I wrote previously about how I run much of my life on
iPhone/iPad, and how I switched from
Android to iPhone. Why do I still have a
laptop, if I can do so much on mobile devices? What holds me back?
A year ago, I thought I could probably minimize or even eliminate the use of my
laptop, so I decided to give it a try. After a few weeks, however, I found that
the “last mile” is a long trek on mobile, and it’s not practical for me to get
rid of my laptop completely.
There are two major reasons. One, a lot of things I need to do don’t work on
mobile. Secondly, when you really start using a mobile device for everything,
it’s shocking how many bugs and unusable features there are.
Here are a few things I can’t really do well on mobile, or at least on an iPad
- I can’t write papers in LaTeX and generate PDFs, especially with custom packages and
fonts and the like. (Yes, there are online LaTeX editors, but they also have
- I haven’t yet been able to get a VPN to actually work, and I need one.
- PGP/GPG/encryption is a nightmare. I have never been able to get my GPG keys
set up so I can decrypt a secret message someone sends me. When I tried, I was
terrified that I was unintentionally going to leak my private keys.
- Ditto for SSH keys and anything I want to do on the terminal, which is
typically a lot when I’m using my laptop.
- I can’t really work on Microsoft Office documents. The Office apps integrate well enough with
the documents themselves in most cases, but working with files stored on Google Drive or
similar is just baffling. It’s clear no one at Microsoft cares about that use
case. And complicated features often are unavailable on the mobile
versions of the Office apps, but are pretty commonly used in my experience.
- I can’t integrate an iPad well into a Google Calendar. There’s no iPad app for Google
Calendar (though there’s an iPhone app), and the Apple Calendar app is
substandard. For example, if there’s an attached video call link, you can’t
see it in the Apple Calendar app.
- I can’t really use Hangouts. The Hangouts app is beyond absurd. Trying to find and open a
hangout from an iPhone or iPad is an exercise in frustration.
- I can’t use keyboard shortcuts for productivity (in general, and with an external
keyboard). Many apps do offer keyboard shortcuts, but not, for example, Google
Inbox. And even when doing things like editing an email in Inbox and using the
arrow keys on the official Apple iPad Pro keyboard, Inbox does weird things.
Selecting text with shift-right-arrow, for example, selects text leftward
instead of rightward!
- I often can’t use mobile and/or desktop versions of important websites. A lot of websites
redirect you to a mobile version with limited functionality. You can request a
desktop version instead, but in many cases it doesn’t work, and in others, the
desktop version doesn’t work well in mobile. (There’s no mouse, and hovering
a mouse doesn’t make sense in mobile, but a lot of websites and web apps use
hover-driven UI elements, so they don’t work in mobile). As a concrete example
of this, the Google Image Search website doesn’t offer all the same features
in mobile, such as searching for images with CC licensing.
- Many apps lack last-mile fit-and-finish. This is true of both the official
Apple apps as well as many apps from Google and others. And the integrations
between apps often is broken in fairly obvious ways. For example, copy-paste
doesn’t really work well between the Apple Notes app and most of the Google
apps, apparently because of formatting codes when copying from Notes. I can
paste into a textbox in plaintext and then copy that and paste it into an
email message in Inbox, or into a document in Docs, but I can’t paste
directly. As a result, I often end up awkwardly pasting things into Github’s
Gist (just because it has a large textarea) in the browser, copying, and then
pasting into Inbox.
- Lots of fairly basic UI interactions break pretty often, leading to a
frustrating experience. Oddly, I noticed this less often before I put my
laptop into cold storage, but when I forced myself to rely on only the iPad
and iPhone, suddenly I realized how much polish is lacking. For example, with
the official Apple iPad Pro keyboard attached, the iPad Pro doesn’t register
the first few keystrokes to enter the passcode and unlock the iPad, so it’s
not like the Macbook where you just press a key and it wakes up and is ready
for your password.
- You can’t choose the app you want for specific purposes like email, calendar,
and maps. The Google apps work well together and let you specify whether to
use a Google app, but it’s not systemwide. There are always workarounds. But
those are slightly more laborious, usually involving something like using a
- The idea of “files” doesn’t really exist in the same way, and doing something
like “downloading” a “file” from an email attachment, editing it, and sending
the newly edited version is pretty awful. Mobile is designed around the idea
that local storage isn’t the central concept, cloud sharing is. But cloud
sharing doesn’t really work for a lot of things, such as, say, collaboratively
editing an Excel spreadsheet. Maybe someday we’ll get there, but as of now,
it’s laborious in a lot of cases, and sometimes impossible. Fundamentally,
only iCloud (Apple’s own services) are natively supported, and the integration
with all others such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or Microsoft’s whatever they
call it, is a real pain. (iCloud sharing, by the way, is a total disaster.)
