Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing Novels with the Apple iPad? Am I Insane?

Generally speaking, I'm constantly short on cash and must save up over a long period of time for my toys. So I find myself in a quandary. My daughter heads off to college with my MacBook in April (as I promised her), but my savings account isn't quite MacBook Pro/Air ready yet. What to do?

iPad Option TwoApple, sensing my need, released the iPad upon the world. The clouds parted. The tech was slick. It was only $499. I was set. Or was I? Had I found my solution, or was I just on another ADHD fueled hunt again?

I use my MacBook for reading news, researching my novel, reading news, blogging, writing my novel, and reading news. I also manage my network & files with it, as well as download an obscene amount of TV content from all over the world. The iPad can easily let me read news, research, and with a VNC app, it can even let me manage my files remotely from my Mac mini, but can I write a book on it? I asked myself that very question weeks ago.

The first problem I conceived was the input method. Even before I saw the iPad or knew what it would be called, I was holding cardboard rectangles of various rumored dimensions and imagining how I'd weld the thing. I even tried to type on the replicas and found the wobbling was going to be a problem. Then hands on reports started to come forward.

On January 28th, John Gruber over at said:

The on-screen iPad keyboard is not bad at all, for what it is, but it’s exactly what you think — it’s for pecking not typing. If you want to do actual writing, you’re going to want a hardware keyboard.

The next day Engadget added more to the conversation:

Typing on the iPad can be a little difficult. Holding it in your lap is fairly easy, but as you can see in our video up above, when it's flat on its back on a table, it tends to move around a bit given that it's curved. If you're holding the device in portrait mode, it's possible (though not that easy) to type with your thumbs, but you're more likely to be hunting and pecking with a single hand (unless you have some large paws). Luckily, when it comes to holding it, Apple provides that large bezel around the side, so you're not actually touching the screen when you're gripping it.

Other people were puzzling over this as I was. Some even created mock-ups of proposed improvements, like Dan Provost and his excellent Typing on the iPad article on January 31st:

In this case the iPhone style keyboard doesn’t scale very gracefully. It sits in an unfortunately middle ground: way too cramped to type with both hands, but too large to be able to comfortably “thumb type”.

Dan proposed splitting the iPad keyboard in half to make the thumb reach easier.

Lastly, on February 2nd Andy Ihnatko's thorough review in the Sun-Times explored the virtual keyboard on an iPad as well as the keyboard dock:

The iPad has soft keyboards available in both landscape and portrait modes. I tried typing on it in landscape mode, where the keyboard is almost full-sized. I have to say that it’s more touch-tappable than touch-typeable. Typing at my normal speed was ... unproductive. But if I slowed down, I could type very fast using both hands. It’s fine for writing emails, but probably poor for writing an essay or a column. Nonetheless I’m certain that I could do a whole 800-word column on the virtual keyboard without suffering too much…

One disappointment: the keyboard dock doesn’t fold flat for travel. I suspect that on-the-go iPad users will want to give it a miss and either buy the Bluetooth keyboard, or wait for an enterprising third party to design a more travel-studly option.

iPad Option OneAlthough I hadn't physically used an iPad, my concerns were being corroborated by those who had. Clearly, the only way to effectively type on the iPad was to purchase the keyboard dock, or at least the easel-ready iPad case.

The other aspect to consider was the available software. Apple has their word processor/desktop publisher, Pages, but I am used to using MarsEdit for blogging and CopyWrite for my novel. They're more than word processors. They organize and archive. I'd have to create a separate document on the iPad and import it into the other apps every day just to keep them in sync. There could be formatting issues, sync conflicts, viruses uploaded by Jeff Goldblum, and no end of headaches.

I then contacted the makers of these apps. Only Red Sweater, the makers of MarsEdit, replied. They have plans to port over to the iPhone, and now the iPad. In fact, it is a certainty. They just need to make the time. Not likely by launch, in my opinion.

So there you have it. The complete state of typing on the iPad without ever typing on one. As things stand now, I might be making a mistake to purchase an iPad as my replacement productivity machine. With all that's going wrong in my head, why make life harder for myself?

Then again, what is more disruptive? A less than perfect solution in the iPad, or no laptop computer at all?