Monday, April 26, 2010

Lean Forward + Sit Back = iPad

Remember that classic SNL skit about an advertisement featuring a product that was both a dessert topping and a floor wax?  That's what I think of when I hear the pundits talk about the difference between devices that address the "lean forward" needs (e.g., computers) vs. "sit back" ones that fill our entertainment void (e.g., TVs).

Some experts have long claimed the two have never met and they never will.  They should check out an iPad.  I've finally discovered a device that lends itself to both lean forward use and sit back entertainment.  The only thing that's missing is a good keyboard.

I've already gotten a lot of use out my iPad for accessing things like Google docs and email.  I'm not sure I'd want to use it as my exclusive computing device, but I'm thinking about leaving my MacBook Pro at home on a road trip one day to see what it's like.  So if the iPad is currently a viable option for my lean forward needs, it's an even better solution for sit back use.

I was stuck in Boston's Logan airport recently and my flight home was delayed.  I realized I missed that week's episode of Modern Family (a terrific show, btw).  Logan has free wifi service, so I opened the ABC app (another gem) and watched the show right there in the terminal.  I found myself asking these two questions: First, why doesn't every TV network have an iPad app?  Second, how soon will my DVR become as useful as the 8-track player I recently saw in a relative's garage?

The keyboard is still a bit of an issue for me on the iPad though.  I go with portrait mode mostly because it lets me thumb-type like I used to on the Blackberry.  The landscape keyboard seems silly.  It's too big to thumb-type and there's no way to touch-type on a virtual keyboard.  I tried a friend's Apple Bluetooth keyboard.  It's sleek but I'm glad I didn't spend $70 on one for myself.  I found it awkward to type on my lap and then have to reach out from time to time to touch the screen.  A better solution is for someone to offer a Bluetooth keyboard the size of a Blackberry one so we can thumb-type with a physical device, not a virtual one.  I'd buy one of those because it would also (a) be something I could hold in the air, not put on my lap (fixing the awkward reach/touch problem mentioned earlier) and (b) it's tiny enough to fit in my bag without feeling like I'm lugging yet another device.

But even without the ultimate Bluetooth keyboard solution, I'm definitely finding the iPad enables convergence between lean forward and sit back.  Now if the other TV networks would just release apps I could send my DVR back to Comcast and quit paying the monthly rental fee for it!

Monday, April 19, 2010

My New Favorite App: Offline Pages

It was almost a year ago when I wrote a post on my Publishing 2020 blog about an app I'd like to buy for my Kindle.  Here's how I described the problem last June:

How many emails like this do you get each week?: "You need to read this article over on I just read it and thought it was terrific/funny/relevant/etc."  I get these all the time.  Sometimes I click the link and read the first sentence or two.  If it's good and I don't have time to read it all now I'll leave that browser tab open and hope I don't forget about it, but I often do.  If the article looks really good and I don't want to miss it I might even print it out and read it later.  None of these approaches are very effective though, especially when I also have a $360 Kindle at my disposal.

OK, if you're a glutton for punishment you'll try to access all those articles on your Kindle via Whispernet.  Good luck with that.  Even if you manage to get the page loaded you'll find the formatting and readability is awful in most cases.  And what if you're out of Whispernet range, say, on a plane?

Someone needs to write a desktop application that lets me grab a url and drag it to my Kindle, which is connected to my Mac via USB.  The app has to do more than just drag the web page to the Kindle though; it needs to convert the contents of that page to mobi format so that it looks nice and clean on the Kindle display.

Unfortunately, Amazon never opened their platform to third-party apps so nobody ever had a chance to create this type of service.  Apple's model, on the other hand, encourages third-party app extensions and I recently found the answer to my problem.

The app is called Offline Pages (iTunes link) and hands-down it's the greatest thing I've downloaded to my iPad.  Oh, and get this: The app is totally free!  (Somebody really ought to tell the developer they could easily charge five bucks for it.  Heck, I'd consider it a bargain at $10!)

The app works just like you expect it to.  You can browse the web within the app and save any page you want for later reading.  Even better: In a few short steps you can add a bookmark to Safari on your iPad and quickly save the pages through that browser instead.  Best of all: You can create a bookmarklet in your Mac/Windows browser to save the pages that way.  So if I see something cool while on my Mac, I click the bookmarklet button I installed and the next time I sync my iPad the page shows up in the app.  Outstanding!

