iOS 9 Goes to School

I wrote a piece this week for entited "iOS 9 Goes to School".

In this article, I made the point that iOS 9 is a huge release for the iPad, the iPad is now Apple's "education computer" and therefore by the transitive property, iOS 9 is a massive releae for education.

Of course, many of the biggest enhacements to iOS 9 only appear on relatively new and powerful iPads which few schools will already own on day one. That's not really the point though.

Platform capabilities, when they arise, usually never go away again. Multitasking isn't coming to the 4th Generation iPads at Cedars this week, but it will eventually come and it will likely never go away again.

This is the difference between investing in a platform like iOS and investing in a product like, say, Kindles. For all its many flaws and recent quality mis-steps, Apple knows how to own and evolve a platform like few other companies.

Initial Thoughts on iPad Pro

"The iPad is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing." - Tim Cook

The above statement by Apple's CEO is - by far - the most important thing that happened for iPad at Apple's event last Wednesday. We have been through more than three years of the iPad playing a distant second to the iPhone and, to some extent, even the Mac at Apple events. It's been three long years of "Here's the new thinner, faster iPad. We can't wait to see what you do with it. Bye!"

On Wednesday, Tim Cook came out and put the iPad front and center. It led and, arguably, dominated the substantive announcements at the event. He called it the future of personal computing and that means more than any specifics of any current version of the iPad.

Still, the iPad Pro opens a new chapter in the life of the iPad. It's bigger, faster, more capable and, yes, more expensive. Where does iPad Pro fit in?

I'll repeat my standard line here about iPad hardware: iPad hardware is only interesting insofar as it enables a great experience of iPad software.

More than almost any other device, the iPad becomes the software it runs. The watch is always a watch. The phone is always pocket-sized (sort of). The iPad uniquely morphs between being a sheet music stand, an artist's easel, a book, a game, a cinema screen, a cash register, a typewriter, a notepad, a map, a project plan and a video editing suite all with a quick launch of an app. That's what makes it a special device. It's not just a "tablet computer".

iOS 9 Holds the Key

Since starting to test the iOS 9 betas, the iPad Pro has been the most obvious next product in Apple's history. The keynote majored heavily on the iPad Pro's suitability for iOS 9's split-screen multitasking feature. I've been using this on my iPad Air 2 and, while very usable, is clearly limited due to screen space.

When you use two apps in 50-50 split screen on an Air 2, each app is commanded to present its iPhone-class interface. Admittedly they're bigger than an iPhone, but iOS describes the device's capabilites in terms of "size classes" and apps conform their UI to that instruction.

The result is that using two apps at 50-50 split on the Air 2, you're using two really big iPhone apps. Safari shows its toolbar top and bottom, for example. On the iPad Pro, you're using two iPad-class apps side by side and that will make a substantial difference to the ease of navigation and use.

Personally, I feel that my use of iOS has become a little stuck in the past. Not the very far past, but the well documented reliability problems with iOS 7 and 8 have somewhat put me off trying to develop new workflows in iOS.

iOS 8, however, delivered some incredibly important new APIs that have taken time to mature. Document Provider extensions brought the ability to reach into various cloud storage silos from within an app and pull out a file for use.

For example, a colleague asked me how to insert a video he had stored in his Google Drive account into a Keynote slide on his iPad. I started delivering the standard iOS explanation: download it to Photos, then pick it from your Camera Roll inside Keynote. That was iOS 7 thinking. The way you do that in iOS 8 is: Tap the + button in Keynote, tap "Insert From...", pick Google Drive as the location and then pick the file. You don't have to leave Keynote and you don't have to clutter your Photos app or eat up double the device storage.

These APIs, along with the general action extensions and photo editing extensions, have matured quietly but steadily over the life of iOS 8. There are now many extremely smooth workflows available in iOS that I confess I don't readily think of when faced with a computing task to complete.

I think these workflows, plus split-screen multitasking and keyboard support, are going to be the key features that make the iPad Pro fly.

The Microsoft Angle

For five years now, the iPad has been the only computer I've actually wanted to use. I've certainly used Macs and Chromebooks in the meantime but the iPad has always been the one I actively loved. Over the past few years, I've been looking for some leadership from Apple that said "iPad is the future" in the way that Steve Jobs clearly thought it was.

In the intervening time, I've often said that I basically want "a Microsoft Surface just not made by Microsoft or running any Microsoft software".

What I wanted was Apple to adopt something like the Surface strategy. In saying that, I don't mean I want Apple to take Mac OS X and jam it into a tablet. What I want is for Apple to make an iPad that can be my only computer.

