Friday, 24 April 2020

Ask Stacktrace

This week's episode of the Stacktrace podcast ("life and technology from two developers' perspective") had the cohosts, Gui Rambo and John Sundell, featured yours truly - to one extent or another.
As part of the regular Ask Stacktrace part of the podcast, they answered a question I sent them. The question was about converting to become a Swift developer given an old style development background in C and assembly.
The answer - which is excellent, in my opinion, and definitely reflects my own personal experience - can be heard at the last 5 minutes or so of the podcast. You can listen to the entire episode, the question, and the answer here.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Case Against the iPad Pro

This April celebrates 10 years to the release of the original iPad (it was announced in January, but made available to buy on April). Late 2015 saw what was probably the biggest step in the iPad’s evolution thus far: the release of the iPad Pro.

I love my iPad Pro. In the years I owned one it has served me loyally and well. In will therefore start this post, where I am about to point a finger at the biggest issues I have with the concept that is the iPad Pro, by pointing out its biggest advantages.

Why an iPad Pro?
  • 13” (almost) screen: That screen size is very useful, assuming you don’t mind the extra bulk. Some games are made extra amazing, but more importantly reading material that was originally produced for A4 paper (like most PDFs do, not to mention magazines) is a pleasure. It comes down to [occasionally] being able to do a lot of things on this single screen, apps and operating system permitting.
  • Mobility: With a cellular enabled iPad Pro, you have a very portable but also a very powerful computing unit on you.
  • Pro apps serving pro use cases: Numerous apps out there give the iPad Pro an extra edge when it comes to productivity. Take lectures (or meeting) notes as an example: tools such as Nebo let you take handwritten notes that later get converted into digital text you can utilise whichever way you see fit; Noted lets you record the lecture/meeting while keeping your text notes associated with specific points in time of said lecture/meeting; and OneNote or Notability let you take notes, drawings, hand written scribbles, and audio recordings and mix them together. I will put it this way: I expect my university experience would have been completely revolutionised had I had an iPad Pro at the time.

As nice and helpful as the iPad Pro is, it has its disadvantages. Two of them have been there right from the start, and despite the best of Apple’s attempts are still very much there:
  • It might be called “Pro”, but it’s not pro enough:
    An iPad Pro may serve certain use cases very well, but it fails in others. Sometimes utterly so.
    The most notable case is Xcode, Apple’s own development tool (you have to use it for iPad app development): that will only run on Macs, and that’s despite of the fact today's iPad Pro can run circles around certain Mac models, performance wise. Other examples abound, including Photoshop - a tool many rely on as their primary tool of trade: yes, you can now get it on the iPad, but no, it is nowhere near “real computer” equivalent.
    Perhaps the most crippling factor in the Pro department is the iPad’s web browser. Safari was greatly improved on iPadOS 13, allowing for activities such as running Netflix through the browser rather than using Netflix' own invasive app. However, especially if one likes to open numerous tabs at the same time, one will suffer.
    This list can continue on and on, by the way. On my part, I can name the lack of a desktop grade TOR browser, the absence of firewall facilities, or various issues (and bugs) with the handling of VPNs as examples for issues on the networking side of things. Common to all these particular issues is the fact they directly stem from the way iPadOS works.
  • Multifocal activities:
    Any activity on the iPad that requires its user to perform actions outside the one main app will take longer, usually much longer, than the same activity would take on a “real computer”. Yes, these days you can take a file from one app and give it to another, but it’s so cumbersome and inefficient that - at least for me - the option of postponing the task till I can get it done on a “real computer” in 2 seconds is the preferred course of action.

There is, however, a third disadvantage hampering the iPad Pro. What’s interesting about this problem is that, rather than improving over time, it is getting worse and worse. And that problem is: subscriptions. Specifically, infrequently used apps which rely on the subscription business model.
Over the last couple of years, more or less, we have seen the bulk of the pro apps for the iPad move from a premium model (pay once to unlock the app) to a subscription model (pay on a regular basis, as long as you want to continue using the app). Apple has been a great pusher of this policy, for the obvious reason that it has been generating Apple a lot of money.
I will therefore state I do not object to the subscription model, at least not on principle. I subscribe to numerous apps that I use regularly, even to the point of dependency (e.g., my password manager of choice, 1Password). I realise app developers need regular income to sustain themselves and continue development on their apps; I also realise that many apps have running costs (e.g., weather apps need to pay for the raw weather data, podcast apps need to pay for servers, etc).
However, by now a lot of apps - too many apps - that I use regularly yet quite infrequently are asking me for a subscription fee. Does it make sense for me to pay an annual fee for an app I only use perhaps 5 times a year? Should I be paying the monthly subscription rate for such an app, effectively making the monthly fee a single use’s admission price? As nice as these apps are, and as useful as they are for that particular niche of functionality they serve, I am not that rich to be able to afford such a luxury.
As a result of this transition to the subscription model, I find more and more functionality that I used to be able to perform on my iPad Pro when needed - functionality that I almost always paid for to begin with - now gets taken away from me. For example, drawing something easily and quickly on Linea Sketch, or coming up with a simple (yet cool) design using Assembly, or taking hand written notes using the aforementioned Nebo, all now come with what is - for me, at least - a pay per use fee. The result is simple: I don’t use them anymore.
I find my usage regressing more and more towards that primitive way of doing things we were all used to before the emergence of the iPad and the App Store: “find a way to do it on Word, Excel or on a browser.” The problem is, of course, that this way is always more awkward, far less innovative, and way less productive than using the pro apps.

That is to say, what may have once been Pro is no longer the case. And, at least for now, these old style ways of getting things done are achieved way better on a “real computer”.

All of which leave the Pro out of the iPad equation, and leave the iPad Pro as - yet again - a great tool in crying need of useful use cases it could support. Till then, it's not much more than a fancy yet ordinary iPad: a cool, incredibly effective, consumption device. And not much more.

iPad Pro image by Apple, used under the assumption of fair use