We've rounded up a variety of iPad applications.
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It's been two full days of travel with only an iPad, and I have almost stopped reaching for the mouse, remembering instead that I can merely touch the screen.
Back in the office, I confess I have touched my MacBook Pro screen several times now. I still badly want to swipe between apps but almost instinctively hit the home button now, effectively leaving one program to start another, resigned to single tasking.
I yearn at times for a transparent file system; I sometimes call this device an iPadlock. But through a series of powerful new iPad apps, and a few, simple, glued-together solutions, I can say that this flawed but stunning new device is a capable productivity tool for nearly anyone, either as an addition to a mobile office or as a stand-in replacement during a short business trip.
What follows are my personal experiences, including some details on what I would consider enterprise-class professional productivity application. In some cases, I've included short video demonstrations of these applications. Each is available today, many of them are free (at least the client-side iPad application), and often they require some information from an IT department to function, I'll focus first on the highs and lows of the iPad. Then, I'll explain my application adventures in depth.
The Bad Stuff
The iPad's shortcomings have been well documented, but it's lack of multitasking is its biggest downfall, and for some it may be a deal-killer, at least until an OS upgrade fixes this in the fall. It's unfathomable that a machine that probably has the processing power of a Cray can't do more than two things at once. More than anything, it's just annoying: a personal productivity killer at worst and inelegant at best. Not being able to listen to Pandora while crafting a document or reading e-mail just seems all 1980s.
I'm sure it's all about battery life, and not Apple's inability to program a virtual memory operating system. Programs like e-mail and AIM keep their lights on, so if you're working in one program, you'll get an AIM alert, including the actual IM right there, along with an option to relaunch the app or ignore it. E-mail also keeps tally of your message volume in its icon on the desktop. Calendar alerts also bust through any app.
iPad teardown shot via FCC.
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The application sandboxing is also an issue. I'll let others argue against it , and while I see the point, this is a device for information consumers. In a way, what Apple has built is an appliance, and to the extent that it can hide the file system and keep files contained within the confines of any given application, it's one more step toward removing complexity (and, yes, freedom).
Cynics have Apple putting itself in the middle of a massive content-control play; others are simply annoyed at the lack of flexibility. Some suggest this is Apple controlling the quality of the experience.
Certainly the experience is befuddling at first, and in many cases I would literally e-mail a document from within an application, receive the e-mail on the iPad, and open the file in another program. That's just silly.
While some sites, like ESPN, have shifted their video platforms off Flash, many haven't, and this is going to be a problem for a long time. And not just for video, obviously, but for any site with components built in Flash.
While I knew that TechWeb's own video products, which are hosted on BrightCove, were delivered in Flash (BrightCove also now supports HTML5, but we haven't shifted to H.264 encoding), I thought I could still manipulate some of the video metadata forms using the Safari browser, but those forms are also built in Flash. I found a kludged workaround, but it wasn't ideal. (More on that later. For a quick overview of HTML5/Codec movement, read this piece in Dr. Dobbs.)
Finally, the iPad really needs a camera. Not that I want to take pictures or video with it. For the iPad to be a primary business tool, especially for traveling executives, it needs to be able to send a live video feed -- into WebEx or Skype or through iChat or Microsoft's OCS. If that's important, to you, wait for it. Early peeks into the SDK reveal calls to a camera; this was reportedly removed in a later SDK.
Many complain about the lack of a printing function, but that never really bothered me. Besides: Print less. Or do it this way. And then there's the keyboard ... I'm a touch typist, and despite days of trying the iPad keyboard (obviously far easier than on an iPhone), I just couldn't stop making mistakes, especially hitting the "b" and "n" keys instead of the space bar. Once, I looked up and saw an entire sentence I had typed was, instead, a single lengthy word with those two letters interspersed. I'm sure I could get used to it; others have told me that if you watch what you're typing, it's fine.
Instead, I bought the keyboard dock, and that changed everything. Unfortunately it also became one more thing to carry, and when I needed both, it defeated the purpose of the device's size and design. "Work hard enough," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said to me when I dropped into his office for a meeting armed with only the iPad and keyboard (yes, really, I did), "and you can make anything into a PC."
