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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Chip Sudderth

How Apple can boost my iPad productivity

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

[Chip Sudderth works in public school district communications and produces two podcasts: Two-minute Time Lord for Doctor Who fans and The Audio Guide to Babylon 5 with Erika Ensign and Shannon Sudderth.]

iPad Air 2 with Origami Workstation, Apple Wireless Keyboard, and Apple Magic Trackpad.

Jason’s November 19 review of the iPad Air 2 points out that iPad software fails to take full advantage of the phenomenal hardware in order to make the iPad a true productivity tool:

Every time I try to use a professional tool with my iPad I end up getting frustrated at how much slower the touch interactions are than just using an old-fashioned keyboard and mouse on my Mac.

Perhaps, in some very specific circumstances, touch interactions aren’t the most efficient way to interact with software. Apple might be able to unlock huge iPad productivity gains for some users through a software update that would certainly be controversial, but it’s one that I would welcome as someone who gets serious work done on my iPad Air.

Apple could add support for external pointing devices on iOS.

Using mice and trackpads with a tablet are hardly unheard of. Of course, Microsoft’s Surface line and other Windows 8 devices require pointing device support, as forcing the user to interact with a PC desktop using only a finger violates several international human-rights conventions. Android tablets support wired and Bluetooth pointing devices, most prominently in the Asus Transformer line. Even jailbroken iOS devices can use BTC Mouse & Trackpad.

I use Incase’s magnificent Origami Workstation case, which protects the Apple Wireless Keyboard and unfolds to support an iPad. It’s far more comfortable for typing than a typical case/keyboard combination, and as a result my MacBook Pro rarely leaves my home. For simple “get it all on the page” writing, it’s superior. (And since iOS 7, apps have been able to define their own keyboard shortcuts.)

But one recent day I had to deal with a complex writing project and manage several outside audio file submissions for one of my podcasts. In addition to the reach-up-and-fumble routine that iPad users know all too well when it comes to heavy cutting and pasting, I had to fire up Parallels Access and manipulate file-transfer apps on a remote PC. The current version of Parallels Access provides ingenious workarounds for interfacing with a desktop, but it’s still painful when you’re in a hurry. Pointing device support would have prevented some new gray hairs.

I also own a 2013 Nexus 7 with an accessory keyboard and cheap Bluetooth mouse. I find iOS’s productivity apps far more elegant than Android’s, and Android’s mouse support isn’t fully baked1. But there’s nothing that feels better than just reaching slightly to the side of the keyboard and effortlessly double-clicking on a word to bold it.

So I crave the opportunity to use a Magic Trackpad with my iPad Air. Although touch interfaces are meant to immerse the user in content consumption and creation, when I’m hard at work that additional bit of hardware would remove an obstacle between me and the iOS experience.

I’m not afraid of the iPad becoming a wasteland of ported Mac apps that require external pointing devices. Apple would undoubtedly refuse to allow any apps with poor touch interfaces and warmed-over desktop experiences into the App Store. And if opening the door for pointing devices in productivity apps could help make the iPad that more viable as a productivity device, why not?

My non-Apple using friends scoff when I describe the elegance of Apple’s software and hardware combination, but it’s true—and most of the time it’s worth trading the customizability of the Windows and Android worlds for the pure Apple experience.

Mice and trackpads would bring new baggage—literally—to the iPad experience. You’re either bringing yet another accessory along with your formerly streamlined device, or you’re pairing your iPad with a Surface-style keyboard/trackpad combination that’s turning your iPad into a MacBook Air wannabe.

Opening the door to recreating the laptop experience on an iPad may also take iOS productivity down the wrong road. If we give up on efficiently editing multitrack audio productions on iOS via any means but a keyboard and trackpad, are we blocking the invention of a truly better approach that fits more natively within iOS?

I realize that among iOS users, I’m an outlier in wanting support for pointing devices. But when I look at that cheap mouse I pair with my Nexus 7, I wish that Apple—having recently added extensibility features in iOS 8—might consider taking a chance on this formerly verboten concept and see what develops.

  1. There’s no right-click support and the mouse pointer operates too literally as a substitute finger; you can’t just click to drop down the tablet’s settings widget but actually have to swipe it all the way down from the notification bar.

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