/ 27 March 2011

How the iPad revolution has transformed working lives

A friend recently went to a business meeting. He prepared by pulling his laptop out of his bag. All of the clients responded by taking their iPads out of their briefcases.

These were not gadget freaks or latte-quaffing Hoxton-based web designers, as some imagine iPad users to be. They were a large group of senior civil servants and bankers, in a country well beyond Europe and the US. To them, the iPad wasn’t a status symbol; it was a device they had chosen to use because it enhanced their ability to do their job.

A year on from its arrival, Apple’s iPad tablet computer still divides opinion. A large group of people insist it is an “overpriced toy” with limited functionality — no keyboard, doesn’t run Microsoft Office, can’t play Flash video, can’t expand its storage. But a growing number believe that, on the contrary, the iPad represents a new frontier in computing. And they simply don’t care what the first group thinks. They’re getting on with using their machines.

We have lived with the PC paradigm for around 30 years now, since IBM introduced its first personal computers and pushed them into businesses in the early 80s. Until the launch of the iPad last year the only comparable change in the market had been the laptop, which led to the emergence of an army of travelling salespeople whose most urgent need was always to find a power point where they could charge their machine’s fading battery.

The iPad seems to be different — a third stage of computing. Horace Dediu, a former analyst with the mobile phone company Nokia who now runs his own consultancy, Asymco, argues that “the definition of a new generation of computing is that the new products rely on new input and output methods, and allow a new population of non-expert users to use the product more cheaply and simply”.

That certainly sounds like the iPad. It shows that it is possible to have something that does all the computing functions you want with a big screen that also has long battery life and weighs almost nothing, certainly compared to a laptop. It is portable and durable, and the touch screen adds another dimension.

Though it has the most prominent tablet in the market, Apple isn’t the only player. Dozens of companies are using Google’s free Android software to power tablets, and Google is helping them along with a custom version called “Honeycomb”, designed for iPad-sized Android tablets. An estimated 17 million tablets — from Apple and others — were sold in 2010, and that number is likely to keep growing.

But is it really changing the way we work? We interviewed a range of people in different professions to see whether the iPad is all hype — or whether in future we will all keep taking the tablets.

Margaret Manning — businesswoman
Margaret Manning first realised that her iPad was going to change how she worked when she was in hospital, recovering from a minor operation, about a month after buying it. “I realised I could comfortably do emails, download a book to read, watch a film, whatever,” she says. “There’s no other device that you can do that with. You certainly can’t read with a laptop in bed.”

Manning (50) is the founder and chief executive of Reading Room, a London-based web development agency employing 170 people. She takes the iPad with her to client meetings and presentations: “It’s got a wow factor,” she says. “I did a presentation that I ran off it, and all the people in the room went, ‘Ooh’,” she recalls, adding: “They were all bankers.”

To Manning, the iPad’s chief virtue is its versatility. She can carry it in her bag to go to clients, check work emails in a coffee shop or train, and then take it to a bar later and kill some time playing a game. It’s become her laptop, TV screen, iPod and iPhone. “It’s adaptive to today’s digital age. You can create and consume content in a different way.”

Key to that is the screen size. “The iPhone was a step towards this, but the format is vital. This allows businesses to start using it in a way they couldn’t with the iPhone.”

She cites an app that Reading Room has developed for Grains Research Development Corporation in Australia which lets farmers examine crops for disease by comparing them, in the field, to pictures on the iPad. That could be done on a laptop — but it would be cumbersome compared to doing it on the handheld screen.

She revels in the simplicity of the interface, and says battery life is key: “If it was shorter, that would change the relationship. If I had to travel with plugs and extra batteries that would change things. The iPhone’s battery life is too short — it hacks me off.”

Are there any drawbacks? “There are two things that it doesn’t do well: the keyboard — if I travel with it, I have to take a lightweight keypad — and voice calls. You can use Skype [the free internet voice call service], but not everybody has Skype, and I can’t use it to call a client. “

Frasier Speirs — teacher
“Nobody has lost a file for a year now,” says Fraser Speirs. “Which used to happen every week — someone coming along and saying they couldn’t find where they’d saved some work or other.”

Speirs teaches computing studies at the private Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, and is also the IT coordinator there. Last year he went to his bosses with a radical plan: equip every one of the children in both the primary and secondary schools with an iPad. And not just for computing studies: for every lesson. Speirs wants them to replace textbooks, though he admits that is still some way off.

But the iPads, with their simplified approach to filing (you can’t choose where to save a file), have made at least part of his life much simpler.

The lack of a keyboard wasn’t an issue. “The problem with laptops in the classroom is the battery life, and the size and weight. When Apple said that it would last for 10 hours, and we realised it actually did, that was really important. And the size and weight matters too for younger children.”

The primary pupils only use them in school; secondary pupils can take them home. And teachers have them too, which has changed their view of computing.

Speirs thinks it is time to reconsider how and what we teach children in an internet-connected world. “Previously, we taught technology just for business needs — Excel, PowerPoint. But now technology is there to assist learning. What do we teach, when you can look up facts in two seconds flat? The answer I think is much more about challenge-based learning, where you give the pupils a high-level goal, and have the teacher support them in achieving it.”