I've got two recommendations for future enhancements.  First of all, let me say whether I just want to save this particular page or if I also want to save all the pages linked from it.  There's nothing worse than thinking you've saved an article and it was split into multiple web pages, so you only got the first piece.  For that matter, why not build the logic in to know when there's a "next page" or similar link the app should grab it too?  Second, rather than forcing me to manually sync with iTunes to move pages from my Mac to my iPad, why not do it wirelessly, either through wifi or Bluetooth?

Implement these additional features and you've got a spectacular app.  Either way, this one is already a must-have for anyone who sometimes finds themselves outside a hotspot...and who doesn't fall into that category?!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

InvisibleShield Screen Protector

I got tired of all the fingerprints and smudges shortly after I put my iPad to use.  Admit it.  Yours looks like a Petri dish covered with bacteria too, doesn't it?  You can wipe all you want, but a few taps and pinches makes it look nasty all over again.

Apple tells us we don't need screen protectors.  That's why you won't find them in the Apple Store.  Their display technology is rugged enough to stand up to scratches and nicks.  That may be true but the iPad screen is no match for the oil on all of our fingertips.

I tried finding screen protectors at my local Fry's and Best Buy last weekend.  Fry's still has no iPad-related items and two local Best Buy locations had already sold out of their screen protector shipments.  So much for Apple's claim that they're not necessary.

I got lucky yesterday though.  One of the Best Buy stores got a shipment in and I grabbed a Zagg InstallShield.  The bad news: they retail for $30.  That's right.  $30.  Someone at Zagg clearly understands the law of supply and demand.  Heck, I'm surprised they're not gouging us for $100!  (I went with front protection only, although their "full body coverage" package is only $10 more.  I just don't find myself looking at the back of this iPad very much, so I figured I could save the extra ten bucks.)

The good news is that this thing looks incredibly durable.  If you don't believe me, watch the video below.  I almost cried watching them do all that to a poor, defenseless iPad.

I've used screen protectors on my iPhone for the past couple of years but Zagg's product is the first one I've used with a spray-on applicator step.  They say it's a mostly water-based solution but I'm convinced it dramatically helps with placement and bubble removal.  I was able to apply my protector in a couple of minutes, including the time it took to squeegee off the bubbles.  I still have a few small bubbles but they're only visible when the iPad is off.

Another thing I like about the InstallShield is that it comes with a lifetime guarantee.  I placed my receipt in a safe place knowing that I'll never have to buy another iPad screen protector.

Now that it's on I can honestly say my iPad is smudge-free.  No matter how many times I tap, pinch, spread or do any other gesture, the fingerprints don't show up.  Sure, the bacteria is still there, but at least I don't get a constant visual reminder!

The screen has a slightly different feel with the InstallShield.  An uncovered screen is very slippery while the InstallShield sometimes feels like a dry, plastic surface.  So if your fingertips are dry you'll find the display isn't as smooth to drag across as it used to be.  I've already adjusted though and I almost forgot what the bare screen felt like.

Despite the high price I recommend the Zagg InstallShield.  I feel much better about taking my iPad out in public, both because it's more likely to resist scratches and because it no longer looks a DNA-coated prop from the set of CSI.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The First Road Trip

One of the reasons I was looking forward to picking up my iPad last Saturday is that I was scheduled to hop on a plane less than 48 hours later.  I took it with me on a west coast trip and have the following results to report:

Wifi -- There have been a number of reports of iPad owners having a hard time establishing and maintaining wifi connections.  I wound up using several hotspots along the way including the Indianapolis airport, my Marriott hotel and the one in O'Reilly's Sebastopol office.  I was able to switch quickly and easily between them all.  I didn't run into a problem until the return trip when I wanted to share my laptop's 3G card with my iPad via AirPort.  It worked intermittently at best.  I'd get a connection for a few minutes and then it would drop off.  I need to find a solution to this problem because this 3G card/AirPort combo is my back-up solution for wifi hotspot issues on the road.