A few commentators have been complaining that the iPad Pro with its fabric-covered keyboard case is just the Apple Surface. If so, great! Kind of amusing, though, that the best Office-for-touch experience will probably be Office for iOS running on an iPad.

The Thousand Dollar Question

The elephant in the room with iPad Pro, however, is the price. This isn't a cheap iPad. Starting at $799 and running up to $1049, this is starting to edge overlap with low-end MacBook Air models. Let's ignore the $799 32GB WiFi model for now. The true iPad Pro is the 128GB model which is $949 in WiFi and $1049 in LTE configurations.

The portable Macs that play around the iPad Pro price point are:

  • 11" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/128GB) - $899
  • 11" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/256GB) - $1,099
  • 13" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/128GB) - $999

The 13" Retina MacBook Pro and the 12" MacBook both start at $1,299.

Apple didn't quite come out and say that the iPad Pro can replace your laptop. Microsoft, by comparison, certainly has used that line for the Surface (because it basically is a laptop). I think Apple knows that iOS is not quite there yet, even with iOS 9.

It seems to me that for most regular people the iPad Pro and a Mac laptop will be either-or purchases. Does iOS offer enough to let people make that move?

I think that the answer is yes - for some people. People whose workflows are not particularly complex or whose software needs are already met by a handful of iOS apps will find that they might not need much more.

My true litmus test for going iOS-only, however, is the extent to which the user has completely embraced cloud storage for files. If your entire life is in Dropbox, Box or Google Drive, you are in a much better place with iOS than if you have a big cache of local files on a laptop somewhere.

Who is the iPad Pro for?

Many people my age (I'm 37) and older scoff at the idea of an iPad replacing a laptop. They're the same people who scoffed at virtual keyboards competing with physical keyboards and smartphone cameras competing with DSLRs.

The iPad Pro will immediately suit people who need its unique physical characteristics: large screen for sharing content with others side-by-side. Artists looking for a better pen experience will be attracted to it right away. Is the iPad Pro the iPad that schools will roll out 1:1 all over the world? Absolutely not. Would it make a great single machine for the average teacher? It could, if the surrounding network and cloud infrastructure is in place (which it rarely is, sadly).

I see the iPad Pro not so much as a laptop replacement for anyone who has invested 20+ years in being a laptop user. No, the iPad Pro is the "laptop" for people who, today, are 12-16 years old who will graduate from High School in the next few years and look for the next-level iOS device to take them to college and beyond into a career.

The iPad Pro isn't so much about the iPad Pro today as it is about what it and iOS will become by 2020: Apple's vision for the future of personal computing.

The Apple Watch at Work and Play

I've been wearing an Apple Watch Sport (black, 42mm) since I received it about two weeks after the first models shipped. I haven't written about it here because it's something that I think requires time to approach an understanding of how it fits into daily life and use.

In the time since I got the watch I've been at work, travelled away from home during the summer holidays and am now back to work again for the new term. I was reminded that I wanted to write this when I noticed how dirty my watch had become from my constantly interacting with it during the day.

One of the things about the life and work of a teacher is that, firstly, your day is highly scheduled. There are rarely more than a couple of hours in a working day where your use of time is not dictated to you. The second thing is that you live and die by your management of a hundred small things to do, tell people, collect, hand out, look for or send for.

Before I get into my thoughts about what the Watch is good for, I think we should acknowledge something: it is a complete nonsense that Apple ever shipped an operating system where in about 3 in 5 tries, an app simply will not launch. To me, this is the glaring flaw in Apple Watch: apps need to be instantly available at all times and respond quickly. Otherwise, what's the point? If it's not quicker than reaching for the phone, why bother?

I'm putting a lot of faith in watchOS 2.0 to fix this problem. I hope it's not misplaced.

The Apple Watch is many different things to many different people. For some, it's a fitness tracker or a media remote control. For me, the Apple Watch has been two very distinct devices depending on whether I'm at work or on holiday.

Apple Watch at Play

I found a few use cases for Apple Watch that were surprisingly useful when on holidays. Travel apps such as Citymapper, Passbook and British Airways were all excellent to have on the watch. Tripadvisor and Foursquare are both useful and functional apps that make sense to have on the watch.

I drive an electric car and there are apps that let you quickly find nearby car chargers. Very useful when away from home.

It seems to me that many of these handy apps are those that require zero input. They use your location and show you things close by. Other apps that I tried on my travels were not so useful and many of them were apps that wanted input on the watch. Currency converters, for example, were finicky to use when trying to tap in amounts on the watch itself. Many apps suffered from slow control response, so typing was nothing like as fast or accurate as on, say, an iPhone or iPad.

