iPad-only is the new desktop Linux

You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.

[N.B.: if you are a Linux user here to write an angry response, please read the addendum at the end. Okay? Okay.]

Earlier this year, I moved from a MacBook Pro to an iMac 5K. There were a few reasons for this, but mostly, I wanted that display: even my middle-aged, glasses-wearing eyes can tell the difference. Also, I do a lot of my writing at my desk, and between Dropbox and iCloud, syncing documents between two machines has become nearly transparent.

But I still travel occasionally, and day trip frequently. What about the iPad? I’ve been skeptical of this, but a lot of folks in tech circles I’m at least adjacent to love using the iPad Pro not just as their main mobile device but as their primary computers, while I’d all but abandoned my rather outdated iPad mini.

So, I got a 9.7″ iPad Pro. The iMac had come with a Magic Keyboard I wasn’t using (I like mechanical keyboards, and kept using them with my new iMac; for the record, I’ve settled on a Matias Mini Tactile Pro), and I decided to use it, getting a Waterfield slip case for it and a Tom Bihn Café Bag for the whole shebang.

And I started using it.

I used it to make revisions to a story and send it to an editor. I used it to create new stories. I used it for editing bigger works in Scrivo Pro, a “Scrivener for the iPad” before the official Scrivener for iOS release. I even used Working Copy to check my company’s documentation out of Git, made changes in Editorial or Textastic, and merged them back in. I switched to Spark as an email client, and Ulysses as a plain text editor.

I have a few months of using it daily now, and using it for relatively serious work. Yes, I like it. Yes, it can replace my Macbook in many regards. Some of what I need to do is easier on the iPad than it is on either the iMac or the MacBook: email triage, for instance, and anything that involves long-form reading. And it’s a good “single focus” editor for writing.

But where it fell down — and will continue falling even with iOS 10 — is when I needed to do just about anything that involves more than one program at once.

Right after I’d gotten the iPad Pro, I had to do something common for fiction writers: review comments from an editor on a short story of mine, accept or reject their changes, make my own copy edits, and then send the file back in a reply to the original message.

Unless you’re writing for a hip online publication, you do not get editors’ comments in CriticMarkup on your Markdown document. You get them in Word. You open that file in Word, or another program that can transparently round-trip comments and revision tracking. On a Mac, you save the attachment to the desktop, double-click to open it in Pages, make changes, reply to the original message and drag the attachment in from the desktop.

On the iPad, everything happens in the context of an app. I must open the attachment in my email program and then use “Open in…” to send it to Pages, make changes, and…then what? I can send it back to Spark, my email program, from Pages, but only as a new message. If I don’t have the editor’s email address saved as a contact, I lose—I can’t switch back to the message I should be replying to. I can save this as a draft, I guess. Or I can do what I did, which is use Dropbox as my “desktop”: go back to Pages, send a copy to Dropbox, then reply.

Even in the best case scenario, the Mac’s speed blows iOS away. Not because of CPU power, but because iOS’s design just doesn’t handle a task like this as gracefully. It’s possible it would have been faster if I were using a different set of apps, ones aware of each other in a deeper fashion. But on the Mac, I could have used any email program and any word processor that handled Word’s revision tracking and followed the same steps.

The iOS conceptual model is that everything lives in an app. If I want to play a game, or read a web page, or even read a book, that’s fine. But while I might want to work on “a Scrivener document,” I never want to work on “a BBEdit document”; I want to work on a Markdown document. On the Mac, moving between editors is trivial. If I want to work on the same file in Byword and Editorial on the same iPad, though, they can only do it by updating their individual, local copies of that file based on shared access to a copy on a cloud storage provider. If the file in Byword is in iCloud, I’ll have to move it; Editorial doesn’t do iCloud at all. If the file is in Dropbox, but Editorial and Byword link to different directories, I’ll have to change the settings of one or both.

You can argue that I should just stay within the bounds of the ecosystem I’m supposed to be in. Fuck that. This is plain text. A lot of files we work with are de facto standards: JPEG, Word, HTML, MP3. Downloading an image from a web site, resizing and editing it in an image editor, and uploading it to WordPress — these are things that people do all the time and require coordination between multiple apps, yet don’t demand specific apps.

