budget.

He singles out cloud computing. He says it has great potential. “A 20 percent increase in the uptake of cloud computing could be worth another $6 billion to the economy.”

Small business web sites

One industry speaker said only half of NZ small businesses have a web site. The implication being this is a measure of how much further we need to go.

Having a web site can help small businesses. It’s an efficient way of finding and retaining customers.

Yet it is not always appropriate. Many small businesses are subcontractors. They don’t need to sell themselves online. Nor do they need to spend money advertising with Google or Facebook.

Their digital needs are elsewhere.

Small business barriers to digital

MYOB surveyed small business owners. The results are revealing.

  • 41 percent say cost is the barrier to technology adoption.1
  • 22 percent say staff training is the barrier
  • 21 percent say a lack of knowledge is the issue.
  • 23 percent say the problem is the time taken to implement.

At the event I spoke to a couple of blokes from Innate Furniture, a Christchurch small business who flew up for the launch.

I assumed their story was going to be about how they built a website and sales took off. Instead they told me how last year they moved all their backend systems to the cloud and how that made a real difference to the business.

This is where there are huge benefits.

Why Digital Boost matters

First, New Zealand’s economy is more dependent on small business than many other economies. Small business accounts for a larger share of our GDP and a bigger proportion of jobs.

Larger companies can afford to have technology specialists on the team. With smaller firms responsibility might be with the owner. Most likely it will be with someone without training or experience.

Second, New Zealand small businesses are smaller than you find in other countries.

We’re talking about companies with a less than a couple of dozen employees and the majority are much smaller than that. In other countries these would be called micro-businesses.

Productivity gap

Third, our productivity lags other countries. Today’s Productivity Commission report says New Zealanders work longer hours than people in other rich-world countries and produce less in each hour they work.

  • 34.2 hours a week compared with a 31.9 hours average in the OECD.
  • $68 of output an hour compared with $85 average elsewhere in the OECD.

These numbers affect our living standards.

Innovation is key

Commission Chair Dr Ganesh Nana says: “Innovation is the key to unlocking New Zealand’s productivity. There are only so many hours in the day that people can work, so creating new technology and adopting new and better ways of working is critical to achieving effective change.”

Which means the Digital Boost project is timely.

If there’s one area both the Digital Boost project and the Productivity Commission agree on is that we need to do more than move people to digital tools.

Show how

The key here is to show people how they can use these tools.

There is an echo with cyber security. Many managers and business people think spending money on security products will solve the risks.

It can help, but without educating employees on how to think in more security conscious ways, that spending is wasted.

Spending money on new computers, software and services is a start. Yet it’s crucial to set aside part of the tech budget for training.

Skills essential for digital boost

Skills are essential to unlock the potential.

Likewise, it is important to use technology where it has the most benefits.

It’s no accident that Xero and MYOB are behind Digital Boost, moving to digital account keeping, tax paperwork and electronic invoicing can have an instant pay-off for a small business.

If Digital Boost delivers, Nash says it can be worth billions of dollars each year to the New Zealand economy.

That’s great, but meaningless to individuals, what matters more is that it has the power to lift everyone’s standard of living.

Talking on RNZ about Digital Boost

You can hear me talking about this with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ Nine to Noon in new research into the impact AI could have on our work-lives. The broadcast also covers the potential to help shorten the working week and how CD-Roms are finally about to stop working…

Google has finally dropped the idea that the end goal of Google Docs is to print words on a sheet of paper.

It’s been a long time coming.

When personal computers were new, word processors were all about print.

But it is now years since everyone used computers to produce printed documents. We may not have the promised paperless offices, but there is a lot less paper in the modern workplace.

These days documents usually spend all their time in a pure digital format.

Yet, until now, editing tools remain geared to print.

Word processors

Take Microsoft Word. You can’t use it for long before seeing a page break. Yes, you can use the web layout view which doesn’t have breaks. But that’s ugly to read as you put down words. And the outline view is for specialist uses.

Likewise Apple’s Pages or the Writer section of LibreOffice. They all assume you want to print documents on paper.

Dive in deeper and you’ll find word processor settings for page headers and footers. Again, these features are print-oriented.

Text editors have a digital-first perspective. But they still nod to printed pages at times.

Google Docs has offered an option not to show pages for years. I wrote Word processor software still geared to print on the subject in 2014.

