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iPad typewriter

As Robin Williams’ book title says: The Mac is not a typewriter. On the other hand, Apple’s iPad might be.

My iPad links to an Apple Wireless Keyboard and runs iA Writer. This combination gives me the closest thing I’ve seen in 25 years of computing to an old-school manual typewriter.

For a journalist that’s a good thing.

Typewriter easy

Apple didn’t design the iPad with word processing in mind.

On its own the iPad is a poor writing tool. Although the larger on-screen keyboard makes for better typing than using a smartphone.

Yet here I am tapping away and loving the experience more than I have done since my last typewriter ribbon dried up back in the 1980s.

Have I taken leave of my senses?

Let me count the ways I love you

Three things make the iPad typewriter-like:

1. Radical simplicity.

The iPad, Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and iA Writer make for simple and distraction free writing.

There’s no mouse. That’s great because lifting hands off the keyboard to point and click is the number one cause of pain for old-school touch typists working on PCs.

Until you stop writing, the keyboard controls everything.

At the same time, the crisp serif text on a plain screen is the nearest thing to a type on a sheet of paper. Wonderful.

2. Text editor

iA Writer is a text editor. Not a word processor.

There’s nothing dancing on my screen. No pop-ups, no incoming email. At least not the way I’ve set things up.

It is just me and my words. The only word processor-like feature is the iPad’s built-in spell checker, which mainly stays out-of-the-way.

Best of all, iA Writer doesn’t do page layout. I don’t care how my words look because I can’t tinker. That’s one less thing to worry about.

This all adds up to fast, productive writing.

3. Quick on the draw

Typewriters don’t need to warm-up, to boot or load applications. Nor does the iPad.

My normal morning practice is to make a cup of tea while waiting for the PC to be ready for writing. The iPad is ready in seconds.

I can get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. The first 100 words or so are nailed on the iPad before I’d get started on the PC.

The best computer bits are still there

While my iPad writing combination kills the bad stuff about word processing, it keeps the best feature: The ability to go back over copy and make corrections. This was always a pain when using a typewriter.

And I send my writing to just about anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds. Try doing that with a real typewriter.

Other plus points

My iPad and keyboard are a lot easier to carry than my ageing and neglected portable typewriter – and easier than my laptop.

The battery life is long. I can work a whole day without needing to find a power point.

iA Writer uses DropBox. This means my work is available to me on any computer anywhere in the world.

Dell’s decision to stop making netbooks comes as no surprise. The market for tiny, underpowered laptops was under threat from the moment Apple released its first iPad.

I doubt it will take long for other brands to drop them.

Pioneering portability

Netbooks had two things going for them when they first appeared. They were portable – far easier to carry around than conventional laptops. And they were cheap. Some also had great battery life at a time when laptops struggled to last for two hours without a recharge.

Tablets like the iPad do portable and battery life better. The good ones, like the iPad, are more expensive, the extra price is easily justified and not beyond most people in rich countries like New Zealand.

Netbooks a necessary step

It would be easy to sneer at netbooks. They were a necessary step in computer evolution.

Netbooks proved there was a place for stripped down computers with limited functionality. They showed portability and great battery life were possible and demonstration what a difference these two features could make. They also showed computer makers there was a market. In many ways they prepared the ground for tablets.

Lightweight software

They spurred software development. The first models ran Linux and lightweight applications for word processing and other tasks. This put pressure on Microsoft and others to cut operating system and application bloat. Smaller, lighter apps arrived. All of these were good developments.

Netbooks opened the door for personal cloud computing. Google apps and similar first became popular on those tiny machines too feeble to run Microsoft Office. And that put pressure on Microsoft to improve the apps.

IDC Research reports Apple overtook Acer and Dell in a single quarter to become the second best-selling PC brand in Australian and New Zealand. Hewlett-Packard remains top.

Jumping a single place would have been an achievement, climbing two spots is outstanding.

Apple’s rise comes at a time the overall PC market is weak. Ironically, the main reason PC sales are soft because devices like Apple’s iPad and iPhone are eating into their sales.

IDC says one reason for Apple’s success is its retail store expansion. This is interesting because we don’t have a single Apple store in New Zealand while Australia has 13.

I understand there was, or may still be, a gentleman’s agreement between Renaissance, the erstwhile exclusive New Zealand Apple distributor and Apple saying the company will not open an own-brand store here until some future date.

That day can’t come too soon. I know of friends who fly to Sydney expressly to visit an Apple store. I see this as a measure of the unsatisfactory New Zealand Apple retail experience.

There have been Apple products in my house since a few weeks after the first 128K Macintosh went on sale. We bought two Apple products this year, two last year and have plans to buy at least two more next year.

Apple makes outstanding equipment. Now I’m ready for some outstanding retail customer service. Let’s hope we get a store soon.

On Saturday I picked up a printed hardback novel I ordered from my local public library. When I got home I sat down to read. And read.

I read for five hours straight. On Sunday I woke early and read for another three hours without disturbing my sleeping wife.

Which is more than I can do with an ebook

Neither would have been possible with an ebook. I know, I’ve tried three specialist ebooks, Apple’s iPad 2 and an Android phone. None work for me when it comes to a serious reading session.

This undermines my plan to be a paperless journalist.

I’ve found I can’t read an ebook for one whole hour, let alone five. There are three problems, two are physical, the third may be a personal failing.

Blurry vision, headaches

First, my eyes go blurry after about forty minutes. They weep. I don’t mean I’m crying, I mean water fills my eyes and runs down my cheeks. On some occasions the ebook experience also gives me headaches.

When this happens my eyes stay blurry for some time after I stop reading. At least an hour, maybe more. I can’t drive or do much that requires good vision.

This doesn’t happen with printed books.

Sleep deprivation

If I read a printed book last thing before switching out the light, I can usually fall asleep minutes after hitting the pillow. If I read using a screen I struggle to sleep at all. I suspect the colour and brightness of the display has something to do with this. You may have another idea. Please share it if you do.

Butterfly concentration

My third problem with sustained ebook reading is I get distracted. This may be a failing on my part or it may be related to the discomfort described above. Either way, I find it hard to concentrate on an ebook. This isn’t a problem reading novels, it is a problem when I’m reading non-fiction.

I’m in a race to see whether I lose my concentration or my vision first. It turns out I’m not alone.

Backlighting blues

When I read a printed book in bed early in the morning, it doesn’t disturb my wife. When I tried reading an ebook early one morning, it woke her.

I should confess I haven’t tried a specialist ebook device in months. The technology may have improved. Perhaps I should try again. In recent weeks I’ve read books on an iPad – I took one loaded with a library on a recent trip.