Not Just for Geeks: How I use my iPad & What It’s Done for Me

This is another installment of “Not Just for Geeks,” in which I try to give non-technies insight into technologies I find interesting. The previous one was about Magical iPhone Technologies. {Braced comments are for other iPad users.}

Wait: don’t go! Even if you’re not a self-professed geek, you may find something of interest here.

When the iPad first came out, I knew I didn’t want one. For someone like me who “needs” gear, this was highly unusual. True to my nature, however, within 3 months I had figured out the tremendous need it could fill, figured out roughly how I would configure it to meet my requirements for true mobility, and, of course, bought one. While I am always interested in seeing how new technology can push the boundaries, the ways in which I routinely use my iPad are mundane. Nonetheless, for me, using an iPad has been revolutionary.

The need, rationalized

Since last Spring, I’ve been working for a couple of different colleges, which has required going in for meetings, sometimes on different campuses, and often with time gaps in between. I ended up taking my laptop wherever I went, because I need my email, to work on documents, and to browse the web. My laptop filled my beautiful but small backpack to the rim, and made it uncomfortable to walk for more than a half-mile. I started to connive: could I find a cool gadget that would lighten my load?

I’d read that the iPad was perfect for passive consumption of media (watching, listening, reading), but I also needed to produce (i.e. write). I briefly considered a Windows-based netbook: clunky, not cool. Soon thereafter, I “happened” to find myself walking past an Apple store. The gleaming white room with the friendly hosts sucked me in. All I remember is landing in front of an iPad with the Apple Pages app open and my fingers flying on the virtual keyboard. I wasn’t making very many typos. The quiet tip tap tip tap successfully mimicked pressing real keys, providing the tactile feedback I needed. Surely I could rationalize this. Surely I could tell my partner with a straight face that I ought to buy an iPad. I could edit Word documents on it. It would facilitate my work.

The dilemma, and its solution

But would an iPad also complicate my life? Would it be an expensive, albeit difficult to misplace, USB key substitute? I knew that using Apple iTunes, I could get a document from my computer onto the iPad, and vice-versa. However, if I made changes to a document on the iPad, would I remember that was the most recent copy? Unlikely. Just like with a USB drive, I would be half-way through making changes to the version on my computer before I’d remember I’d edited it on my iPad, and end up struggling to integrate two sets of revisions. Some people use email as an intermediary among devices, but that would cause the same version-control problems for me. I needed another option. After some research, I decided that Dropbox was the solution that I needed, so I bought my iPad.

{ [Remember: braced comments are for other iPad users. If you don’t care about the technical details, skip to the end of this italicized section.] Dropbox is an amazing and free web-based utility that has not only solved my version-control problems (in general and on the iPad) but also enabled me to be truly electronically mobile. I love Dropbox so much that I can’t help but explain, in very broad terms, what it is and why it’s so useful. The files that I store in Dropbox “live” up there in the clouds. It’s as though I’m using a fileserver, but it’s not in a closet around the corner from my office. In fact, I have no idea, physically, where they are stored, but I now keep all of my work files in Dropbox. Really, what’s the difference? I have no idea where on my hard drive my files are actually stored either. To the human eye, it’s all virtual.}

Dropbox stores files in the troposphere, but also keeps a copy on the local computer. This means:

  • Even when I don’t have an Internet connection, I can use my laptop to work on any of my files: they’re all local; they’re all there on my computer.
  • Although I can’t keep everything that’s in my Dropbox on my iPad, whenever my iPad has a wireless connection, I can copy down any file from Dropbox. Without an Internet connection, I can work on any of the files I’ve downloaded, and when I reconnect, the revised copies will go back into my Dropbox and then back to my computer.
  • As a bonus, I can also get to my Dropbox files through a web browser and, in case I’ve made a grave mistake, I can even restore previous versions.}

I have the bottom of the line 8GB iPad without the 3G connection, so I can only access the Internet through a wireless connection. If need be, I can use my iPhone when I’m without wireless. I don’t use my iPad as an iPod, nor do I keep many movies on it–I’ve come nowhere near the 8GB limit.}