Google Docs part of Workspace refresh

This week Google announced sweeping changes to Workspace, a set of tools that includes Google Docs.

The big idea behind these changes is that you are no longer working to put words on paper. It’s a symbolic move. It’s a philosophical move and it’s also a practical move.

Instead, Google Docs becomes part of a bigger picture: dynamic, interactive documents that integrate with other tools. This includes embedding video, even links to video conference meetings.

The challenge for Google is that many customers liked Google Docs the way it was. They may not print much these days, but the concepts and workflows are familiar. There’s no discontinuity adapting to a fresh approach.

There’s a lot more coming from Google. More to write about here. Yet for now, Google has untethered its popular word processor from print.

That’s progress.

Apple’s iPad is a great writing tool. For many professional and part-time writers it can be better than a laptop.

In this feature we’ll look at why the iPad could be the best option for you. We’ll examine which iPad model to choose, explore keyboards and outline the best writing applications.

You don’t need a high-end iPad for writing. The standard NZ$569 (mid-2020 prices) iPad has everything you need. It’s powerful enough and has a screen you’ll have no trouble living with.

You can write on any iPad

From a computer point of view, writing is an undemanding application.

Word processors, editors and other writing tools barely skim the surface of what a computer or tablet can do.

All you need is enough computing power for the screen to keep up with your typing and to display crisp, readable text.

Every current iPad meets that standard. Indeed, every iPad from the last five years will do the job and do it in style.

Hide complexity

When I’m away from my desk, I use a top-of-the-range 12.9-inch iPad Pro for writing. It has far more power than I need to put down words. In my case I use the extra grunt to run other creative applications.

Apple could have designed the iPad with journalists like me in mind. iPads are more portable than even the slimmest, lightest laptop. Their batteries tend to last hours longer than most laptops. And they do a good job of hiding complexity.

It’s no trouble to pull out an iPad and work on in a cafe, on an airplane tray-table, or, at a pinch, on your lap. Sure this is true of a good laptop, but it is more so with the iPad.

If you want to push portability to the limit, use the iPad mini. It has everything you might need in a smaller package, 

Why is the iPad a great writing tool?

When Apple launched the first iPad it pitched the tablet as a media consumption device. It was clear early on that it could do more. Today’s iPads are often better than laptops for many creative tasks.

When it comes to writing the iPad has advantages:

  • It has long battery life. Sure, you can find laptops that will go 12 hours between charges including the 2021 M1 MacBook Air. Yet, measure-for-measure, an iPad will last longer between charges than a conventional computer.
  • Focus. While you can now open two or more side-by-side screens in iPadOS, the operating system lends itself to doing one thing at a time. There is no clutter. With the iPad you can focus only on writing without other apps distracting you. Turning off notifications and concentrating is much easier. This is why you could view the iPad as the closest modern equivalent to a portable typewriter.
  • Portable. The iPad is more portable than any laptop. It can go places laptops don’t. There are fewer moving parts. Well, actually, there are no moving parts on the iPad itself. This makes it more robust. 
  • One aspect of the iPad’s portability is that you can work on it even when you are standing. It is possible to thumb type on the screen keyboard while your are standing. I’ve done this at press conferences. I’ve done this waiting in queues to board planes.
  • This means you can write in more places, more often. Yes, you can do that on a phone, but it’s not the best writing experience. It is not easy to write standing up with a laptop.
  • The same applies if, say, you are sitting cramped on a crowded flight. At a pinch you can tap out words holding the iPad in vertical or portrait orientation when there’s no room for a keyboard.
  • Being able to use the taller portrait orientation is an often overlooked bonus. There are subtle ergonomic problems with writing across a wide screen. This makes errors harder to spot. A narrow width is easier to proof-read. If you are writing words to print on paper, the screen orientation mirrors how your words will appear on the finished document.
  • iPads have glorious, well-lit high resolution screens. Higher resolution means your eyes don’t tire as fast. You can work for longer stretches and concentrate for longer.
  • No waiting. An iPad is always ready to go the moment you switch on. Yes, modern laptops can do the same, but you can always start writing in seconds on an iPad.

Pick an iPad, any iPad

iPads range in size. The smallest is the iPad mini, with a 7.9-inch display. That’s roughly 200 by 135mm. At the other end of the scale the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display measures 280 by 215mm. It has more than twice as much screen.

The Mini weighs 300g. That’s roughly the weight of two phones. The larger size iPad Pro is 640g, about half the weight of a laptop with the same size display.

