Still Think You Can’t Do Real Work On The iPad? A Lot Has Changed Since 2010


This story first appeared in Cult of Mac Magazine.

Back when I worked exclusively on my iPad, writing posts for Cult of Mac and everything related to that, I had a hell of a time getting some things done. It seemed like every tiny step needed to be researched before I could get anything done.

In the end, I quit and went back to a split iPad/iMac setup, but not for the reasons you might think.

Now, when I take my iPad out to work, like when we visit a trade show or I go traveling for a few days, I don’t even have to think about it. So much has changed in the last couple of years that the iPad really is as capable as a Mac for many jobs – and you don’t have to be a nerd to do it.

Writing on the iPad always worked great – you just hook up a Bluetooth keyboard and type. The problem was everything else involved with blog posting (I’ll use blog posting as the example, but most of what I’m about to write applies to much more).

Here’s how it used to work: I’d gather news in Mr Reader, the RSS app, and email any likely-looking stories to myself, whereupon a mail rule on my Mac would process it and add it to my Omnifocus, which would sync with my iPad (this improved when Omni added the mail-in feature that bypasses the Mac part).

Then I’d start writing, opening the source article in Writing Kit, and using Writing Kit to post the articles too. Any photos I’d use in the story would have to be processed through the camera roll, resized in another app and – if I wanted to combine a couple of screenshots – in yet another app.

As you can see, the main hurdle was working with pictures. While the iPad is pretty great for viewing and editing photos, it used to be that this editing wasn’t really about accurate pixel dimensions or working with multiple images. I actually had a python script, running inside Pythonista, that would combine images on the clipboard into a single picture.

Uploading Photos

In the Browser

Ever since Safari got the ability to upload photos from the Camera Roll, it’s been possible to use the regular WordPress website to do everything (not that you’d want too – it’s horrible). You still can’t upload other kinds of files, but then how would you with no “Finder” for iOS? Picture uploads made it fairly easy for anyone to blog on the go, if you could stomach typing your articles in a crashy browser view

Shoots & Leaves

But wouldn’t it be easier to just insert a link to your pictures in any text editor? That’s the idea behind Shoots & Leaves, an app that lets you take a photo with your iPhone, and then uploads that photo to Dropbox. It then generates a link to that image and sends it to the app of your choice (or copies it to the clipboard).

If you paste this link into a text article, you’ll have a picture right there.

Shares for Flickr

Shares does the same, only better. Shares uploads pictures to Flickr instead of Dropbox, but it also lets you choose pictures from your camera roll. Uploading camera snaps is handy but not much good for PR-supplied images. At Cult of Mac, we have a script that will take any Flickr images and copy them to our own servers, which is pretty neat.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Text Expander


TextExpander is essential on the Mac, letting you type a few keystrokes and expanding them into whole paragraphs of text. I have templates set up for our standard review format, as well as to type my email address for me. But Apple has all but crippled the iOS version of the app, which requires developers to add support for TextExpander in their own apps.

iOS keyboard shortcuts go some way towards helping, but they lack essential features like hard returns in snippets. I have a snippet set up to type my address, but I have to manually add returns to get it on separate lines, every single time.

Clearly there’s room for improvement here, but it’s not all bad news:

Hardware Keyboard Support

Many apps are adding proper support for external keyboards. Byword, the Markdown writing app, can be used almost exclusively from the keyboard. With various combos letting you do things from bolding and italicising text, to navigating your list of files with search.

iOS 7 added some extra keyboard controls too. In safari, for instance, you can hit ⌘T to open a new tab, ⌘R to reload and ⌘L to put the cursor up in the URL bar. These match the shortcuts used on OS X, making it very easy to remember them.

I quit using the iPad for work becasue I was getting arm and shoulder pain from reaching up to touch the screen all day. Keyboard shortcuts would have done a lot to help.

iCloud Got Better

I’m not sure if iCloud is any more or less reliable, but it has worked its way into a lot more apps. If you have desktop and iOS versions of apps like PDFPen, Byword, and even Apple’s own iWork suite, you can switch seamlessly between your Mac and your iPad, and all your work will be just as you left it on the other machine.

And apps like Smile’s PDFPen-compatible Scan+ app will even perform OCR (optical character recognition) on scanned pictures, extracting the text, and then syncing this with the the Mac version of PDFPen. In this case, the iOS version is superior to the desktop version.