But what happens when those children leave school and encounter laptops and even desktops in businesses? Speirs isn’t worried for them. Children starting at Cedars now will graduate in 2024, he points out — and any company still using desktops by then will be hopelessly behind the curve.

Richard Bowman — physicist
Will the iPad soon become a fixture in science labs alongside Bunsen burners, microscopes and graduated cylinders? Richard Bowman, a 24-year-old physicist doing his PhD at the University of Glasgow, reckons so. His field is optics, and in partnership with colleagues at the University of Bristol he recently developed an app that allows users to manipulate microscopic objects simply by touching the iPad’s screen. Before iTweezers, Bowman employed a desktop computer and a mouse to control optical tweezers, an instrument that traps and moves microscopic particles using laser beams. Now, he does it all on his iPad.

“It’s quite a natural interface,” he says. “It’s like you’re touching the actual particle and pushing it around. We can also move particles up and down with the pinch gesture, which is hard to do with a mouse.”

It may be some time before iTweezers appears on the market — “there are loads of intellectual property issues” — but Bowman has already had interest from scientists in various fields, including chemists at Glasgow University who are using it in experiments with crystals. In the meantime, he’s developing a more commercially viable iPad app called LabVIEW with his colleagues in Bristol: “It puts virtual dials and sliders on the screen to let you control your experiments in the lab”.

One serious limitation of the iPad, according to Bowman, is that “Apple are quite restrictive in what they’ll allow to run on it. You have to register as an Apple developer and use their tools to do things.” But, he adds, “I think the iPad is definitely here to stay — its capabilities are increasing all the time — and multi-touch interfaces definitely are the future. If you can control several things at once, it means you can interact with your experiment better, it can happen faster, and you can do things that you couldn’t do before.”

David Kassan — painter
When David Kassan bought an iPad last spring, his intention was to use it simply as a portfolio to show to prospective clients in the art world. Kassan (34) is a Brooklyn-based artist who paints “really realistic lifesize figures” using oils on wood panel, and the iPad, he says, is “like a perfect art portfolio. You can adjust the colours, it’s a cool thing to hold, and it’s easier to update than a printout. That’s the reason I got it.”

But on a trip to Europe last summer, Kassan started messing around with the ultra-basic Brushes app on his iPad. “I sketched people in subways and airports, and did studies of paintings in museums. I started using it as a completely portable, full-colour sketchbook. It meant I didn’t have to bring watercolours or an easel with me. I could just slide it out of my bag and start using it.”

Now he finds himself painting much more when out and about. “I’m an observer of everything — that’s my job — and the iPad is a great tool to see things around me and be able to record them so that my eye gets keener. Also, if I’m in a museum I can do a study of the colour of a painting, not just the drawing and compositional aspects, which is all I’d really get to understand with pencil and paper.”

Kassan believes that the device has improved his “real painting”, but does this mean that the paintings he does on the iPad will never qualify as “real”? Actually, he says, “I’m working on a piece right now, a lifesize head that I’m trying to do exactly like my real paintings.” Using a more advanced app called Artrage and a Nomad touch-screen paintbrush, he hopes “to make it as realistic as possible, print it up and sign it. I thought I might put it in my next solo show in October to see what it’ll sell for.”

Richie Hawtin — musician/ DJ
Early last year, the DJ and producer Richie Hawtin was putting together a live show to mark 20 years of Plastikman, the most prominent of his many musical alter egos. Due to its scope, the show posed a considerable challenge to the British-born techno megastar. “When you do an electronic performance, traditionally you have a mixing board with all these knobs and faders to create the sound,” he explains. “For this show, each song called for a whole different set of knobs and faders.”

What Hawtin needed, in order to control all those diverse environments at once, was a touch-screen device. The iPad came out in April. Within two months, Hawtin and his team had integrated it into the Plastikman performances. Six months later, they formed a company, Liine, to turn the apps they’d developed into commercial products.

One of these apps, Griid, “allows you to navigate a musical environment that would be hundreds of screens deep if you were trying to look at it on a normal laptop. With your hand movements you can zoom from left to right, find the instrument and the melody that you want, and start, stop or modify it with a quick touch.”

Another app, Kapture, “allows you to take snapshots of different states of your performance. If something amazing comes together, you can capture that moment just by touching the screen, and return to it later. Then you can then morph all these moments of the show together.” Both apps interface with the popular Ableton Live sequencing software and can be used in the studio as well as onstage.

Harnessing touch-screen technology, Hawtin says, is like “following a dark path with a torch and stumbling upon new techniques. The show has evolved into something that we didn’t even realise was possible.” Being able to use both hands on a screen, rather than being tethered to a mouse and keyboard, “transfers a bit more of your spirit into the technology you’re using”.

Ever the restless techno-pioneer, Hawtin is now looking forward to future devices “that can sense not only left or right movements but how much pressure you’re applying to the screen. That, as far as musicians like me are concerned, will be the next huge development.” – guardian.co.uk