iPad, text editors, workflows, and a frustrated digression on simplicity

Tech Life

I have greatly enjoyed Federico Viticci’s iPad Air 2 Review: Why the iPad Became My Main Computer and I really think it’s required reading for those who still doubt the power of the iPad as a portable computer.

As I was reading his article, I stopped and thought: what Federico and I do is not that different. I’m a writer (and I’m not into podcasting, so I don’t even share that kind of workflow and don’t need podcasting hardware and software), I do a decent amount of photo-editing, I read a lot, I manage email, I take a lot of notes, I’m on Twitter and App.net, I have my selection of RSS feeds to follow… you get the picture. I stopped and thought: then why isn’t the iPad my main computer as well? Why can’t I go iPad-only, too?

I ‘get’ the iPad, I love using my good old third-generation model, and I really agree with Viticci’s conclusions — the iPad can be an empowering and liberating device. So what’s wrong in my case? What is it that doesn’t work?

A certain workflow fragmentation perhaps (and my workflows are nowhere as complex as Federico’s!), and the need to have an eye on multiple open windows and files, especially when I’m writing fiction.

Speaking of writing, here’s a recent anecdote. I’m in my home office, sitting at my MacBook Pro in desktop configuration, writing an episode of my novel, Low Fidelity (more information: here and here). When I’m writing fiction, my preferred tool is TextEdit, I write in rich text format, all my files are RTF. Nothing fancy, but I need to see the formatting. I need to see the parts in italics, bold, in smaller font size, that sort of thing. I can’t write fiction in Markdown or HTML like I do when I’m writing articles to be published online or on my Vantage Point magazine.

My upstairs neighbours have been doing renovations for a while now, and in the late morning they start making noises that prevent me from concentrating, so these days I’m practically forced to continue my work somewhere else. I don’t feel like disconnecting everything to bring the MacBook Pro with me. Nor do I feel like taking one of my PowerBooks. I want to travel light, so I take a small backpack, put the iPad 3 and the Incase Origami Workstation inside, then a few pens and notebooks, and I’m off to the library. Of course, I’ve saved my work in a dedicated Dropbox folder, so I’ll be able to easily resume writing from the iPad.

Once arrived, I set up the Origami Workstation, wake the iPad, and from there — at least theoretically — it’s just a matter of picking a text editor among the few I’ve purchased and— oh wait… None of them will handle my RTF files saved with TextEdit. Not Phraseology, not iA Writer, not Daedalus Touch (my favourite of the bunch), not WriteRight… Then there are apps like UX Write and GoodReader which at least let me read the RTF files I need, but to actually continue my work right where I left it, I have to copy what I wrote, paste it into a new text document (say, in Daedalus Touch) in the same Dropbox folder, and take it from there. And write in plain text, or Markdown, which may be fine with you, but it’s hugely annoying for me.

Sure, if I had to work on the iPad only, or if my setup were iPad-first, Mac as a secondary device, instead of the other way round, my approach would probably be different, and I would perhaps choose my tools more carefully. Still, I would need to use a pleasant application that lets me write in rich text format directly (no, I don’t want to write in Markdown and check the preview all the time). When I publicly expressed my frustration, some suggested I use Microsoft Word for the iPad, or Apple’s Pages both on the Mac and the iPad. These solutions, however, strike me as a bit overkill for my needs, and frankly it’s also a bit silly that I have to compromise and resort to tools I don’t like using just because they do the job (I also don’t want to use iCloud for syncing — it’s a long story that I’ll leave for another article, maybe). I did that back in the 1990s and I hated it.

It looks like I’m whining, but bear with me. I’m not saying that the iPad is at fault here, because it’s not. I’m not saying there’s a shortage of iOS text editors, because there is not. The iPad and my frustration in having to change my workflow on the fly because of an unexpected snag are just triggers that have led me to another, deeper frustration — that despite all the talking about simplifying things, about solutions to eliminate friction, technology is still a complicated affair. And in a few places, unnecessarily so.

