A Deeper Look at iWork and Office on iOS for iOS-only

Today, I’m going to look back on the last semester of grad school, and how I would do things different if I was iOS-only. This is the benefit of hindsight. Paths seem clearer when looking back.

In my recent article on Slamming into Walls, I mentioned some issues I had with Office on iOS. A summary of the problems:

  • Cannot edit (or create) styles
  • Does not see side-loaded fonts (I was wrong: it does see the side-loaded fonts. It just dumps them in its own “iOS Fonts” section of the app.)
  • Does not complain about missing fonts
  • Cannot edit document margins

Team Collaboration: The biggest barrier to iOS-only

There was one statement I had on the article that will be relevant to the entire piece: The more you control the output of your job from start-to-finish, the more success you will have with the iPad.

We did three group presentations in this class. The presentations were the one thing that made me hesitant about iOS-only. How PowerPoint handled the custom fonts was pretty poor. I ended up just being “the PowerPoint guy” so I didn’t have to deal with round-tripping files with team mates. I probably could have gone iOS only on all the presentations.

However, where the wheels came off the bus was WebEx. One day, we had to meet via WebEx because we were all remote. The WebEx app on iOS is a blight on humanity for a presenter. I had to send the PowerPoint file to the WebEx app, and it just showed in a scrolling view. Not slides. It just looked like a PDF in preview. It also lost all custom fonts. This app would be a deal-breaker for going iOS-only.

In hindsight, I would create the presentations on the Mac again. In the collaborative setting it was the path of least resistance. I would hate to slow up a working session because I was fighting through some iOS issue.

Writing Papers:

Word and Pages both pissed me off on iOS for different reasons. Word pissed me off because I couldn’t edit the margins. Pages pissed me off because it cannot have one page in a document set for landscape, and the rest portrait. I had one paper that required this format. In Word (on any platform), if I used footnotes it messed up the bottom margin setting and I had to do a custom margin to get it to a true 1” margin. In Pages on iOS I would could do this. One way around this was to not use footnotes. Which would be ok, since I use footnotes and more of an editorial aside. The other weird formatting issue is that professor wanted the bibliography single-spaced, but with an extra line in between entries. On the Mac it was very easy to adjust the paragraph formatting for that section to have 12pts of space after every carriage return; on iOS I couldn’t do that and would have to manually add each return.

The other part of this is storage. I used both iCloud Drive and OneDrive to store all the related bits for class. The Apple way is to have individual components in the app’s folder: Pages stuff in the Pages folder, PDFs in my PDF reader directory. On iOS 10, this is the best way to do it. I found it easier to use OneDrive and dump all the various bits into an OBC500 class folder. The Files app on iOS 11 may change this a little. A part of it is going to take a mindset change as well. The good news is iOS 11 will be out long before our next class, so I will have some time with the Files app.

While both apps pissed me off, the one paper that had the funky formatting required would require me to use Word if I was iOS-only. However, I was far happier with iCloud syncing in Pages. There was one time I was working on the paper on the train and the smart move would have been to have Pages download the file from iCloud, work on the paper, and then have background sync upload the changes when I got on WiFi.

Citation management is actually pretty easy on iPad. It’s the one area I expected to have the most problems, but it ended up being the easiest. I used EasyBib on the web (not app)1 for all my citations. It made referencing web sites and books simple. Just enter in the URL or book name and EasyBib looks up all the information. When you are ready to insert your bibliography just go to Export, and choose Copy and Paste. A separate web view opens. Select the text and copy it into Word and Pages.

I wrote three papers in the last semester. All of them I were candidates for completion on the iPad. The only one that was a little harder was the one with a single landscape page and the rest of the document portrait. Word can handle this perfectly. The issue of adjusting the margins was a minor one. While I tweaked it, submitting it as-is was fine also.

Submitting Papers

It’s also nice that now Safari understands the radical notion of uploading files. Submitting the papers on the iPad would be fine. Reading the feedback from the instructor, however, was a big problem.

The way feedback was provided was entirely within the web front end of Canvas. The Word file was marked up within this web view. On iOS on both Chrome and Safari, the frame where the paper (and feedback) is displayed was cut off. Requesting a desktop version of the page didn’t work. Viewing the grade in the Canvas iOS app didn’t work. Other than the WebEx thing, viewing the teacher’s feedback was the one area where iOS-only slammed into a wall. I just couldn’t find a way around this.

