Essays on Technology and Culture

Finding a Place for iPad

The iPad has always struggled to find a place in my computing life. Not that I haven’t wanted to use it, but it’s historically been a much more limited device than my laptop, while lacking the portability of my iPhone. It didn’t help that I opted for an iPad 3, which was a compromised device thanks to the retina display. While it was fine for a couple versions, OS updates only dragged the performance down—and as for the fancy new features? Forget it.

It did find a niche as where I read my RSS feeds in the morning, read comic books at night, and occasionally banging out words on the go. Not that I did much of the latter. The iPad 3 lacked the portability of the previous models—it felt heavy in my bag, so I mostly left it at home on the dining table. In some ways, it felt like I’d spent $500 on an entertainment device that I could occasionally use for “real” work if I wanted to put up with the limitations of the hardware and software.

About a month in with the iPad Air 2, however, and I’m singing a very different tune. Where the iPad 3 was fun to use, it never made me want to use it more, even before OS updates caused it to slow down. The Air 2 is fast and flexible enough that it can not only do a huge chunk of what I can do on my Mac, but it does it well enough that I want to use it more. I understand how Myke Hurley feels about his iPad Pro now. Doing some stuff on the iPad is slower, but it feels… better somehow.

Case in point: I’ve wanted to see if I could use the iPad for my web programming project. Matt Birchler posted a guide for his web development workflow, but it didn’t fit my needs. I’m developing in JavaScript, and storing code on GitHub, so Coda was out. I’d found a couple Git clients for iOS, so I could access my code on the go. It was just a question of editing it and testing it. After listening to the second episode of Canvas, a podcast on iOS productivity, I found a way.

It turns out the Git client, Working Copy, works as an iOS Document Provider. So, I can use a programming text editor, like Textastic to do the editing, and the changes propagate back into Working Copy where I can test in its integrated browser. It’s not perfect: Textastic hasn’t been updated for split-screen multitasking yet, but it works well enough that I was able to push some bug fixes back into my GitHub repository right from my iPad. That’s incredible.

I don’t expect I’ll be sitting at my dining table and banging away at JavaScript when I can have a more functional coding environment on my Mac. When I’m away from the Mac, though—and the Air 2 is two-thirds the weight of the iPad 3, so I’m carrying it around a lot more—it’s great for quick fixes. Besides, that’s just what I can do with it now. Who knows what incredible functionality iOS 10 will bring, or what apps someone will develop to make what I do on my Mac more appealing to do on the iPad.

Maybe the iPad won’t have a niche. Maybe it’ll become the computer I choose to do most of my work on. I don’t see that happening any time soon. There’s still too many limitations to iOS and the iPad hardware right now, but that’s a temporary problem. Apple’s shown they want make the iPad into something powerful enough for more than just content consumption. I wouldn’t be surprised in a year or two if Apple releases a version of Xcode for the iPad, if only because I can’t imagine iOS Engineers not wanting to write code for their platform on the platform. Until then, I’m happy with my Air 2 and it’s capabilities—but I’m also eyeing the iPad Pro with more than a bit of gadget lust.