- Lots of apps, both built-in and third-party, do the common thing very well,
but any exceptional case is either not possible or is often hidden. An example
of this is hidden parts of the UI. In many apps, you swipe as if you want to
scroll, which reveals a hidden UI element such as a search field. But if you
didn’t know that was possible already, you’d be somewhat unlikely to find it.
- Many UI interactions are highly designed, in ways that seem impressive at
first but aren’t productive when you do them constantly. For example,
animating apps when you’re switching between them. Cool trick, unless you do
it a lot. Then you get impatient with the delays and the visual distraction.
Or, at least, I do.
- Many apps don’t play well with split-screen mode, so you can’t use two apps
side-by-side in iPad. On the iPad Pro, this is a huge waste, because it has a
big screen, and now you’re reduced to switching between apps a lot.
- Many apps are pretty substandard on iPad Pro, exhibiting various layout issues
(font spacing all weird, clipped fonts…) or badly wasted space (iPhone-sized
content area in the middle of a giant white screen).
- Serious typing or other productivity work is hampered. On my iPad Pro, I have
been unable to disable auto-correct, despite disabling every related setting,
when an external keyboard is attached. It constantly changes my words to
something else. And I understand, when you’re typing a text message to your
friend with your fingers on the screen, autocorrect can help. But when I want
to write someone’s name that’s spelled a bit differently, or when I don’t want
to capitalize the first letter after “i.e.” or something like that, it’s
A lot of this is Apple-specific, but from what I’ve seen Apple is generally
ahead of the pack. Mobile-only users are clearly in the minority. If you’re
mobile-only, a ton of little but important stuff is just broken for you, and you
won’t be able to complete the tasks you want. These could be really
important—as, for example, using a government website to request an absentee
ballot or file your tax return or something. You may be forced to use a
“traditional” computer to do these types of things.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that Apple seems to be introducing more bugs in
the last couple of versions of iOS. Everyone loves to criticize Apple for the
smallest things, but I believe they’re legitimately slipping product quality
recently. Siri fails to do simple things it used to be good at, and just asks
inane questions in reply. AirPlay devices don’t get detected quickly anymore;
there are long delays and it takes several tries. Apps don’t upgrade in the
background anymore; when I open the iPad up, they start upgrading, and sometimes
it’s the app I wanted to use, and I have to wait for it. The new iOS 10 lock
screen is horribly buggy, and basically useless when it does work. It used to be
one of my productivity secret weapons pre-version-10, and now I’ve essentially
had to disable it and do things the unproductive way again. Those kinds of
problems give me pause and make me wonder whether I’m being productive on mobile
anymore, or should use mobile less and desktop more.
Am I complaining? No, not really, just stating what I see as the reality: mobile
devices aren’t ready yet for the “real world” of all the things I must do on a
daily and weekly basis. This, of course, is a far cry from how Apple positions
them; they touted the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, perfect for Microsoft PC
laptop users to migrate to. I think that’d be a pretty miserable experience.
I’ll finish this blog post with a set of “pro tip” iOS time savers I’ve found to
be useful for me. Hopefully they help you too!
- To enable something like iOS 9 lock-screen behavior with regards to unlocking
(to disable the confusing extra step of unlocked-but-still-looks-locked), go
to Accessibility / Home Button / Rest Finger To Open.
- Reduce all the eye candy when switching apps with Accessibility / Reduce
- You can try to disable autocorrect and predictive type-ahead, but it doesn’t always work.
Look in Keyboard settings. You can also change this per-app by long-pressing
on the “emoji” key to the left of the space key (in on-screen keyboards).
- Try to swipe/scroll everything in every app and see what you find.
- Use Tweetbot, not the official Twitter app. Don’t install LinkedIn or Facebook.
- Inbox and Outlook are the best GMail apps.
- Don’t allow the App Store to use cellular data, so your apps only update when on
wifi, and you’ll save massive amounts of data usage. This is under Settings /
Cellular. In my case, the App Store was using gigabytes of data, probably more
than 90% of my total data usage.