The Next Class

I’m not sure how the next class will go. We don’t have a start date or syllabus yet. Based on how this class went, I think my iOS-usage will go as follows:

  • Writing Papers: I will most likely do all of these on my iPad.
  • Presentations: Solo presentations I will likely do on my iPad. Group presentations will remain in PowerPoint on my Mac. If we are collaborating on PowerPoint files, I will also use fonts available on our standard Windows build at work.2
  • Submitting: Either or. Doesn’t really matter
  • Reading Feedback: Unless the instructor supplies a marked-up Word file, I will have to read the feedback on my Mac or work laptop.
  1. On the iPad Pro, the app is a dumpster fire. It is locked to portrait and looks ugly on my 12.9″ iPad.
  2. The course I am in enrolled in is a benefit from work. All of my classmates were co-workers and the teachers come to us for the classes.

Slamming Into Walls

I wrote a post about how much I love and use my iPad Pro and shoot down some of the myths about doing Real Work(tm) on an iPad. The thought process behind this current post, was a long decision made quickly. It was a difficult decision as I spent a lot of time reconciling where I believe the future of computing to lie, and the reality of where computing is. The hard fact is, I can’t currently do everything I want to on an iPad. Updates to iOS or the iPad Pro hardware may well ease some of the frustrations I have with iOS, but I need to solve problems with today’s solutions; not hoping for tomorrow’s1.

So, I bought a MacBook Pro, Late 2016 model.

Before this sounds like one of those “Guy Goes iPad-only; gives up and goes back to the Mac” let me dispel that notion: I still use my iPad as much I did. It is still my primary writing and drawing tool. I sat in 16 hours of discovery sessions recently and the only time I used my Mac was when I was in a weird sitting angle. The Smart Keyboard still isn’t good for using the Pro on the lap. When I go to work on stuff, assuming it’s something the iPad can handle, it’s the device I reach for first. I’m writing this post right now on Ulysses on the Mac2 mainly to get the feel for the app, and to get used to the keyboard.

In that post, I hinted at something like this the line: I can’t currently go iOS-only. I still use a Mac. (…) Certainly, my use of iOS will only grow over the years. Right now, when I hit a wall in iOS I don’t graze it; I slam right into it.

The other school of thought I have with iPad-only is this: The more you control the output of your job from start-to-finish, the more success you will have with the iPad.3 My day job requires collaborating on Visio diagrams. If I were a consultant whose final output was a PDF of the diagrams, I could do it all on OmniGraffle on the iPad.

The last time I got a computer for power it was in June 2011. I got a MacBook Pro 15” — the 2.0GHz model with the 256mb video card. I was getting divorced at the time and was in a housing situation that was fluid. My ex and I were trying to give each other space, so we were frequently at other houses. I was also wrapping up my degree and needed a computer to work anywhere from. I loved that Pro. It’s one of the last where you could replace the hard drive, RAM, and even take out the optical drive and put in a data doubler to get a second drive.4

A few years later, a sequence of tech failures at the Casa had me hand down the beloved Pro to my mate and I got an 11” MacBook Air. When I got the Air, I made a conscious decision to sacrifice power for portability. iOS wasn’t yet at the point where I could even think about using it for work, and my iPad was an iPad 3. Those models were pretty much doomed to be slow from the start.

But, a lot of the barriers to getting work done on iPad started to go away, and last year I was able start using my iPad Pro as my main mobile device. While the iPad is still a device I will use every day, as I mentioned in the Year with the iPad Pro article, some gaps remain between the iPad and macOS. For those, I needed to turn to the Air and the MacBook Pro. Lately, though, they were starting to get too slow for me to get work done. The close to final moment came when I was sorting through some DNG files — not even in Lightroom mind you; Quick Look — on the Pro and the lag, sputters, and fan noises were too much to take. Neither of them had Retina screens and that was starting to drive me crazy.5 Even with an SSD in the Pro, the slower Sandy Bridge processor was starting to show its age. The Air ran a little bit faster, but not much. I needed a Mac. I got the 15” Pro with a 512gb SSD drive. I thought about the MacBook Adorable, but felt it was too slow for my needs.