Even when you add a keyboard, iPads are smaller, lighter and more portable than almost every laptop. Apple’s MacBook Air gets close. The nearest non-Apple competitor would be a Microsoft Surface tablet.  

If money is no object, you can choose the iPad that you find comfortable to read. If it is an object, pick the iPad you can afford.

Cellular or not?

Few writers need Sim-card models that can use cellular phone technology to connect to the net.

You’ll find Wi-Fi is available in many of the places where you will want to write. Where it isn’t, you can tether your iPad to your phone and connect that way.

Tethering works with both iPhones and Android phones. The experience is better and smoother if you have an iPhone, but don’t get hung up on this point, it isn’t a deal breaker. Android phones will work perfectly well. 

Cellular adds around NZ$220 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad. That money can be better spent elsewhere.

iPad storage

The other option that adds to the price of an iPad is storage.

While you don’t need a huge amount for storage for written documents, you may want to store music, other audio, photographs and video. These are all storage hungry.

The iPad Pro has a terabyte storage option. This adds NZ$900 to the price of the base 128GB model. It will be overkill for many readers. I have a huge music collection, store audio and video files and struggle to fill a 512GB iPad. That amount of storage will add roughly NZ$500 to the base price.

It’s easy to overbuy storage

The exact amount of storage you need should take into account what other devices you own. If you have a computer and an iPad, then you won’t need to splurge on a lot of storage. Likewise, if you can offload files that you don’t need all the time to an external drive, you can save money.

Remember it is near impossible to upgrade iPad storage. It’s a decision you need to get right before you buy.

Based on my experience, I’d suggest you should budget for at least 256GB of storage and consider buying 512GB. That’s the amount I have on my own iPad, it has enough headroom for me to never worry about running out of space.

iPad keyboard considerations

A keyboard isn’t essential if you own an iPad. You can do a lot without one and there is always the Apple Pencil and handwriting recognition. Apple’s new Scribble feature can change the way you think about your iPad

But this post is about writing on an iPad. A keyboard is always going to make that easier.

There is no shortage of iPad keyboards to choose from. Any iPad will work with any Bluetooth keyboard.

When you buy an iPad, chances are someone will attempt to sell you a keyboard as an add-on. Apple’s iPad keyboards are the most straightforward choice, although your choice should be down to what you find comfortable. That’s both from an ergonomic point of view and from a budget point of view.

Whether you choose an Apple-branded keyboard or one made by another company, take care to match the size and shape with your iPad. Keyboards serve as protective covers and the ones that fit neatly do a better protection job. 

Magic Keyboard

At NZ$550 a pop, Apple’s Magic Keyboard is an expensive, Rolls Royce option. It’s good. When you use it at a desk or on a flat surface it is little different from a laptop keyboard experience.

The $320 Apple Smart Keyboard Folio is less expensive. It’s the one I choose for when I’m on the move. It has the best balance of function and price. Again, it gives the iPad a laptop feel. Yet it is more flexible and feels less robust than the Magic Keyboard.

Then there’s the NZ$260 Apple Smart Keyboard.

Not all Apple keyboards are available for all iPads. One aspect of the Apple keyboards that you might see as a negative is that they flex more than you might expect if you are typing on your lap. When used this way they are not as solid as laptops.

Two third-party brands to consider are Logitech and Brydge. You can save a few dollars when compared to Apple prices. Brydge makes hard shell keyboards that turn your iPad into something resembling a conventional laptop.

When I last looked there were a dozen Logitech iPad keyboards. The range covers all iPad models. I’ve used a few, they are largely good. 

Protection

All the keyboards that are made to work with iPads offer a degree of protection. That’s important if you are mobile. The devices are not fragile, but once you start moving about the potential for dropping them or doing other damage increases.

Keyboards are a matter of personal taste. I touch type and find there’s a huge variation in what works for me. The only way you can be certain is to have a quick test drive before buying. It may make sense to shop online for an iPad, I recommend you visit a physical store before choosing a keyboard.

Much of the time I use a first generation Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a mStand tablet from Rain Design to hold the iPad. It’s a simple and elegant approach. There are many other options. Any store that sells iPads will have a selection. 

Buying an Apple Pencil can be confusing. There are two models. The one you buy depends on your iPad model.

It’s not realistic to use a Pencil for long writing jobs. They are great for jotting quick notes when on the move. My regret is that I can’t use shorthand to write with an Apple Pencil.