USA Today App -- Access to this free iPad app meant I never had to grab a copy of the print version in the lobby.  I like the initial app but I hope they address a couple of issues before too long.  First, others have mentioned this as well but the lack of outbound links limits the app's value.  Is the only news worth reporting on and linking to inside USA Today's four walls?  Of course not, so why are they worried about providing links to other sources?  Second, why in the world don't they offer some sort of auto-update feature?  Let me configure the app so that it pulls down the latest content at, say, 3AM.  That way, if I forget to press "refresh" before I hop on a plane I'll still have the entire day's edition.  And yes, it's perfectly fine to charge a fee for this option!

Books -- I've still got about 8 books from my Kindle days that I need to get through before I buy anything from the iBookstore.  That means I'm spending a lot of time in the Kindle iPad app.  As I noted earlier on my other blog, the Kindle app is weak and needs some attention from Amazon.  That said, at least it lets me finish these other books before I completely switch to the iBooks app.  I find the reversed-out display scheme is better for my eyes.  Rather than black text on a white background I prefer white text on a black background.  As others have also noted, the device is definitely heavier than the Kindle, so I wind up resting it on my stomach, a pillow or directly on the bed.  If that's the price we have to pay for this unbelievable battery life, so be it!

Battery -- Speaking of battery life...  This is the 9th day with my iPad and I've plugged it in exactly twice so far.  I've used it every single day, for several hours each day, and I've only had to charge it twice.  In fact, as I look at it right now, it still has 41% left from the second charge.  Remarkable.

Keyboard -- I believe the iPad's virtual keyboard is a better approach than the Kindle's physical (built-in) keyboard, mostly because it's only there when you need it and you get the benefit of the full screen area when you don't need it.  Nevertheless, I find the iPhone's virtual keyboard tolerable but the iPad's less so.  I'm so tempted to try and touch-type but it's hopeless without any tactile feedback.  I'm trying to do more on my iPad and less on my MacBook Pro but I'll never get there with a virtual keyboard.  I've looked at the Bluetooth keyboard Apple offers but it seems kind of big to me.  I can't imagine stuffing that in my bag along with the iPad and everything else I lug around.  I would have thought Apple could come up with something that's even smaller and elegant.  Heck, I'd even take a little thumbs-only Bluetooth keyboard that's about the same size and layout as the older Blackberry's used.

The bottom line: I learned a few things along the way but I didn't miss my Kindle a bit.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Device Interoperability

I'm four days into my iPad experience and there are two features I long for most: multitasking and device interoperability.  Multitasking is a popular request and many are hoping the OS 4 announcement scheduled for this Thursday will address this issue.  But what do I mean by "device interoperability"?

I now have a MacBook Pro, an iPhone and an iPad.  All are terrific devices but they don't talk to each other as well as I'd like them to.  Here's an example: Let's say I'm looking at a PDF on my MacBook.  I realize I'm going to have to spend more time reading this document than I originally thought and it would be far more convenient to do so on my iPad.

Sure, I can email it to myself or find some other way to get it from MacBook to iPad, but why not build this device-to-device communication mechanism right into the hardware?  I should be able to right-click on the document on my MacBook and the menu should include an option to "View on Joe's iPad".  If I select that one, the file gets transferred to my iPad and in two simple clicks the operation is complete (via wifi or Bluetooth).  I should also be able to do the same in reverse.

How about the AIM app?  I'm one of those people who sometimes forgets I'm still logged in on my MacBook when I run an errand over lunch.  People IM me and nobody is there to respond.  Why not leverage the sensor technology built into many of these devices and have my AIM session follow me around?  So if I log into AIM on my MacBook, it uses Bluetooth to sense what other devices I have nearby (e.g., iPad, iPhone).  The MacBook AIM app notes that my iPhone is close by and immobile.  When I get up for lunch, the sensors realize that I'm still logged in on my MacBook but now my iPhone is moving and getting further away from the MacBook.  As a result, the devices work together to shift my AIM session from MacBook to iPhone and I don't miss any messages.  The session automatically moves back to my MacBook when I return.  All of this is customizable by distance between devices and other relevant settings.

