The Limits of Text Editing on an iPad

As soon as Apple announced the availability of iWork apps for the iPad, I began imagining a time when I could sell my MacBook Pro and depend entirely on my iPad for getting work done when on the road. To be clear, I am talking about using the iPad for the limited subset of work-related tasks I need to do when traveling — not as a complete replacement for a Mac. The primary such task is writing online articles (such as this one!).

I recently returned home from a 10 day trip. I had both my MacBook Pro and iPad with me. As an experiment, I began the trip by attempting to get by with just my iPad. The iPad was superb for a wide variety of tasks: Web surfing, checking email, keeping up with Twitter, viewing photos, playing games, reading an ebook, and staying current with news, stocks, and weather. If these were all I needed to do, I would gladly sell my MacBook Pro tomorrow.

However, I also wanted to use the iPad to write a couple of articles. For this task, it was an almost complete failure. In less than an hour, I gave up in frustration and switched back to the MacBook.

I knew that the current version of the iPad might not make it in this regard. But I had been hopeful that, as the software and hardware inevitably improved, my imagined future might become a reality. I am no longer confident that this day is coming — at least not any time soon. Several of the problems I had did not seem easily surmountable:

Hassles with the touchscreen interface. Even though I had a Bluetooth keyboard, I still had to use the touchscreen for frequently needed tasks such as repositioning the cursor. This proved to be a pain — slowing me down to a frustrating pace. A cursor controlled by a mouse or trackpad — or even the arrow keys on a keyboard — are far superior to my index finger trying to bring up the iOS’s loupe.

In one odd glitch, after opening a document in Documents To Go, I had to tap the touchscreen at least once before input from the Bluetooth keyboard started showing up on the screen. It took me several minutes to figure this out. At first I thought the keyboard was not working.

When I tried to type with the virtual keyboard, my frustration level soared higher. In this instance, I was trying to type with all fingers, as I would with a physical keyboard — rather than with the one finger typing I typically do when entering something brief like a Twitter post. The result was that my fingers too often touched the screen in such a way as to cause some unintended effect. The cursor might reposition, so that the next text I typed incorrectly appeared in a random part of the article. In other cases, I wound up deleting an entire paragraph of text (thanks goodness for Undo) or closing a document entirely. It was impossible for me to type for more than a minute without some error interrupting my workflow.

No multiple windows. Having to switch back and forth between apps for something as simple as copying a URL in Safari and pasting it in a text document proved much more arduous to do on an iPad than on a MacBook. Even when multitasking comes to the iPad, it will not be convenient enough to make such tasks as efficient as they should be. It can take considerable effort just to get a URL successfully selected and copied.

Weak text editors on iOS devices. Even If I could easily get a URL from Safari to a text-editing app, I’d still have the problem of what to do with it. As far as I know, there is no text editor for iOS devices that allows the creation of hypertext links for URLs. This is just one of several job-critical features that I cannot do with the current crop of iOS text-editing apps.

A partial solution here, at least for articles intended to be posted online, is to work directly in a web-based editor via Safari, rather than a text-editing app. These can be more full-featured than any iOS app. Still, I prefer to work offline until I am close to a final draft. The web solution also doesn’t work for those occasions when I have no Internet access (such as on a airplane).

Some of these problems seem almost inherent to the nature of a touchscreen device. Others seem likely to require more changes to the iOS than we are likely to see within the next couple of years. Similar issues affect other work-related tasks on the iPad, such as Keynote presentations. Perhaps the answer is to accept that the iPad is not intended to be a MacBook replacement — even in the limited sense I have described here — and never will be. Or perhaps I just need to wait longer than I anticipated. Regardless, at least for now, my imagined future of an iPad sufficient to get work done on the road has been put on indefinite hold. Don’t expect to see my MacBook Pro posted for sale any time soon.

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3 Responses to The Limits of Text Editing on an iPad

  1. mlanger says:

    Not long after getting my iPad, I decided to take it as the only computing device (other than my BlackBerry) on a 4-day trip. I quickly discovered some of the same text editing problems. I had brought along a Bluetooth keyboard — still looking for an affordable one that folds up — and I couldn’t get the darn thing to reliably pair. (Turns out, the problem was resolved with a system reboot.) That left me with the touchscreen keypad. Needless to say I didn’t get much blogging done on that trip.

    I’d very much like the iPad to replace my MacBook Pro for short personal trips — especially ones where I’m taking my helicopter somewhere and am trying to limit luggage — so I’m not giving up. I don’t, however, expect to give up my MacBook Pro; I still need a full-blown computer when I’m on the road for business.

  2. I too hoped the iPad would become my primary writing device.

    I don’t do much intensive writing–nothing over 250 words–and I’m generally all right with the touchscreen. I’m using Writeroom for the iPhone zoomed, so the keyboard isn’t even the iPad native.

    But my problems are with, mostly, the lack of multitasking. I loathe having to go back and forth between apps and find I usually just sit down at a computer so I can refer to something easier.

    I’m hoping iOS4 for the iPad fixes part of the problem (and the developer is working on Writeroom for iPad, which would be lovely)

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