The Good Stuff
In Steve Jobs' iPad unveiling, he and his elves kept chanting, Hare Krishna-like: "It just works." Well, pass the brownies and toss me a robe, because it does. Everything is fast, and while most apps effectively quit when I hit the Home button, they would either restart a process upon my return or dump me back exactly where I left off.
For instance, with books, it was just as if I'd left the book lying open on the bed. The Citrix Receiver would instantly restart its process. Everything is fast, including the Safari browser, and the omnipresent export and e-mail buttons in nearly every application were comforting.
I didn't like most iPhone/iPod apps because they don't work in landscape mode and they look horrible (pixelated) when made to fit the screen real estate; or they look like shadows of themselves in 1x mode. But all of them worked and gave me access to a wide variety of functionality, like Skype and Microsoft's OCS via Idialog Pro. While testing, Google released its app suite in iPad form.
I was also annoyed that, given how new the device is, I was frequently assaulted in public with questions about it. In some places (an airplane), I was reluctant to take it out until I absolutely needed it. However, I soon embraced this and used it to gain some insight into how people feel about the iPad.
Fawners, of course, hadn't bought one yet, and many were thinking of it for a spouse or a relative but wanted to know why, what is essentially a larger iPod Touch is such a must-have device. My answer was consistent: a bigger iPod Touch, while it sounds like a derogatory description, is actually a good thing.
The screen real estate alone means that instead of browsing the Web to find something quickly (what you do on a smartphone), you browse the Web to consume something (information, knowledge). You want to spend time with the iPad, whether it's reading, listening to music, streaming NetFlix, or creating. The notion that most any application, including the browser, AIM, Tweetdeck, or e-mail, is that much better when bigger is perhaps a matter of taste, but it's sure been my taste. Walking into a meeting without a daytimer or notebook or folder and just a slim iPad in its handsome case, I was armed with everything I needed. It became an experience in freedom and power.
Battery life has consistently hovered around 12 hours, no matter whether I'm using wireless, or just plain working on the device non-stop. The only thing that affected battery life (it actually reduced the time in half) was adjusting the brightness of the screen to full tilt.
I set out to re-create as much of an office environment as possible. For me, that meant a combination of word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software (Web-access and on-premise); e-mail, including personal accounts on Yahoo Mail and Gmail, along with corporate e-mail running on Microsoft Exchange; instant messaging, including AIM and Microsoft's OCS; and Web access. I also set myself up with the ability to publish video through our video content management system on BrightCove; application/screen sharing and/or some form of conferencing; and easy access to files.
All of this was pretty simple (except video publishing), but I found other things in my journey, including the ability to provision a cloud server, view data in dazzling visualizations, and access Windows 7 and Windows apps.
First "office" apps. I am writing this within Pages, Apple's word processor for the iPad. It's very nice, but I haven't done extensive testing on formatting between Pages and Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Some simple tests revealed big problems with document fidelity. Fairly simple things, like dropping in an image, don't come across exactly true in Word or Docs; and in fact, the images were pretty mangled in Google Docs. However, justification options and tab stops were successful among all three.
I do a great deal of my writing in Evernote, simply because it's dead simple, offers things like the ability to add voice notes, and it's accessible in the cloud from nearly any platform -- I can't tell you how many times this has saved my ass.
The Evernote iPad app introduced several problems, however, including, at first, its inability to read and display some of my older notes (it noted they were rich text, which they weren't). On a PC or Mac, when I am not connected, it simply saves what I'm working on locally until it can sync.
On the iPad, I'm not exactly sure whether it did or not -- but when I e-mailed what I thought I had saved, the output reverted to an older version of my note. Evernote on the iPad has been one of several programs that has been revised at least once since it launched a couple of weeks ago, and I suspect the company will iron this out, but I came to use Pages ($9.99 vs. the free Evernote) for my most pressing documents. For now.