Automation on the iPad has gotten way better in just the last year. Thanks to inter-app URL schemes that let applications send information to each other, and then send a replay back the other way, it’s possible to get around the sandboxing model of iOS which adds security (good) but makes it hard for apps to share data (bad).

Apps like Drafts and Launch Center Pro let you automate all kinds of tasks. Drafts, for example, can be used in conjunction with a bookmarklet in Mobile Safari to take a chunk of text highlighted on a web page and add it to the reminders app, complete with the URL of the original page.

iOS 7

iOS 7 itself has made a big difference to working on the iPad. Control Center makes it a lot easier to tweak settings on the fly, without having to dig into the settings app. This doesn’t sound like much, but on older iPads, a trip to the settings app could use enough memory that iOS would force quit your previous app, requiring a relaunch and potential loss of work.

The iOS 7 app-switcher is also awesome for writing work. You can write in, say, Byword, then double tap the home button (or, even better, the home button on an external keyboard) and the previous app’s entire screen is shown in miniature. On a retina iPad this is enough to let you check spellings or words, or to reference photos, or anything else that requires a quick look at the screen. Then, another tap takes you straight back to your original app.

Background updates are also handy. For instance, I use the Mr Reader RSS app a lot. And I mean a lot. My iPad has learned this and now refreshes my subscription in there background pretty much whenever I wake the iPad up. When I launch Mr Reader, the little indicator usually tells me my last sync was a couple of minutes ago.

Again, this doesn’t sound like much, but it makes the iPad act as it all your apps were running in the background, all the time. Just like the desktop, only without the battery drain

What’s Still Needed

There’s still a long way to go. Better inter-app communication would solve many problems. Right now I have to save a photograph back to the Camera Roll after editing it with an app, and then I have to open that new picture in another app to make further changes. A service that let you keep shuffling the same image between apps until you’re done would be great.

Readdle, has added something like this to its own apps. When you use the Documents app to organize and view your files, you can choose to send a file off to another Readdle app (a PDF view for example), edit it and send the edited version back to Documents, all without create multiple copies.

A clipboard history would also be great. Copying and pasting is such a pain on iOS that it’d be a tremendous help if you could just copy multiple items to the clipboard, pop, pop, pop, and then paste them one at a time, in any order, into another app.

And even better keyboard integration would also be neat. Like being able to ⌘-Tab between apps like you can on the Mac. Yes, it’s a little nerdy, but if you’re using a keyboard to work on your iPad I’d say that you already passed the nerd test some time ago.


Would I go back to working on an iPad full time? Probably not. There doesn’t seem top be much point. I do most of my work from a desk at home, where a keyboard and a big screen held up high in front of my face makes more sense than trying to use a ten-inch iPad propped up on the desk,

But things have evolved to the point that I can easily move between the two. I write and publish using Byword on both the iPad and the iMac. And somewhat ironically, my home internet connection just went down, so I have my iPad at my side for Hipchat and for fact-checking, and my powerful 27-inch iMac in front of me for writing.

But if I go away for a week, I don’t take a MacBook. I take the iPad and a keyboard, and I don’t suffer at all. Gone are the days when working from an iPad meant hours or days of setup, testing to make sure everything would work in the field. Now it just works.

This story first appeared in Cult of Mac Magazine.

  • Winston Philip

    Um.. i don’t want to do real work on my iPad. I have a home office, a office office. I’m not trying to work 24/7/365

    • frikova

      Cool story bro.
      It’s obvious too that you didn’t bother to read the article.

  • Roman Keller

    I can do everything on my iPad Air. I edit photos, I cut Videos, I mail, I surf, I chat, I organize the hole life and no need for a a heavy old school computer – 2014 the future is now !

    • Manish Bhatia

      You basically consume and do not create. If you truly did real work you would hit the iOS brick wall of no flash, no usb, no external card reader, no split screen environment, no true pen stylus, a PITA approach to handle media files and on and on ….