Those are just two examples but they show how these terrific devices could be even more powerful working together rather than independently.  Can you think of any other scenarios where this would be useful?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLB AtBat for iPad: First Impressions

It's opening day, or should I say night(?), and in about 90 minutes I'll start cheering the Yankees on to yet another championship.  That will be their 28th, Red Sox fans... :-)

I've been a huge fan of MLB's AtBat app for the iPhone.  I spent $9.99 on it this year and I didn't mind spending 50% more than that this year.  I was a bit surprised that I'd have to fork over another $14.99 to get the iPad version, but hey, I'm hooked.

I gotta say though, so far I'm underwhelmed with my purchase.  In all fairness, the first pitch of the season has yet to be thrown, but why does it look like I get access to more content in the iPhone version than the iPad version?!  For example, I see all of the latest video highlights on my iPhone, so where are they in the iPad app?  Am I missing the link somewhere?

Secondly, when I envisioned an iPad implementation of this app I thought it would have a lot more sizzle than what I've seen so far.  One obvious feature is to let you watch the pitch animator for more than one game at a time.  The screen is huge, so why not let me have a couple of in-game views on at once?  It also looks like you're limited to the audio feed for the game you're watching the pitch animations on.  How about letting me listen to one game while I watch another?  It seems like MLB has taken Apple's lack of multitasking a step further, unfortunately!

Finally, I had visions of getting lost in the app, touching one image after another and going deeper and deeper into it.  I get the impression you can only go about one or two levels deep before you've reached a dead end.  Maybe they're trying to avoid too many pop-up windows.  If so, that's too bad.  I was hoping to truly discover the depths of the season and I just don't feel this version will let me.

I hate to say it, but at this point, if you've already invested $14.99 in the iPhone version I don't recommend you double your investment with the iPad version.  It's just not worth it, at least not yet.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

iPad: The First Six Hours

I've been fully engrossed in my new iPad for the last 6 hours.  Much of what I've discovered so far is close to what I expected, but it's been a mix of pros and cons.  Here's a summary:

Thumbs Up
Display -- Simply put, the display is spectacular.  The richness of the colors and the deepness of the images is second to none.  As a result, even the iPhone-only apps look better on the iPad.  Seriously, if you put them side-by-side you'll see the iPhone image looks more washed-out.

Battery Life -- So far, the battery charge lasts as long as advertised.  I haven't plugged mine in yet and I'm still looking at a 64% charge.  And that's with heavy use over 6 hours, including downloading many apps, surfing many web pages, etc.  Very impressive.  (Btw, I was never wowed by the Kindle's ability to go several days without recharging.  I have access to electricity every day/night, so I don't need more than the 10 hours the iPad offers!)

Moving from Kindle -- I immediately installed the Kindle iPad app and downloaded all my books.  Thanks to wifi being faster than Whispernet that process took less time than when I originally bought them!

Great for Workouts -- I've tried reading from my iPhone on an elliptical and I just can't do it.  There's too much shrinking and expanding of pages, which is fine when you're sitting but not so much when you're working up a sweat.  The iPad was an outstanding workout companion though.  It fits nicely on a magazine/book holder and the backlit display is very readable, even with all the movement on an elliptical.

USA Today -- This is one of the iPad apps that was available on day one.  It's just what you'd expect and feels like reading the print version but without the hassle of getting ink all over your hands.  It's not just the functionality of this one that caught my eye though...I feel like I've finally found a device that I can bring to the breakfast table.  I never warmed up to the idea of eating with my laptop but the iPad (and my incase cover/holder) is a wonderful combination.  I'd love to dump my hometown paper but (a) they don't have an iPad app and (b) my wife likes to read it too, so I'm stuck for now (till the next gen iPad comes out and this one becomes a hand-me-down for my wife!).

Real iPad Apps -- Speaking of apps...  Most of the iPad-specific apps (as opposed to iPhone ones that run on the iPad) make nice use of the larger surface area.  I'm sure we'll see many enhancements here in the coming months but many of the ones available today are worth paying for.  Stay tuned for a future post on my favorites, btw.