Apple's Keynote ($9.99) is a presentation application. Unlike Pages, which exports files in Microsoft's beloved format (.doc), Keynote outputs only as Keynote or PDF files -- the latter is suitable for sharing, but you lose any slide-show capability, including some of the fantastic slide effects you can invoke in Keynote.
Bringing an Excel spreadsheet into Apple's Numbers app ($9.99) was a little tricky. It removed what it called unsupported formulas, using the last calculated values (I assume these were linked cells), and made hidden items visible. However, many of the normal formulas (sums, for instance) were well intact. Creating formulas is really simple: You can just select (touch) a target cell, hit the "sum" button, then select or drag over the cells you want to operate on.
For some reason, I couldn't get Numbers to work with my Keyboard Dock. It's well worth it to read through some of the help files because doing things like adding rows or columns isn't as intuitive as you'd think. Also, Numbers, like Keynote, exports only to Numbers or .PDF formats, making it the least useful corporate application.
In the video below, I walk through a few productivity apps.
E-mail was all pretty simple, just as it is on an iPhone -- you get a single, unified interface with multiple mailbox accounts. In tying the iPad to my Exchange server, the default was to synchronize folders less than three days old. I changed this to a month so I could get at older data in folders. (The setup, of course, requires pointing it at your Exchange server, so you'll have to get that information.) One minor annoyance: Any attachments I received in Gmail using the Apple e-mail program would open in the Apple apps. If I wanted them opened in Google Docs or Google Spreadsheet, I had to open the Gmail iPad app and launch the attachment from there.
For communication and collaboration I tested Skype, AIM, WebEx, Google Docs for document collaboration, and Idialog. Skype is an iPhone app, so I spent very little time with it. WebEx was far more interesting: I shared apps, my entire desktop and presentations, and I did all of this over 3G (instead of Wi-Fi); the performance was fantastic. You can even use the built-in WebEx audio feature so you (don't have to be on the phone. Of course, it doesn't support video, but having the iPad as a node on a WebEx call is easy and fantastic.
AIM worked flawlessly, and the presentation was incredible -- it puts your current conversation in the middle column and your contacts to the right, and it shows you your recent conversations in the column on the left. I also like how it popped up notices when I was working in other applications.
Modality's Idialog, which lets you run your Microsoft OCS (again, you'll need to point this at your OCS server), isn't yet an iPad app), so I tested the iPhone version. It's not as elegant as AIM, but it works. Of course, there's no audio or video, only portrait mode, but there is presence.
Idialog can search the corporate global address list, you can have multiple IM participants, you can participate in multiple IM sessions, you can control incoming OCS voice calls and redirect them to other devices, and you can send e-mail to contacts. However, it shuts down (unlike AIM) when you shift to another application. Idialog costs $9.99. Below is a short video demo of all of these collaboration apps.
SugarSync was another savior. While there are a few applications that do what it does, SugarSync just sounded sweet (get it? sweet?). This cloud service lets you sync files from your PC or Mac into the cloud, and its client app for the iPad lets you browse that file system and view any file type supported on the iPad. It also runs on the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Android, and BlackBerry.
The files actually get downloaded onto the iPad when selected, so that they're cached for quick access later. Music files get streamed. The maximum cache size is 100 MB. When I left my laptop at home for a two-day trip, I was hardly worried at all about the consequences, knowing I had all of my data within reach.
But this is where Apple's closed environment gets tricky and SugarSync gets messy. When I first tested SugarSync, in order to get the files out of viewing mode and into something I could edit with, I had to e-mail the files from SugarSync to myself, and then open them in, say, Keynote or Pages or Numbers for editing. SugarSync has since updated its application, and a PowerPoint file, for instance, will allow you to open it in Keynote with a single push of a button. That's a big improvement.
This still doesn't solve yet another big problem, caused again by Apple's closed environment. While files on your desktop can be set up to automatically sync to the cloud (and thus, any changes are replicated there), in order to get those files from the iPad to the cloud, you have to e-mail them. However, you can e-mail them to a unique SugarSync URL (further description here), and then those files are automatically synced for all connected devices. Laborious.
