As someone who suffers from an acute case of earlyadopteritis, it is with little surprise that I was keen to jump on the iPad pre-order bandwagon. I had considered many eReaders in the past, but none provided sufficient capability for my particular set of needs. So this post is not a review of the iPad per se, but a small discussion of how it meets (or doesn't meet) my needs in the world of study - particularly theology. UPDATE (22/01/11): Also refer to my follow-up post on the iPad for Academic Theology revisited.
These things in mind, there were four broad categories of intended use:
- Reading (Articles and Books): in the form of PDFs, eBooks, and also the Bible.
- Research: Mostly searching databases and monitoring RSS feeds.
- Brainstorming and Planning: I generally use a notebook to scribble diagrams and quickly capture ideas (then entering them into Evernote as the repository). Accordingly, I was hoping for an electronic equivalent of my spiral notebook.
- Meetings: Probably least on my list of priorities, I wanted an electronic way to keep notes in meetings (without needing to pull out a laptop).
Of course a laptop can do all of these things (and more) quite successfully, but I was hoping for a device that would complement and enhance these processes. I was also hoping for an opportunity to be freed from the desk a little, less reliant on paper, and provided with the possibility to work in a more 'natural' way (e.g., reading in a relaxed posture instead of 'at' a laptop; taking notes more naturally instead of tapping away on a laptop). I don't need something for lectures. I also had no expectations that I would use this device for 'serious' writing (other than notes etc.) - not necessarily because of the mode of input (i.e., on-screen keyboard or via a bluetooth keyboard), but largely because of the limitations of the software. There are many word processors available on the iPad (e.g., Pages) - of which some are quite good - but without integration with Endnote (yes, a "bag of hurt" too) it is a deal breaker. The lack of proper file management also makes me quite reluctant to be drafting important documents on the device (although this latter aspect may be overcome soon with better Dropbox integration).
To achieve these main tasks, I have ended up using a 'core' of seven applications, summarised below.
[table id=2 /]
One pattern I have noticed is that I am often not concerned with the source of applications used for editing - but I am concerned with the ubiquity of applications that are repositories of my data. In effect, the repositories of my information (e.g., Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle) must all be integrated with what I use elsewhere (e.g., the web, on my mac, on my iPhone). Ensuring data is stored centrally and synchronised easily (including for backup) is a core criteria for me.
Ultimately, I think that the potential success of using the iPad in academic theology is all about workflow. As illustrated below, most of the processes (or the processes that require me editing a file) are linear. This is for good reason: file management (especially that relating to versioning) on the iPad is problematic. Whilst using a service like Dropbox is very good, until Apple open up a real API to allow transparent downloading and uploading of files to a central location (such as Dropbox), I fear that people editing versions of documents on multiple devices will have disasterous outcomes. That said, for my use case and workflow, it works brilliantly.
Here's a summary of that illustrated above:
- I use Dropbox as a repository for all my files - including PDF articles linked to my Endnote database. Through the Dropbox application, I can easily access these files (just like I do on my Mac or you could on a PC) and open them in an application to read and annotate them (which in this case is iAnnotate). From here I can read the PDF, mark it up, make notes, and then when done email it back to myself. I can then copy the file back to my Endnote database on my Mac (but with the appropriate annotations). This requires a couple of steps, but is actually quite efficient. To me it's not dissimilar to printing the PDF, but without the need to manually input notes into the computer. iAnnotate's email 'file + summary' feature means that I can simply copy+paste my highlighted/noted text straight into what I am working on (straight from the outputed email). As one of my main daily tasks - this is a big winner.
