Life on Mobile: The Last Mile on iPad

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?

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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 or iPhone:

  • 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 limitations.)
  • 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 sharing menu.
  • 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 really frustrating.

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 Motion.
  • 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.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


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