Sunday, May 30, 2010

Travels With My iPad

Like some fair portion of the world - well, to be accurate, my professional world - I've wanted to see how the new category of tablet devices (okay, let's be frank, it's a category of one) travel.

Yeah, I know, I'm the one traveling, and the iPad is my accompaniment. I left the laptop at home.

How'd it go? Pretty well. As both a work device and a leisure aid, the iPad acquitted itself with aplomb. Of course, I was prepared for its limitations and didn't expect too much - which is good, because there's much about this contraption that is not intuitive. My gut tells me that one day we'll look back on the iPad as the Model T of tablets: radically transformative, but also quite quaint.

Now, on to some hopefully helpful tales, told and typed from the terrace of my room at the Hotel Playa Sol in Cadaques, in the northeast corner of Catalonia.

The purpose of my trip was to facilitate a brainstorming session at the global management meeting of the great, London-headquartered creative agency BBH. (That's co-founder John Hegarty, whom I first met at an ad awards judging nearly two decades ago, to the right, above.) After that, I had the IAB Europe Interact Congress in Barcelona. In between, I had five days to kill. I considered flying back to the U.S. ... for about five minutes, after which common sense compelled me to spend the down time exploring parts of Spain's Costa Brava.

I bought my iPad on the first day it went on sale, so it doesn't have 3G capability. I did not intend to use it to give presentations - although I find it's excellent CPR that purpose, at least in a one-on-one setting. But I did need it for basic utilitarian purposes: to review (not compose) Powerpoints, store maps and other important travel and work documents, read, write, email, network. And blog, I guess. The hotels I'd selected all had WiFi - maddeningly, the expensive business hotels all charge exorbitantly for it, while my lovely, reasonably priced vacation hotel here in Cadaques offers it for free. So I assumed 3G would be unnecessary. I was right, but I had both my iPhone and Blackberry, in case of data emergencies.

I also brought the small Apple wireless keyboard. But I'll tell you: For a practiced journalistic typist like me - which is to say, a deployer of two to six fingers at a time - the keyboard proved somewhat superfluous. I'm typing this lying on my back in bed with the iPad propped on my knees in landscape mode.

An important early discovery was Goodreader, for which tip I have to thank Jason Klein of the Newspaper National Network. It's a superb document reader. For a traveler, it allows the construction of a terrific atlas. Just make your maps in Google maps, save them as PDFs in Firefox, then load them into Goodreader. Not only is this more customized than any paper map, but it fits far more easily in your hand while driving.

Apple has been touting the iPad as a new kind of media consumption device, and it is, in spades. In my hotels, in Starbucks, at the WiFi-included The Only Running Footman pub in London's Mayfair section (seen above, through a glass, darkly) I had an easy time keeping up with The Times, the Journal, Facebook, business email, and Tweetdeck, which on the 'Pad is as close to a new form of media as I've seen - the socially-edited publication.

Yes, Netflix streaming is cool as hell, too, but not overseas; the service's contracts with studios and distributors allow it to stream movies only inside the United States. But Apple's iTunes store is open for business, regardless of where you are. I assume Amazon is there for you, too, but I loaded all my movies and books ahead of time. I haven't watched any of the movies, though; I'm loving the iPad as a reader. I could never cotton to the Kindle, but I find myself poring through novels (on this trip, Theodore Dreiser's "The Financier") on the 'Pad. It's not great for reading while lazing by the pool in full sun - but we shouldn't be sitting in full sun now, should we, hmmm?

Sorry for sounding like a nanny there, but the iPad does that to you. At every turn is a reminder that Apple knows what's better for you than you do. Like Flash - the high cholesterol of Apple's world. It's bad for you, says the device maker, so we don't offer it. Problem is, the lack of Flash support really limits the 'Pad's utility as a Web surfing device. When trying to review in advance Catalonia hotel and restaurant options on a two-and-a-half hour journey on a WiFi-equipped bus, I found the 'Pad almost useless: Virtually all these retail sites had significant portions built in Flash. It's all well and good for Apple to wax on about the virtues of HTML5, but I wonder how many small retailers in southern Spain are going to rebuild their sites any time soon because of this ideological dispute. The lack of multitasking is also a major annoyance; throughout the trip, I found myself constantly shutting down applications to do a quick Google search, and then reopening the previous app to continue with my business.