There are a few things I do that I need a Mac for: working in AutoCad; Lightroom; and programming iOS and macOS apps. I’m not expecting to be able to do these tasks on an iPad for at least 2-3 years.

I feel the biggest thing holding the iPad back is software. Not once have I felt my iPad Pro was slow. Here is a good example of a use-case where you think the iPad would do ok, but for ease of use I chose the Mac: Presentations for grad school. My presentation style is heavily-influenced by Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen. Lots of images; little text. Almost all of my fonts are non-standard fonts. My last presentation used ChunkFive and ComiCrazy. Adding fonts on my Mac is easy. I have the system Fonts folder on my sidebar in Finder. I drag the fonts I want to add there. I download images I find on Google to the folder for the presentation. I download more images than I use. I then drag them into PowerPoint.

On the iPad I ran into a couple of problems. Adding fonts isn’t natively supported. Instead, I use AnyFont to create a profile on my iPad for each font, and sometimes font style (bold, etc). This was annoying. I also found out the hard way that PowerPoint on iOS ignores the custom fonts anyway, so I’d have to build the presentation in Keynote6. I could save the images to my Photos library but I don’t want to pollute it with images I wouldn’t hang on to7. I can use a menu in Keynote for iPad to insert images from iCloud Drive (or any cloud storage), but it’s a painful process. This is likely to change with iOS 11 and Drag and Drop. My next class, though, all bets could be off. I may be on a different team and not have as much control over the slides as I do now. For the last presentation I also downloaded a song from the internet and cut out all but the first 30 seconds of it. I probably could have used GarageBand on ioOS to do this.

What is frustrating are the things you would think would be pretty easy on an iPad, but aren’t. On iOS in Pages and Word, I cannot edit or create document styles. It will accept custom styles in a document I created outside of iOS, however. I had a 12-page paper that I wrote almost entirely on the Mac. I am running the iOS 11 beta 1 on my iPad and I didn’t trust an important production document to a beta. A blog post, sure. Something that is 20% of my grade with a hard due date? Nope. The other reason is Word for iOS has just enough limitations that I didn’t want to run into a wall. I can’t seem to adjust the spacing between paragraphs, for example. I can adjust the overall line spacing, though. I also couldn’t adjust the margins of the document. The professor had stringent formatting requirements and I was unable to make the adjustments on the iPad. I may have been able to use Ulysses to do this. The instructor was firm on .doc formatting, so it was safer to stay native in Word.

I played it safe this semester at school. It was a 14-week class jammed into 10 weeks and I had no time for any false starts. There were a few times during class – including one emergency during a group presentation – where I was damn glad I had the MacBook, and that it was in my bag. Without the group presentations I probably would have felt more comfortable using the iPad more. Since half the assignments were group projects, it was just easier to have the Mac as the central source for working on school.

  1. Most of this was written before the June 5, 2017 keynote. My original point stands about the situation when I got the Mac. That said, while iOS 11 helps with this, it doesn’t solve all the problems.
  2. What’s really funny is, right after I typed that in Ulysses crashed. It’s never crashed on iOS.
  3. Assuming it’s not a technical job like application programmer.
  4. A friend at work is a big Mac fan, so I packed it up and gave it to him. I wanted it to find a good home.
  5. Every now and then, I wonder how getting the baseline 13” Retina MacBook Pro back then would have made a long-term difference.
  6. This would add another layer to sharing the file with classmates.
  7. Plus, when I was adding images into the slides when collaborating with team mates, I didn’t want them to see my personal photos.

WWDC Hot Takes

So, a few quick words about the WWDC stuff. I’m not going too mention the WatchOS and tvOS improvements. I love my Watch, but few of the improvements interest me. I do not have one of the new Apple TVs.

High Sierra

A lot of under-the-hood stuff. It feels like Apple is definitely going into a tick-tock release schedule for maOS. This is the “tock” year. I like the better Messages storing across the board. Faces in Photos syncing across devices is nice also. The Safari auto-blocking auto-playing ads, and blocking tracking is nice.

VR is long game, but I felt this year is where Apple worked to shoot down the “Mac can’t do VR” argument. Plus selling an eGPU for $600 is nice. Metal 2 is nice, but not a lot of games I play take advantage of Metal anyway.

iCloud file sharing is a welcome addition as well.