The usual uses: similar but better than my iPhone

Slate iPad app

I routinely use my iPad in the same kinds of ways that I use my iPhone, but the screen is much easier to read and work with. Like many of you, without email I’m dead in the water. As on my iPhone and computer, I use all three of my email accounts on my iPad: home, work, and soccer. I also can’t live without my calendar(s) for home, work, soccer, my partner’s medical appointments, phases of the moon, etc. Although I can’t make calls from my iPad, I consult my address book and use email addresses stored there. As I do on my iPhone, I check the weather, consult my dictionary/thesaurus, use Facebook and Twitter, read the New York Times, Slate and other online [maga]zines. In most of these cases, it’s the iPad’s larger screen and intuitive app interfaces that make the iPad better. Click on the picture of the Slate app to the left so that it’s larger; now imagine swiping your fingertip along the “Features” row to show more captions, and then tapping “Five Tactics to Calm Down Really Angry Customers” in order to read it. To me, that’s elegant and intuitive.

{Actually, I could make calls from my iPad using the built-in microphone and Google Voice.}

More like using my laptop: “producing”

Although I could, I’m not using my iPad to modify photographs, draw, build flow charts, or update my family tree. My productions are more traditional. Words are my staple.

I mentioned earlier that I am able to type fairly quickly using the iPad’s “virtual” keyboard. This means that unlike with my iPhone, I can actually write using my iPad. I compose long email messages, and write long texts using a MS Office-compatible product. I can compose any text that is straightforward, and I can revise anything I’ve written, even something I originally wrote using my computer. Unfortunately, while the iPad screen size makes it a good laptop replacement for this kind of composition and editing, it is also small enough that it limits how much I can see at once. In addition, while I can copy and paste sections, it’s cumbersome. The screen size and difficulty of copying and pasting means that I can’t write anything complicated, especially something that requires moving ideas around. So, for example, I wrote the first draft of this blog piece using my iPad, but I had to switch to the computer to cut it down (yes, I really did cut it down!) and consolidate thoughts. Nonetheless, being able to write as much as the iPad enables me to makes it a great laptop replacement when I’m on the go.

{Since my Palm Pilot days in the late 1990s, I’ve been using Documents to Go to create and make simple modifications to MS Office documents. Needless to say, the iPad version is much more practical. The iPad app opens all Office document types.}

Notes: no. Sketches? Maybe.

I had hoped I could use my iPad to take handwritten notes during meetings. Because I type very quickly, if I use any keyboard to take notes I end up writing down everything people are saying and therefore I don’t really engage with the discussion. I need to circle words, draw lines and arrows and, to keep myself concentrating, doodle. Unfortunately, the iPad is built for a fingertip, not a pen, so it’s impossible to write as small and (sort of) legibly as I can on paper. And, again, the iPad screen is too small. So, for producing and editing documents, I’ve jettisoned the laptop from my backpack and use the iPad instead, but I still have to carry the paper notebook too.
{I like Penultimate for short handwritten notes in situations in which I’d lose a piece of paper; sketching soccer drills took too long. I’d hoped Use Your Handwriting (UYH), which shrinks text size after you write, would help, but I haven’t found it useful for anything.}

Consumption leads to engagement and learning

The iPad is advertised primarily as a device people can use for media consumption, and indeed I enjoy watching movies, surfing the web, and reading online newspapers, blogs, and, even, books. What has been entirely unexpected is the extent to which the iPad has become my gateway to personal and professional engagement and learning.

Osfoora iPad app (Twitter)

On my iPhone I had mostly used Twitter to communicate “out.” At professional conferences, I joined others in sending 140 character tweets about sessions, which were read by fellow attendees and people unable to physically attend. Similarly, I tweeted about Boston Breakers soccer matches and enjoyed others doing the same for other Women’s Professional Soccer games. In the absence of television or webcast coverage, Twitter is the only way to get live coverage.

Because of my iPad, my Twitter use has changed completely. I’ve always used Twitter on my iPhone because I prefer the available Twitter apps to any I’ve found that are desktop-based (for me, even the Twitter web site stinks). Combine the better Twitter apps with the iPad’s larger screen and ability to use “real” web sites, and suddenly I can scan and ignore uninteresting posts, follow brief but engaging debates, exchange witty comments, and, most importantly, go directly to pictures, videos, and blog posts and other web sites. Now I also use Twitter to keep up with technology and higher education articles and women’s soccer speculation and news. I read what I wouldn’t otherwise have read. I “follow” a selection of people who fairly reliably post links with tiny “reviews” of them Here are just a few examples of the subjects about which I have learned.