I find myself using different watch faces for work and leisure - even going so far as to switch watch faces when I'm done with work for the day. At home or travelling, I like Color or Utility. When I'm really, really, relaxing I might even be so chill as to use the Solar or Motion faces. That's when you know I'm really checking out.

As for leisure complications, I like to have the Weather, World Clock showing US Eastern time (my podcast partner Bradley's time zone) and the Timer. I use the timer constantly. Whether it's timing my kids doing something or making sure I don't forget to "put the dinner on in 30 minutes", the timer complication is on every face I use.

I've also found the voice recognition to be really poor. I slightly suspect that I may have minor water damage in my watch because the speaker doesn't sound as clear as it used to either. Perhaps that's also affected the microphone, which is affecting the quality of recognition. That said, when you're surrounded by children making constant noise, it's not a great environment for dictation of any kind.

Apple Watch at Work

While the Apple Watch is a nice-to-have in leisure times, I have found it to be indispensable at work. The range of things I use it for is narrower, but the extent to which I depend on it is far more significant.

There are three main things that I need from the Watch at work.

Firstly, my calendar. I have that front and centre on my Modular watch face. It does a great job of telling me which class is coming next and having the entire day just a single tap away on the face is a revelation.

Secondly, email notifications. At our school, a lot of "general awareness" emails go out during the day. A pupil will be late; a pupil has gone home; something has happened. These all show up by email. We're a small school, so it's generally the case that we want all teachers to know about this stuff. The fact that I can read that tiny snippet of information on my watch and then delete it from my inbox is my killer app for the watch.

The last thing that I depend on in school is other reminders. I use both Due and OmniFocus for this. OmniFocus is my medium- and long-range GTD tool of choice. Due is there for other frequent timed reminders. For example, I have a reminder daily at 8.30am that tells me to post all my iTunes U posts for the day and another at 4.10pm that reminds me to update my planner with the events of the day.

My Apple Watch is an awareness amulet. It's a small-scale organisational superpower and I would not want to teach a day without it again.

The Force Touch Trackpad

I recently upgraded to a new 13" MacBook Pro from a 2012 13" MacBook Air. Everything, of course, is several generations newer and faster. The retina display is amazing, the SSD is 2x faster on write and 3x faster on read, the CPU is substantially faster too.

The thing I want to rave about, though, is the Force Touch trackpad. This thing is seriously, seriously brilliant and, in my opinion, a subtle but significant step forward in the Mac experience.

Most of the reviews you'll read about the trackpad go on about the technical implementation of the haptic click effect and how it "really feels like a click". This is totally true, but it wildly misses the point about how Force Touch changes the interaction with your Mac.

Let's back up a bit. Trackpads have always been basically a rearrangement of the mouse. In early days, the trackpad didn't move and there were physical buttons. With the unibody MacBook Pro and the multi-touch trackpad, Apple hinged the trackpad itself and eliminated the button. This wasn't that much of a change; it just put the button under the bottom edge of the trackpad.

In both designs of trackpad, to perform any kind of click-and-drag, you still had to make a gesture which involved pointing, clicking and holding with the thumb, and moving the pointer with another finger.

In later versions of Mac OS X, around the time of the release of the desktop Magic Trackpad, Apple introduced a three-finger drag gesture that allowed you to tap with three fingers and move to perform a drag.

On a Mac with a Force Touch trackpad, I discovered, that setting is gone. And I was really mad about it! I've been using that gesture for years! How can they take it away? Well, it turns out that you don't need it any more.

My big insight into the Force Touch trackpad is that you never need to use your thumb for clicking - ever. The reason we used the thumb was because the click was only effective in the lower quarter of the trackpad due to the hinge. As long as your tracking speed is set high enough that you can go from one side of the screen to the other in one movement, you can just use your pointing finger.

If you think about it, this really takes the Mac another step closer to more direct manipulation of objects on screen. Once you realise that you can genuinely click with your pointing finger equally anywhere on the trackpad, you can get the sense that dragging something in Keynote on the Mac is a lot more like dragging something in Keynote on iPad: point to it, press on it, move your finger instead of "point to it, click a button with your thumb, hold it, move your pointing finger, release your thumb, release your pointing finger".

I really love the Force Touch trackpad. Once I flipped the switch in my brain, it has been a really nice upgrade. Yes, I'm unlearning decades of muscle memory, but when I started to just think about it like an iPhone, it became incredibly fast and fluid to use. It might be the first trackpad that's as fast and precise as a mouse.