One of the problems is that apparently we can’t agree on what simplicity is or should be. Let’s stick to iOS text editors. My idea of simplicity, as one who has used computers for writing for about thirty years, is that today we should be able to write using a completely WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface. Rich text format shouldn’t be a problem given the hardware capabilities of today’s machines. Instead we have to deal with ‘code’ and plain text as if we were still using WordStar under DOS. I have nothing against Markdown per se, but I’m starting to get tired of this minimalist trend in writing tools, sadly endorsed by more than a few tech-savvy writers. Simplicity here, for me, is clicking/tapping a button and seeing the text in bold right away, or in italics, or neatly organised in a bulleted/numbered list. Not using asterisks *for emphasis* or hash signs for #different ##headings ###etcetera. My point is, it’s 2015, and we shouldn’t be resorting to solutions like Markdown to maintain formatting across tools and platforms — we should be using formatted text everywhere effortlessly, in a WYSIWYG way.

If you take a look at the afore-linked list of iOS text editors, carefully compiled by Brett Terpstra, you’ll see that of all those apps (107 at the time of writing, the list was last updated on December 12, 2014), only one can both create/edit and export RTF documents — Textilus. Then there are Daedalus Touch and Wisdom Writer, which can only export to RTF, and Knowtes which can open RTF files in external apps. That’s it.

Yes, dear pedant nerd reader, I know that RTF is a proprietary format developed by Microsoft, and that I’m throwing ‘RTF’, ‘Rich text’ and ‘formatted text’ in the same cauldron. What I’m saying is that today, with text, the idea of simplicity is that we use markup languages for formatting — while my idea of simplicity is that, by now, we should have all the necessary technology (and plenty more) to just be free to use formatted text directly, everywhere. We should not approach writing as if we are inputting code or instructions. This idea of simplicity is for engineers and programmers.

I’m reminded of what Donald Norman says in The Design of Everyday Things:

Designers often think of themselves as typical users. After all, they are people too, and they are often users of their own designs. Why don’t they have the same problems as the rest of us? The designers I have spoken with are thoughtful, concerned people. They do want to do things properly. Why, then, are so many failing? […]

There is a big difference between the expertise required to be a designer and that required to be a user. In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device. […]

Designers have become so proficient with the product that they can no longer perceive or understand the areas that are apt to cause difficulties.

With simplicity in technology, we’re following similar lines. The simplicity users need or expect in their interaction with today’s devices is often different from the simplicity offered by hardware and software makers. When the two coincide, the result is a great user experience. But when that doesn’t happen, then we have frustration, workflows broken by the stupidest details or quirks, difficulty in using potentially flexible and empowering devices — such as the iPad — with maximum efficacy.

To conclude, and to return back to the beginning of this piece, what Federico Viticci has achieved — using the iPad as his sole computing device — today should be a simple process, and more people should be able to do the same. But it’s still a road uphill. It takes time and determination. It takes patience. Federico is a power user, and has got to where he is with his iPad by constantly refining his workflows and methods, by constantly researching apps and solutions, by trying different approaches to optimise the process. A lot of regular users I know (and I bet you know your share too) aren’t willing to go down that road. They perhaps want a certain simplicity and a certain fluidity and integration in carrying out tasks with their iPads that gets complicated or thwarted by the fragmentation of the There’s an app for every little thing model.

For people like Federico, having all these little blocks at one’s disposal is the opportunity to create rich and efficient constructions (workflows). Other people, instead, get confused and bewildered by all the little blocks and stick to a few of them that are immediately useful and familiar, keeping tasks and activities separated, and generally ending up using an iPad at half of its potential. I have a friend who realised exactly that problem in how he uses his iPad, and told me what he thought was the cause: “I mistook the device’s intuitiveness for simplicity” and added, “Simplicity should scale better.”

And thus ends this rather meandering piece.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!