File the Apple Pencil under nice to have rather than essential. Although there are people who say they can’t live without them. It’s a good thing to ask someone to buy you as a present.

Writing apps

There are iPad versions of two best-known writing apps: Microsoft Word and Google Docs. While they may be all you need, there are a wealth of alternatives that may suit your needs better than the juggernauts.

It’s controversial, but I argue Word is a better experience on the iPad than on a Windows or Mac computer. It’s stripped back and has an elegance that’s hidden on a conventional computer.

If your iPad has a screen smaller than 10.1-inches, Word is free.

Otherwise you can buy Word for the iPad as part of any Microsoft Office subscription. If you use the software at work, or on a computer, you may already have a licence.

A Microsoft Office licence costs around NZ$130 a year, although you can find deals.

Word on the Web

There is a web version of Microsoft Word, which is handy if you need the software in a hurry and don’t have the app loaded.

One Word drawback is that it doesn’t dovetail as neatly into the Apple-iPad world as many other writing tools. It pushes you towards using Microsoft OneDrive instead of iCloud or Dropbox. And you sometimes rub up against Microsoft’s this-is-how-we-do-things attitude.

Say you try to mail a Word document. The software assumes you want to send it using Outlook, not the stock iPad Mail app.

Google Docs

Google does something similar with Google Docs on the iPad. You can use the app in its familiar web-based version. When you open a document, say from Google Drive, there’s an option to download and install a Google Doc iPad app.

If you don’t choose to download, opt to open the document in Safari, a second pushier screen pops up asking you a second time. Never forget that installing a Google app gives the company permission to spy on your iPad.

Google Docs works fine on a browser on the iPad. I’m hard-pressed to see any difference in the user experience when compared with Docs on a laptop or desktop computer. If you are all in with Google, the app might make more sense. Otherwise, stick with the web version.

While Microsoft Word has collaboration features, Google Docs is a better choice if you work with others to build documents. Better, not foolproof. 

Apple Pages

Apple’s own Pages word processor comes free with every iPad. It could be all the word processor you need. It will open documents created with Word or Docs and you can send Pages documents in the Word format.

As the name hints Pages is more page design oriented that Word or Google Docs. This works better than you might expect on an iPad, although you will need a larger screen to make the most of it. Pages is ideal, a better bet than Word or Docs, if you plan to create Apple Books or PDFs.

There’s one Pages feature I love, even if it is not my first choice for writing on the iPad. Presenter Mode turns the iPad into an autocue. When I’m on a long radio broadcast, presenting live or doing similar work I use it as a prompt.

Every writer has their favourite apps. Different writing tools perform different functions. What works best for you depends on what writing you do and what you are familiar with.

iA Writer

For my everyday work the best writing app is iA Writer. It may not suit you. iA Writer is not a word processor, it is a text editor. That means it’s a barebones writing app with few features. You can download it from the App Store for NZ$30.

iA Writer uses Markdown. This is a way of formatting text without lifting your hands from the keyboard. It takes minutes to learn and can speed up writing.

Byword is a good NZ$6 alternative to iA Writer. The developers neglected the app for a while, but are now back on the job.

Collabora Office is a promising-looking free iPad version of LibreOffice. I’ll write more about this soon. 

Other writing apps

Two other apps worth considering are Scrivener and Ulysses. I’m not familiar with either beyond testing them both many years ago.

Scrivener, NZ$19 in the App Store, sells as a writing tool to help novelists. That means it has a database to help track characters and other novel elements.

Fans swear by the app. It goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go with writing on my iPad. That is, it adds complexity.

Ulysses has the same Markdown formatting as iA Writer and Byword. It adds more word processor-like features. This sounds contradictory, but it marries a minimalist look and feel with background complexity. You’ll either love it or it will bewilder you.

Pricey subscription

The app is a free download, you can test it without paying. After that it costs NZ$11 a month or $92 a year to use. That makes it expensive if you don’t expect to tap into its complexity.

You aren’t restricted to using an app made for writing. Many general applications include editors that may serve your purposes.

There are iPad users who write everything in the Notes app that comes as part of the iPad operating system.

Tools like Evernote are popular with iPad writers. Bear is another app that comes up in conversations about writing on the iPad. It is more a note-taking app than a text editor, but it covers all the bases. Simplenote is a free alternative.