  • Up-to-the-minute posts from sessions at Educause 2010, search term #educause10, plus “hash tags” for individual sessions.
  • Reflections on CIO-ship, from jgackson.
  • Emergency response: responsibilities of a building captain, from [crazy] wedaman.
  • Real-time updates about Rio de Janeiro’s “mini war” from themba.
  • Pieces, commentary, and sometimes insider-news about women’s soccer (e.g. JeffKassouf, jenna_pelFromALeftWing,  JacquelinePurdy, and many others.
  • Play by play, snide remarks, and fawning over players during and after matches.

Proudly, I now find most of my reading material through Twitter. I save web pages and PDFs I can read even when I don’t have an Internet connection. Here are two screenshots, one from The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) report Future Thinking for Academic Librarians in 2025 (David J. Staley, and Kara J. Malenfant, June 2010, 33 pages) and the other from Our Game Magazine (November 2010, 39 full-color pages, available only online), to give a sense of how comfortable the iPad screen is to read. Note the blue and yellow marks on the ACRL report: my PDF reader allows me to annotate documents for future reference.

Annotating an ACRL report
Our Game Magazine

{Having tried many Twitter clients, I use Twittelator for the iPhone and Osfoora HD for the iPad. I use Instapaper to save web pages and GoodReader for PDFs. I love FlipBoard for more easily finding the articles those I follow post, and to browse other feeds.}

I also download books from Amazon and use the Kindle app to read them. There are many books available that are out of copyright. Amazon makes it easy to search through them, once you find the Free Book Collection page. [Note: as of 2015, it’s no longer “easy” to find them. Try searching within “Books” for “free classics.” The Kindle editions are free.]

{I tried the Apple bookstore and app: pretty, but a small offering and impossible to search.}

Why “learning and engagement”?
Is the iPad revolutionary?

As I’ve explained, I use my iPad for many things I have usually done on my iPhone: the screen is larger and the keyboard actually functional. Other than offering a better Twitter client and offline web page reading, everything I’ve said I can do using my iPad I could also do using a laptop. Is the iPad really just a weight-saver for me? No, it’s much more.

Much to my delight, my iPad has changed the extent to which I engage with other people across North America, and keep up with and learn more about topics that are important to me, personally and professionally. It’s the size and shape. It’s that I can hold it in my hand. It’s that I can read while brushing my teeth. It’s that I can use it in the same body positions in which I use a book- leaning on the arm of the couch or even lying on my back with my feet propped up against the wall. The iPad is personal and personable.

In comparison, a computer, even a laptop, is sterile and clumsy. If I try to read a long or complicated article on the computer, I am easily distracted. My gaze is interrupted by what’s on my desk or desktop. I glance at what’s out the window or in another window and end up peering at the street or checking my email. With my focus nearer and the background blurrier, my concentration is keener. Though the computer sits within my personal space, the words appear outside of myself, even when it’s on my lap. The “other,” the computer sits; I hold the iPad. My laptop stays in the study. My iPad comes to bed with me, where I have the time and inclination to read through Twitter.

On my computer,

  • I could read and listen to the BBC.
  • I could respond concisely to an email message.
  • I could read Educause and Chronicle of Higher Education articles.
  • I could mark up PDFs with my notes for later perusal.
  • I could read the web pages and watch the YouTube videos (soccer highlights) I’ve saved for later.
  • I could learn from and with other people.

But I don’t.

On my iPad I do all of those things. For better (to me) or for worse (to my family), my iPad has made me more productive, knowledgeable and, especially, connected/plugged in to the broader world.

Some people argue that the iPad is not revolutionary. For me, it is.


  1. I would love an iPad but at this time I can't really afford it or justify it. Although, your post is one more check in the pros column. Do you have the 3G version? I think I would have to give up the iPhone if I had the 3G iPad (couldn't afford both plans). The more photography workshops I go to the more people have iPads to show off their portfolios. They look awesome on the iPad! One of the big reasons I would like one, besides watching movies, reading books, taking notes, etc., etc. I'm pretty sure I'll end up with one someday (fingers crossed).

  2. Great picture of you and your new friend.

    I'd love to know more about your consulting work. I don't know if it's appropriate to blog about, but maybe we can chat soon.

    Jane (but not your mother-in-law)

  3. A friend of mine did his Master's thesis back in 1992 on the very first version of Drop Box. His name is Bruce Kazuma. I believe he still lives in the Boston area.


    Jane Smith.

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