What I was expecting, but didn’t get, was a way to use your iPad Pro as a sort of Wacom tablet.

iOS 11

So, in general the iOS 11 stuff is nice. The iCloud stuff across the board also included iOS. Better Control Panel interface, and the new Camera features are awesome. Camera will now help you take better photos of things like waterfalls. That was a great demo about the setup required for those types of photos. Instead of screwing with aperture and shutter speeds, you just press a button.

However, if what Craig talked about for iOS 11 was it, I was going to start a blog post titled, “Apple to iPad Pro Users: Fuck You.” Another year with no iPad-specific features would have made me walk away from the iPad as a productivity tool.

We got some nice features for iPad users, though. The Dock at the bottom now stores more apps. I can fit 15 apps on my 12.9” iPad. There are also 3 slots to the right of the Dock where the last 3 apps you have launched are stored. Oddly, Apple still has the same icon spacing on the Home screen. I think the Dock is where Apple wants you to store your apps now. It gets a little crowded with a lot of apps. What is nice, is the app order stays the same when you rotate the screen. This does eliminate one of the chief problems I had with the iPad: when I rotated it, my app placement would change. It was messing up my muscle memory. What I am going to do is put my 15 most-used apps on the Dock, and keep the 2nd tier apps in folders on the second screen. That Dock on the bottom is going to take some getting used to, though.

The Dock will be important because Apple finally, finally, made significant changes to the god-awful app switcher. Now, the primary way to bring an app up into Split View is to swipe up at the bottom of the screen to un-hide the Dock,and drag the app up into the workspace. Apple also now remembers your app pairing in something akin to Mission Control. You activate this but sliding up more when you show the Dock. It’s like a two step process: slide up to show the Dock, slide up more to get to Mission Control. You can also drag-and-drop between the two apps. It’s a fairly feature-rich drag-and-drop. You can grab multiple files and drag them into a mail message. It seems like it’s all still within Split View, so that may take a little bit to get used to.

Scanning documents and then signing them is amazing. The biggest problem with any of the scanning apps was getting the crookedness out of the scan was kind of a pain in the ass. The inline marking up across the board was nice. PDF editing in iBooks was interesting. I’m not sure how you’ll get the PDF out of iBooks, but I haven’t tried that.

The Files app is Finder for iOS, but they didn’t call it Finder. I remember a few years ago hoping Apple would create a Documents app to store this stuff in. Now, they have. The Files app will also work with cloud storage providers like OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive once the providers make their app compatible. The Files app works weirdly. I like that you can now have a Favorites area, where you can store oft-used folders and files. I like I can select multiple files. What I don’t like is that a long-standing problem I have had with iOS still exists, and in fact, is worse. When you add something to iCloud Drive via the document picker, it expands every fucking folder on your iCloud Drive. The only thing that made it useable was I could name a folder @something and it would stay at the top of the list. Now, those @something folders are buried in the mess that is the expanded drive. It’s just an useable mess. Also, in the Files app if I select a file and choose move (which brings up that fucking interface), everything but the folder (and sub folders within) the file resides in are grayed out. I have to add the target folder to the Favorites. Dragging the file there copies it, instead of moving it.

The iPad as a Productivity Device

We are getting there, though. I’ve got a longer piece sitting there half-edited about the reasons I ended up buying a MacBook Pro. Most of those reasons remain, but the pain of working on an iPad starting to go away.

The Files app is a big improvement, but it has some pains that need to be overcome. If I navigate down to a Word file in Files to open it, it is opening iThoughts for some reason; not Word. I can copy it to Word, but I can’t right now edit-in-place a Word file in iCloud. Maybe Microsoft will finally embrace interfacing directly with iCloud Drive this year. Even in iOS 10, it is still a weird dance to get Office files in and out of iCloud Drive.

It’s hard to tell right now how the improvements to iOS 11 will help productivity. Drag and Drop right now only works in apps that are part of the iOS 11 beta. It will be nice being able to just store images in a folder and drag them into a presentation rather than pollute my Photos library with them.

The problem is that damn iCloud extension. I can’t believe Apple made it worse. If it ships like that, I just have an even harder time being more productive on iOS. It’s just completely broken. This is something that has plagued iOS since iOS 10 beta 1. If it still persists in iOS 11 beta 1, I have a fear it will never get fixed.

Also I will not be getting the new 10.5″ iPad. I still feel the 12.9″ is the canonical Pro.