Also (and this isn't really Apple's fault, although as the hands-on master of the iTunes App Store it must bear some responsibility) most apps simply aren't fully intuitive, and almost none come with good documentation. Given how much more expensive most iPad apps are than the iPhone's impulse buys, one's desire for better documentation is high. Working in Goodreader, BlogPress and other apps required frequent shutdowns in order to hunt Google for tips and tricks. And I still can't figure out whether BlogPress will allow me to center, boldface or italicize text (or spellcheck) as I can do on Blogger on my grownup Mac.

Much of the iPad, in fact, strikes me as forced infantilism. I spent one day in London meeting with Guy Phillipson and his remarkable senior team at IAB UK (shown above). We discussed the latest developments in digital video, social media, and many other things that simply aren't fully accessible on the 'Pad. Why not? It almost seems as if Apple is saying: Forget the past 15 years. Forget all the habits you've built as a user. Forget hyperlinking - for the most part, you can't seem to cross from app to app. (Venture capitalist Fred Wilson just blogged about this, but I cant link to him.) Forget socialism; very few apps make room for conversation. Forget your short attention span, your frantic multitasking, your need to know now and fix it now and publish it now. The iPad represents the opposite of those old Burger King commercials. Instead of "have it your way," it's "do it our way." Or don't dare do it at all.

This all makes me postulate that as the Model T of tablets (you can have it in any color, so long as it's black) will have to be supplanted by a more Alfred Sloan-like approach (a device for every purse and purpose), and we'll soon see more newfangled tabs that allow us to do what we want to do. For now, one lives with workarounds.

And truth to tell, it's not so bad.

I figured out I could email photos from my iPhone to myself, save them on the iPad, and upload them in BlogPress. (Or so I think - we'll soon know.) This will do until a more fully featured blog editor comes along. I'm frustrated that The New York Times app won't let me tweet stories ... but I'm emailing them a lot more than I used to, because I'm reading - really reading - them a lot more than I used to. I expect Microsoft will release app versions of its Office suite, but until then, I'm even struggling through learning Keynote. I don't want to; as good as it is, I spent too many years perfecting my Powerpoint skills to want to bother to absorb yet another storyboarding application. But I can see how these tablets will make life just a little bit easier - and lighten the load on my back.

But let's not dwell on such things here in Catalonia. Here, in the home port of Salvador Dali -

- let's celebrate instead real creativity.

And laud the ideas we can hatch, rather than the applications we hatch them with.

And the sun and the sea.

And the catch of the day.

And art that lives.

And wine and tapas.

And the meeting of the minds...

... Here in Catalonia...

... On the terrace of the Hotel Playa Sol.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Carrer de Pianc,CadaquƩs,Spain


  1. Great post, Randall. My iPad s now pretty much my primary computer, other than when I need to create/edit PowerPoint files.

  2. I'm typing this on my iPad while sitting on my porch with an eye on Lake Michigan - paradise comes to mind.

    Randy, your post about the iPad captures much of my own experience. I bought the 3G version figuring it would be right given all my travel but I'm not so sure - at least I can shut off the data charges.

    I've switched my print magazine subscriptions to digital and read those magazines using the Zinio app. I read the NY Times via Safari as their app is really limited. And I like the Barnes & Noble book app these best of iBooks and Kindle (lots of display optiions, good integration with dictiionay and web, wide selection of books and I'm still partial to going to a real bookstore.

    The best app I've so far is something called Star Walk: go outside at night, tilt the iPad at the sky and see what's up there. Really well done.

    The biggest drawback: the company I work for does not support the iPad (nor does it support the iPhone). Using sports-speak: if the iPad is supported, I don't need a laptop.

    Keep using this neat device and spreading the word.