      • Roman Keller

        Bullshit….everything no problem ! And I am not 8 I am ikder that 40 and Engineer

      • Manish Bhatia

        I am an engineer as well and about 40… so… and I have had ipads of all sorts for a long time before switching to the Lenovo Miix 8 Windows tablet which gives me a full computer experience with no issues with flash etc…If it works on a computer it works on my tablet … and I have the fantastic Note 3 for a truly portable phablet with the awesome S Pen. .. If I didn’t have the Note 3 I would have gotten the Samsung note 10.1 2014 edition which while not a computer like still gave me multi screen and stylus.
        You on the other hand have to constantly find a workaround…One to make flash work, one to transfer files, moving media etc in and out, using a finger to write instead of a real pen experience. You cannot add a jump drive even with an adapter. You cannot increase storage capacity via a micro SD card. You have to use a Internet based cloud which is nothing like having files locally… what you have is a very well built device with average hardware specs, great support and minimal options and ports.
        You have been taught by Apple to do more with less at your own expense (adapters and apps)
        The Apple Mantra – it just works….because it does so little ….
        P.S – As you can tell from my device lineup I follow technology not a brand. I also have 2 ipad minis in the house….used by a 10 and 6 yr old to play games and watch YouTube almost exclusively…..

      • MrEdOfCourse

        While I’ll admit there are limitations to what work you can do with an iPad, and for many of us the need for a personal computer is still there, you’re pointing out things that are kind of weird as requirements for work.

        Flash – Really? I can see saying that you want it because some site uses it, but unless you’re a Flash developer, how likely is Flash to being a key component of what you need to do for your job?

        “You cannot add a jump drive even with an adapter.” Sure you can. There are both wired and wireless adapters for hard drives, thumb drives, SD, CF cards, etc…

        “You cannot increase storage capacity via a micro SD card.” Again, going with an assumption that 128GB is not enough to get real work done, and then ignoring the fact that you can access micro SD cards and others with an adapter. Again, for some people, like those who edit 4K video, yes, an iPad isn’t going to cut it, but for many people, 128GB, like Flash, isn’t a limiting factor to getting work done.

        Pen – hey, that’s great that you like them, but again, for many people that’s not a limiting factor. Personally, I’ve absolutely hated every Pen device I’ve ever seen (including the Notes).

        I’m not saying that *you* can do your entire job on an iPad, but clearly many people could and even more could be fine on the go with an iPad as opposed to lugging around a personal computer.

        I can relate to this because for me, I often carry around my MacBook Air for things I need to do, but I see the tasks of many people working where an iPad is all that’s needed.

      • leftoverbacon

        Who needs to use resource hungry and crash prone flash anymore? HTML 5 or dedicated apps are the way to go. I’ve gone so far as to disable flash on my desktop and laptop computers.

  • iWill slb

    I just miss real multitasking…like having pages and safari running at the same time…iOS is such a light OS, I’m sure that with 2gb of ram that would be possible and still very smooth…please apple!

    • MrEdOfCourse

      The are running at the same time. What exactly do you want Pages to be doing in the background when you’re running in Safari?

      • Manish Bhatia

        What he is saying is what I mentioned on my comment. Having two apps run side by side on the screen. Both Windows 8.1 and recent Android tablets are able to do that.
        This is not a gimmick. You can watch a game on WATCHESPN on 2/3 of the screen run a Twitter feed about the game on the 1/3. Or you can open a website and browse on half the screen while watching Netflix on the other half. This can go on and on for the practical usage of a split multi screen.

      • MrEdOfCourse

        That has nothing to do with multitasking, nor suggesting “2GB of RAM” is needed.

      • Manish Bhatia

        How is doing two things at the same time not multi tasking? While you refer to “background” processes, he and myself are interested in “foreground” processes on the screen. Something that probably needs more RAM of course. Your idea of multitasking more to do with background computing action rather than the user experience.

      • MrEdOfCourse

        Multitasking is a specific computer term. The iPad does do multitasking. iOS has always done multitasking. Having split screen apps has nothing to do with multitasking. If that’s the desire, use the correct terminology. And no, it would require no more RAM to run Pages and Safari in split screen.

        What it would require is a bastardization of the UI in terms of resolution independence so that apps stretch and scale. While this has some advantages, it has many more disadvantages.

      • Manish Bhatia

        There is no “bastardization” when running two apps on a Win tablet or a Android Note. Even on a device as small as the Note 3, a split screen has high value.
        Here are two examples of side by side screens. One from my Windows 8 TOUCH screen HD laptop (Asus Touch Infinity) and one from a Note 3. The Windows tablet function exactly like the screen shot of the Asus screen.

      • MrEdOfCourse

        You’re missing the point entirely. Do some research on resolution independence and you’ll understand the downsides. Those inherent downsides already present themselves in Android which is why most apps on a tablet are nothing more than blown up phone apps as compared to iPads which have tablet specific layouts.