- I have had mixed feelings about Olive Tree in the past, but now with brilliant support, I am a loyal customer. I get tired of repurchasing licenses for Bible versions I already own, but until Accordance releases a mobile version, Bible Reader is a very good solution. It allows me to use the same license on multiple devices (e.g., iPhone), synchronise my books, and even stores my notes in Evernote. It is also a very nice reading experience which I actually find better in some ways than reading a hard copy bible (which is a BIG surprise to me) - especially with the ability to load whatever combination of Greek, Study Notes, or translations within a simple interface. I have been reluctant in the past to store notes in Bible software - this is primarily because it seems like throwing them into an electronic black hole. Having Evernote integration (where I store most of my thoughts, snippets, voice memo's etc) is simply brilliant and another great reason to use Olive Tree's solution. (You can also access these on the iPad through the Evernote directly if you like.) Ultimately, this means that notes are synchronised to Evernote wherever you have it installed - including your iPhone, computer, or through the Evernote website.
- There's already numerous notepad apps for iPad, but I think Penultimate has the best ink representation. I use this to sketch ideas and take notes in meetings with the aid of a PogoStylus (sorry Steve, a stylus is sometimes useful!). It works quite well, although if needed to take a large volume of notes I would definitely use a laptop. I do like being able to email a PDF of the page (or entire notebook) to my Evernote email address and know that it is stored with all of my other notes. This has the additional benefit of my handwritten text being searchable through Evernote's integrated OCR service.
- I subscribe to many RSS feeds, especially the table of contents of journals. I have been a long-term user of NetNewsWire on Mac and iPhone so this was a no-brainer. Because it synchronises across devices, it means that I always know what's new and what's been read. Anything I want to keep I just email to my Evernote account (straight from the app).
- Kindle is the only real contender at the moment for eBooks on the iPad. iBooks works fine, but there are a few critical flaws which Kindle has overcome. Firstly, Kindle is device agnostic (available on Mac, PC, iPhone etc.), whereas iBooks is locked to iPhone and iPad (the books aren't even easily readable on the Mac at the moment!). When spending money on something electronic, tied up with DRM, I want to be able to access them in as many ways and places as possible. Secondly, the Kindle bookstore is far superior regarding which titles are available. Thirdly - and it is a big one - notes and highlights I make in the Kindle app are accessible online through my Kindle account. This means that I have a relatively simple way to get this text copy+pasted into something more useful (like Evernote). While in iBooks you can highlight and note take to your heart's content, you can't get them out easily.
So it probably seems a little complex, but for me these processes work extraordinarily well. The key is ensuring that the content you create (i.e., your ideas, diagrams, notes, highlights) are stored in a systematic way (for me, in Dropbox or Evernote). Although rhetoric suggests that the iPad is just for content consumption, I really think it has an important place in content creation (like that described above). However, for 'serious' content creation (e.g., writing an essay with references) it doesn't work well.
One of the surprises is that I now regularly carry around three devices... (i.e., Macbook, iPhone, and iPad). I'm not sure if this is because: (a) I don't trust the iPad yet, (b) are still unsure of how I should use it, or (c) it really is a 'third' type of device that is complementary. That said, I went away for a week and didn't take a laptop (i.e., only the iPad) and survived quite nicely :-) Whilst this is not a computer replacement, I think it is a very useful tool.
It has also been great to read away from the computer! It feels so much more natural and also more engaging. It has been a wonderful way to browse databases in the search of articles. Most importantly, whilst reading for long periods on the computer seems to result in significant eye strain, I do not experience the same issue when reading articles and books on the iPad. I'm not sure if it is because I can hold the device at a better distance from my eyes, are in a more relaxed posture whilst reading, or a combination of both.
Overall I don't think the implementation is as elegant as the iPhone, although I am sure this will improve over time. I think for Apple the major challenge is file management - which if opened up - could be brilliant. But if your main tasks are similar to mine, I think you will be very pleased. If you instead want a workhorse for lots of writing (and swapping files between devices), you might be disappointed. If you don't work with the 'cloud' and are almost exclusively reliant upon installed applications, then I think it might have limited use. Having centralised data repositories are essential and ensuring that it fits with your existing workflow is also critical. Whilst I'm not sure if it is magical (as per Steve Jobs), I do think that it's actually pretty useful (and maybe a little fun... but that's a whole separate post).
UPDATE (22/01/11): Also refer to my follow-up post on the iPad for Academic Theology revisited.