Doing real work on iOS: a tentative endorsement

I’ve spent the last week trying an experiment: can I do my real work effectively using only an iPad and an iPhone rather than a MacBook Air? I last tried this about a year ago, at which time the answer was a definite no. This time around I’m a bit surprised to be reporting that the answer is a qualified yes.

Part of the difference is that the hardware itself has changed. This time around I’m using an iPhone 6 Plus (large enough to stare at for extended periods, as long as it’s not my only device) and an iPad Mini 4, the current generation. The iPad Mini 4 is so much faster than my previous devices (a pre-Air iPad 2 and a first-generation iPad Mini) that even under heavy use with a lot of switching around, there’s no latency. And I really do like the form factor of the iPad Mini. I do have a cover and case for it, but in normal use I pop it out and use it naked. It fits in the hand better, and I can thumbtype on it in portrait orientation at a speed which, although it doesn’t match the speed of desktop, is fast enough that I don’t feel materially impaired. (This all depends on autocorrect to work, and although I love bitching about autocorrect just like you do, the fact is that it does the right thing about 90% of the time.)

Another part of the difference is that the Apple/iCloud and Google ecosystems are both more mature and more tightly integrated (individually and with each other) than they used to be, and about 80% of my workday is spent in, between, or on the edge of those systems. I’ve found the right apps on both sides and optimized my personal iOS work environment, even as the apps themselves continue to grow more versatile and powerful. To a much greater degree than a year ago, everything “just works.”

Finally, and this can’t be overstated: I very rarely need to produce Microsoft Office documents anymore, because the world (or at least my part of it) is moving away from them. I do use Pages and Keynote, and for those I return to the MacBook, but I need them less often than I once did.

Obviously the iPad isn’t the right device for producing highly designed or precisely formatted documents. But for just plain narrative copywriting, even with a couple of levels of subheads, it seems perfectly adequate. (I’m composing this on the iOS Notes app. I don’t think I spent any more time writing this on an iPad that I would have sitting at a desk, and I did it sideways on the couch with the TV on.)

As a rule of thumb, if the layout is simple enough that you’d consider composing it in Google Docs, you can probably use the iPad. And as a side comment, speaking of Google Docs, it’s in the Google Drive suite of apps that the iOS improvements over the last year are most noticeable. The whole Google system “just works” on iOS in a way that it didn’t a year ago; even real-time collaboration feels much improved. 

For most of the things I do in my workday, there are now fully functional iOS apps, which means that I have to fall back on the Web interface (on the iPad or MacBook Air) less often. For instance, the iPad Salesforce app lets me do everything I need to do except for editing revenue schedules within the Products within Opportunities, and if that sounds obscure to you, it should give you a sense of how much is handled simply within the app.

There are a few things the iPad won’t do — it won’t let you save emails to Salesforce via Cirrus Insight, for instance, unless you use the Cirrus mobile app (which I won’t do because it imposes a workflow productivity hit). But I’ve developed workarounds for those.

And in fact, I find I’m more focused when I’m on the iPad, because it only lets you do one thing at a time. I always have the iPhone at hand, in case I feel the need to distract myself by thumbing through Facebook, but I find I do it less.

There are a few things I wouldn’t try to do this without:

1. You need to understand iOS gestures and shortcuts very well, because you’ll be using them constantly. You’ll be switching apps every few seconds, copying and pasting, and thinking ahead in a way you probably don’t on the MacBook (because app-switching on the iPad feels more time-consuming and costly than on the MacBook). Use Spotlight to find things, set up your app layout so you can jump to things almost subconsciously, and so on.

2. You need a synced password repository (I use 1Password) so you don’t have to manually retype long tedious passwords every time on iOS, and ideally a logical password scheme of some kind so that you CAN remember and retype them when it’s faster than opening the repository. Also, this goes better if you have TouchID enabled to authorize the apps that permit you to.

3. You’ll be happier if you keep your docs on an autosynced cloud storage drive (I use Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote), well organized in a scheme you understand and well-maintained.

4. Rationalize your notifications so you’re not getting everything everywhere. Basically my scheme is: email and Messages notifications everywhere; timely notifications (your order is arriving) on iPhone only; practical notifications only on the device I’m most likely to be able to respond to the notification on; “casual” notifications (breaking news alerts) on iPhone only (or not at all).

5. Finally: Take the time to set everything up properly, even if it takes a week. You’ll be happy later. 

So, what do you think ?