There is a man sitting at a small round table in the Starbucks at Valencia airport this early morning. Remnants of what must have been his breakfast are pushed aside, and he’s busy checking stuff on an iPad. The iPad is propped up thanks to some sort of smart cover (non-Apple), and he’s using a third-party Bluetooth keyboard to type things every now and then. He doesn’t look like a novice user, yet he doesn’t strike me as being particularly comfortable operating the device. At times he’s unsure whether to use the keyboard’s arrow keys or raise his hand towards the iPad screen and just move around by using his fingers to scroll and swipe. He hops from one app to another, then back again. He looks more impatient now. He grumbles and frowns.
He has some sort of eureka moment. He grabs the iPad and puts it in portrait orientation. Whatever it is he’s working on, it seems to read better in portrait orientation, but now he can’t prop up the iPad like before, because its cover only allows for comfortable positioning in landscape orientation. He takes some bestseller from his messenger bag and tries to use it as a stand, but without much success. He then holds the iPad with one hand and types with the other using the virtual keyboard, but he’s clearly more uncomfortable than before. Begrudgingly, he repositions the iPad horizontally and reverts to the previous setup. He sighs and checks his iPhone.
I like to do some people watching, every now and then, especially when it involves the use of tech products I read about every day and use myself. My vantage point is excellent for inconspicuously watching what this man is doing, while not invading his privacy, because I can’t see (and I’m not interested in) what exactly he’s doing on his iPad, but I can see how he’s doing it. Again, he looks like someone who knows how to use an iPad, but nonetheless his actions do not convey that he’s enjoying it much. The interaction with the device lacks fluidity. If this is ‘the future,’ I really hope the present will last just a while longer.
I’m travelling light, since I’ll be staying away just for one week. Yet, I need my primary iPhone, a secondary iPhone with my Italian number, and a third iPhone I will use with yet another SIM, because the data plan in that SIM is the most generous and convenient. I’ll have to work, since I’ve previously communicated my availability, so I’ll have to bring my MacBook Pro. What about my iPad? It would be a ‘nice to have too’ option, but a Mac, an iPad, and three iPhones are just a bit too much and certainly don’t qualify as ‘travelling light’, so I decide that the iPad is staying home. Will I miss it? I don’t know. It’s not my main device, but it’s also more than just a satellite in my setup.
After two days away, I realise I don’t miss it. Sure, bringing it with me instead of the MacBook Pro would have made for an even lighter travelling, but apart from the fact that I couldn’t have used it for work, I would have had to make a couple of adjustments I’m not sure I was willing to do. Storage is still an enormous advantage when you have your Mac with you. My MacBook Pro is equipped with a 240 GB SSD and a 500 GB hard drive. While I was away I could enjoy watching movies and shows I’d previously ripped or transferred to the Mac without worrying about running out of available space. If I had brought only the iPad with me, I would have had to delete games and other apps I probably wouldn’t need on my trip, to hopefully make space for those 9-10 GB of media I wanted to watch.
But then another problem would have emerged: I wouldn’t have had enough space on the iPad to also transfer the photos taken with my DSLR. Yes, I could have purchased more iCloud space… to then enjoy the transfer of several megabytes on a cellular network with 3G speeds on a good day. No, thanks. Much better a Mac with lots of local storage space, a fast-enough USB 2.0 connection speed, and no hassles whatsoever. I’ll gladly carry 1.6 kilograms more on my shoulders if it spares me the time I’d waste trying to free up space on the iPad. For content I’d move away from the iPad just a few days later anyway. Sometimes, comfort goes beyond just how much a device weighs.
In one day, I’ve taken a plane, two busses, a train, plus several underground trains while in Milan. I’ve passed through several crowded — and sometimes cramped — spaces. You can’t imagine how glad I was to wear wired earphones and not, say, a pair of AirPods. Getting off the train at Duomo station, a guy bumped into me so hard, both my earbuds dropped off. Being wired, I was able to put them back in quickly. Then there were places where the background noise was, in passing, too loud for me to keep listening to music: it was easy to just give the earphones’ cables a gentle pull and let the earbuds hang and my ears rest, to then resume the listening a bit later, in quieter places. I didn’t have to worry about where to put the AirPods when not using them. Sure, I could have temporarily stored them in my coat pocket. Or just paused the music and kept them both in my ears. Maybe mine are old habits, but I found my good old wired earphones to be too practical in these kinds of situations, and I never found myself wishing for wireless alternatives — as incredible as that might sound to some of you dear readers.
I’m getting back. On the train to Pisa, I decide to review some stuff and maybe write something related to my work-in-progress science fiction novel Low Fidelity. I take out the MacBook Pro. I open it on my lap. I find the right angle for the display to avoid stray reflections. I still miss the antiglare displays of a few years back. Mac OS X finishes booting and I’m presented with the same apps and windows I was using before shutting the Mac down. I write, read, check what I wanted to check. I hop from one app to another, from one virtual desktop to another, and then back again. My hands are firmly in place on the keyboard. My movements are minimal and measured. Sometimes I need to use the trackpad, but it’s right there below the keyboard. I’m comfortable. I feel in control of the interface before me. I don’t have to navigate it by gesturing like a conductor. I don’t feel the need to reach for something to tap on the MacBook Pro’s display, and I ask myself why some people would want a Mac laptop with a touchscreen. I may not be a fan of the latest MacBook Pros, but I’m really glad Apple still has a clear idea of how interfaces should behave on different kinds of devices.