SugarSync offers 2GB of storage for free. Individual licenses range from $4.99 per month ($49.99 per year) for 30 GB to $39.99 per month for 500 GB. The business edition, which provides administration controls and pooled storage, runs an extra $9.99 per user per month; it also comes with phone support. A short video demo of SugarSync is directly below.
Now some things I didn't expect on the iPad. First, MeLLmo's Roambi, which runs on the iPhone and now on the iPad, takes data from a variety of report/BI sources and lets you publish them using the Roambi Reporting Services Portal. Then it crunches that output into one of a handful of visualization templates you choose from in the Roambi Publisher in a browser. In earlier versions, Roambi was tied to the SAP/Business Objects portal and could take data from Salesforce.com, Excel, and CSV files.
MeLLmo recently upgraded the Roambi server (ES3; it runs on-premise), and it has added support for IBM Cognos, Microsoft Reporting Services, Microsoft SharePoint, LifeRay, and Google Spreadsheet.
The server provides security, integration, and ultimately distribution. Data is stored on the endpoint device, but the server platform can perform remote wipes, delete files, or temporarily block a device from data access (in case of a temporary misplacement) and then graduate to remote wipe. In the newest version, the data is pushed to the user instead of pulled, unless there are frequent changes to the data -- you can synchronize scheduled reports.
Once BI data is massaged (or remapped, in MeLLmo's terms) into a chosen publishing template, you can view it on your iPad in the Roambi app. On a laptop, the visualizations run in Flash, but the company has written the iPhone and iPad app in Objective C. There are some remarkable things you can do to manipulate the views of the data -- there are dials and knobs to play with, you can drill into the data, and you can -- using the multitouch pinch gesture -- hone in on a particular element, like a point in time, and display comparisons. MeLLmo has added some new dashboard views, including a Trends view.
The only way to get a true feel for this is by watching the video below, which includes some of the views that are brand new to the Roambi platform. The server runs $795 per user, with a minimum of 50 users (that's a one-time price, but there is a maintenance fee). The Pro app and service is $99 per user. You can read more about Roambi in pieces by my colleagues Bob Evans and Doug Henschen. Doug notes that other BI vendors, such as Microstrategy and SAS, have announced iPad support, and QlikTech announced its application recently at Gartner's Business Intelligence Summit.
I also didn't intend to provision a cloud server from my iPad, but I did so, thanks to the Rackspace iPad application. Just like you would expect in a device like this, it was pretty easy -- just pick from a list of several Rackspace server options, select your size/memory, etc, and off you go. You can set up backups, and using a special little slide-out, you can see your system status if you're in landscape mode. Watch the short video demonstration below:
Finally, the very last thing I expected was to run Windows apps on an iPad, but it was pretty simple using the Citrix Receiver client. This is available for several platforms, including the iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, Mac, PC, and, sometime this week, according to Citrix, the BlackBerry. I ran this over my 3G connection, and it was probably a tad too slow for all-day use, but in a pinch it worked just fine.
Over Wi-Fi, the speed was brilliant, and I opened up PowerPoint decks and browsed the Web via Internet Explorer, including watching Flash video within the browser (just because). (I also paired my iPod Touch with the iPad using BlueTooth and used the iPod Touch as a mouse, clicking on Windows applications, and links within Internet Explorer, again, just because I could.)
Citrix offers a variety of solutions, including its XenDesktop (a virtual desktop environment) and XenApp (virtual applications), all using its FlexCast technology. Citrix Receiver supports both delivery models, and Citrix Dazzle offers an IT self-service model, so users can select the applications they want.
To do all of this on the iPad (or any endpoint), you need to be running the Citrix Merchandising Server, which the company tells me is free if you're up to date with Subscription Advantage. The Receiver Client is free. You need to get your configuration information from your network team, but as with any iPad application, it's relatively simple to set up. (Another video demonstration below.)
When I mentioned to Ballmer that I was running Windows apps on my iPad, feeling as if he would at least take some solace in that, he said: "Like I said, work hard enough and you can make anything into a PC." I eagerly await your tablet, Mr. Ballmer.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media in his writing.
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