If you’re going to tell me “normal people” don’t do those tasks, please don’t. Quilters run blogs. Salespeople create presentations. And non-techie writers send revisions to editors. It’s us nerds who insist that iOS solves the “problem” of normal people who don’t understand the file system putting all their files on the desktop. But the desktop acts as shared document storage, which is something it turns out normal people sometimes need, and iOS does not solve that problem. Lecture me about the virtues of containers all you want, but there is no world in which having to use Dropbox as a temporary storage medium is a step forward.

“But Workflow — ”


Conceptually, I like Workflow. You can do some fantastic stuff with it. It’s kind of like Keyboard Maestro on the Mac. But you can do so much with KM that you can’t with Workflow, and while I know some people think Workflow is much easier to understand than KM or Automator, I can barely make heads or tails of Workflow’s UI. Workflow has an added ball and chain: switching between apps under iOS is, compared to the Mac, positively glacial.

But Workflow is an essential tool for being an iOS Power User, for that thrill of figuring out how to get relatively complex tasks done, right? Realizing that led me to a comparison that’s going to raise hackles, but here it is.

Using iOS as your primary OS is like using desktop Linux.

No, hear me out. See, Linux users don’t care how much easier we say it is in our non-Linux worlds. Sure, they say it’s because of open access and free as in scotch ale and yadda yadda yadda, but really? They like the challenge. Figuring out how to do what they used to do on a Mac or Windows PC is part of the allure.

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge! It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad. Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.

Yet there’s an irony here: most of us, especially those of us who are older than 30, became Mac users because we were tired of having to “figure out” how to get work done. When push comes to shove, I’m comfortable using my iPad Pro to replace my MacBook Pro because I still have an iMac.

Steve Jobs famously compared Macs and PCs to trucks and tablets to cars; I argued a few years later that desktop computers were the trucks, laptops were cars, and tablets were motorcycles. John Gruber responded, “Maybe, but I say give it a decade of slow, steady, incremental improvement in post-PC devices and software, a decade for people to gradually adjust their computing habits.” I think that’s probably true, but we have another seven years to go. And today, in 2016, I think about the one-port MacBook: it makes as much of a deliberate statement about when you shouldn’t use it as when you should. So does the iPad, and maybe that won’t change any time soon. Yes, I remember Phil Schiller’s description of the 9.7″ iPad Pro as “the ultimate PC replacement,” and perhaps it can replace a laptop for many people (like me). But Ford still makes trucks.

Now, it’s time to wrap up here and get back to some fiction planning. I can’t wait to have a good excuse to use the real Scrivener on the iPad.

There have been some great responses to this, both pro and con. A great one that’s not on Medium is from Benjamin Brooks, who indeed uses an iPad as his primary computer.

Addendum, January 2018: while I’m flattered this piece still garners reads, I confess a certain level of irritation with Linux users who react to this as if it were a hit piece. You get that this piece is about the iPad, not Linux, right? There is literally one paragraph about Linux, and apparently one phrase that keeps burning people’s buns: suggesting those who run Linux on the desktop (or go iPad-only) do so because “they like the challenge.” OMG this Watts dude thinks Linux is difficult to use! He must never have used modern Linux! He has no idea what he’s talking about! OUTRAGE!

In fact, I have used modern Linux distributions, both desktop and server. (I’ve also run FreeBSD on both, although that experience is quite out of date now.) Yes, I get that you no longer have to edit Xfree86 modelines, and that installing and configuring Linux now is not like it was twenty years ago. But it is a challenge to go outside the mainstream and be forced to do things with new software and new UX paradigms, and depending on what you need to do, those differences can make your tasks difficult. They may not make your tasks difficult. But you are not all people. Okay? Okay.

And, sure: some people find Linux way easier to use in all possible respects that Windows or macOS. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard from all of them by now, and I’m sorry I made both of you angry.

(As for how iOS 11 changes things for the iPad-only crowd, that might be for a future article.)

While it wasn’t written on the iPad, my science fiction novel, Kismet, is available in ebook for $6. Recommended by Nebula nominee Lawrence M. Schoen as a book that “should challenge how we think,” it’s a story about genetic engineering, AI, identity, and bisexual rat women in space. If you’d like to support my occasional tech writing (and help make it less occasional), picking up the book—and giving it a review—is a great way!




A web developer turned technical writer, sf/fantasy/anthro fiction author, and craft cocktail aficionado.

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Watts Martin

Watts Martin

A web developer turned technical writer, sf/fantasy/anthro fiction author, and craft cocktail aficionado.

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