Product "Fit" -- This is the area that has me most excited.  Remember how Steve Jobs talked about how this device would fit between a smartphone and a laptop?  A lot of people struggled with that concept.  I did too, mostly because I was coming at it from a Kindle point of view.  I always used my Kindle separately from my laptop.  It was either one device or the other, never both simultaneously.  I see my iPad propped up right next to my laptop running apps that are better suited for the ultra-portability of the iPad.  For example, I'll probably run AIM on my iPad, not my laptop, going forward.  And for those late nights I'll have MLB running on my iPad, right next to my laptop.  Those are just a couple of simple examples but I'll bet there will be more as the iPad app list grows.  I plan to follow-up on this with a post in the not-too-distant future as well.

Thumbs Down
Where's the NY Times?! -- Holy cow.  I still can't believe there's no NY Times iPad app.  As my O'Reilly colleague Brett McLaughlin pointed out: The NY Times has been featured so prominently in many of the iPad promo pieces, it's hard to figure why there's no app.  I was all ready to sign up for a $15/month subscription but I can't get them to take my money!

Single-tasking -- If there's ever a reason to jailbreak an iPad, this is probably the one.  As I noted in an earlier tweet, the lack of multitasking stands out even more on the iPad than it does on the iPhone.  Let's hope the rumor of a summer OS upgrade with multitasking comes true.  This is a big hole, IMHO.  And hey, if it's all been done in the name of battery life, I'd be happy with 6 hours instead of 10!!  But let me choose whether I want multitasking or long battery life; don't do it for me, OK?

Where are all the Magazines? -- Time looks nice but I'm not paying $4.99 for a single issue.  Why can they offer a free copy or two for a trial subscription in print but not on the iPad?  Stupid.  I haven't dug into this thoroughly enough but I'm just not seeing much in the way of other magazine and newspaper products.  Very disappointing.

Smudges, Smudges & More Smudges -- Dear Mr. Jobs, just because you refuse to sell screen protectors in your stores doesn't mean the iPad display resists fingerprints!  As David Pogue noted in his earlier review, it's even more noticeable when the screen is turned off.  I can't wait to buy a screen protector for this thing!

Moving from Kindle -- Yep, it's both a thumbs up and a thumbs down.  I'm glad I have the option of reading all my Kindle books on my iPad.  I'm officially finished with my Kindle, but Amazon, please wake up and realize the Kindle iPad app sucks.  It's nothing more than a very basic reader.  Yes, I know you want to encourage Kindle hardware sales, so you're worried about adding too much functionality to the iPad reader.  Get over it!  This too will be the subject of a separate, dedicated blog post down the road.

Weight -- Have you noticed how most of the promo shots of the iPad show them on people's laps?  That's because the iPad weighs a lot more than a Kindle and you won't use the same technique to hold both.  That's also one of the reasons I love the fact that my iPad cover has a built in stand.  Very nice.  I just can't help thinking most of what's between the covers on this device is just one ginormous battery, hence the 10-hour life!

App Shortage -- I think Apple should have done a better job making sure more iPad-specific apps were available at launch.  I'm pretty sure I managed to look through all of them in less than an hour.  Yes, more are in the works and we'll see them soon, but it's disappointing that the list isn't deeper today.  And btw, the 2x mode available for iPhone apps is lame at best.  I have a hard time picturing Steve Jobs getting excited about this feature.  It doesn't feel very Apple-esque.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

An iPad App I'd Love to See

If you're like me you get messages from colleagues and friends throughout the day with links to interesting articles, blog posts and other items they're suggesting you read.  I rarely have an opportunity to look at those links immediately and I have to admit that sometimes they fall through the cracks and I never get to them, which is my loss.  I try to reserve some time each night to catch up on the latest news and articles but I've never found an effective way to pull in all those items that come to me through email and IMs.

I'd love to see a solution where I right-click on any url on my laptop (in email, AIM, a document, etc.) and a menu pops up with an option to "Save page on iPad".  So I want a desktop applet that talks to my iPad, telling it to go out to the web, pull down that page and save it so I can read it, even if I'm offline later.  If my laptop and iPad aren't linked up my laptop should queue up all these link requests and transfer them as soon as they can reconnect.  One of the keys here is that I need all these pages to be available offline (like the Instapaper fact, this would be a nice feature for Instapaper to think about), so that I can read them on a plane, for example.

I'm not sure of the best way to enable this laptop-to-iPad communication, but it shouldn't be hard to pull off, right?  Is this an app you'd use?