        Allow split screen on the iPad and the screen real estate has to go somewhere. Bring up a web page with mostly white space as you’ve done, and that’s not an issue. Bring up the majority of apps designed for an iPad, and you simply can’t scale them down, because they don’t scale, because they aren’t resolution independent.

        Apple could fix this, and it wouldn’t require more RAM, but it would require apps capable of doing this to be resolution independent which results in apps generally having crappy layouts.

        Again, it’s easy to provide a screen shot that counters this. Pull up any website or app that makes poor use of the layout by having tons of white space and it’s easy to ask why a video window or something else can’t be in that space. And these screenshots are easier to come up with on Android.

        But in the majority of apps for the iPad, because there is only partial resolution independence, the layouts generally take advantage of the full space and don’t provide gaping white-space areas.

      • Manish Bhatia

        Your point just brings full circle to the fact that an ipad simply cannot be a laptop alternative and will excel purely as a tablet with apps designed for tablets and an experience geared towards consuming information – articles, games etc.
        A tablet is really a redundant device for people who have a laptop and a smartphone. The phablet fills that gap perfectly because unlike even the Minis they are actually portable with a nice screen real estate. (plus as phones, they are already connected)
        Once Apple releases the 5.5 iPhone, it is game over for the Mini with the Ipad Sr. shaking at losing market share.
        That is because, regardless of your “true tablet” apps in a tablet, no one really notices the different for most situations and Android apps are perfectly usable as they are designed. People will realize that the larger screen IPhone is completely acceptable and the “true tablet” experience hogwash is nonsense. All iOs devices are really just different sizes of the same device and have the same functionality. Neither has a stylus, Neither has changeable battery. No card reader. Same software limitations.

      • MrEdOfCourse

        “Your point just brings full circle to the fact that an ipad simply cannot be a laptop alternative ”

        No, not at all. Refer back to our earlier thread. You seem to be defining the requirements for “real work” by using specifications that fit for you (which is fine), but then applying that as a general case for everyone else.

        For computing outside of my home/office, I generally carry around a MacBook Air 11″. I almost never split screen apps on it. It’s simply not a requirement for the work that I do. I see many people app switching apps on PCs and Macs in full screen mode when using smaller displays. You may not do that, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make split screen a defining characteristic for all users.

        “A tablet is really a redundant device for people who have a laptop and a smartphone. The phablet fills that gap perfectly”

        Again, that’s great for you, but for many of us, we want smaller phones that we can easily fit in small pockets and such and in between that an a laptop there’s the need for a tablet. For me, I’ll take my iPad out when I’m going to be gone for a good chunk of the day and may need to do some work, but not full projects like video or code development (although I may use the tablet to tweak those things). My girlfriend has no real need for a laptop, and uses an iPad for work. She has small hands, and prefers the smaller iPhone for general phone usage… A phablet would be way too much for her.

        “Once Apple releases the 5.5 iPhone, it is game over for the Mini with the Ipad Sr. shaking at losing market share.”

        I think it will cause a shift in usage with people like me seeing no need for the mini anymore if I get a larger iPhone, but the mini would still have a market for those like my girlfriend who want a smaller iPhone along with an iPad.

        “That is because, regardless of your “true tablet” apps in a tablet, no one really notices the different for most situations”

        I totally disagree with you on that point. I bought a Nexus 7, and have borrowed other Android tablets. The difference between a properly laid out tablet app and one that simply stretches is enormous. Try going to an Apple store and comparing the same apps on an iPhone and iPad. If you don’t immediately see the difference in the layout, you should get your vision (or head) checked.

        “Android apps are perfectly usable as they are designed.”

        Usable yes, but inferior and the wasted space and blown up graphics are very noticeable.

        “All iOs devices are really just different sizes of the same device and have the same functionality.”

        I’d expect that from someone who has compared an Android phone to an Android tablet (because it’s true), but a quick trip to an Apple store to see the difference in the layout of the very same apps on an iPhone versus an iPad proves you wrong.

        “Neither has a stylus, Neither has changeable battery. No card reader. Same software limitations.”

        Nice rambling… Most people don’t use styluses on computers they use for “real work”. MacBooks are used for real work and don’t have user-changeable batteries. On the other hand, with an iPhone/iPad you can get any number of portable batteries to use with them. iPhones and iPads have card readers (both wired and wireless). Yes, there are software limitations, which is why nobody is saying an iPad can be used by anyone for any work, just that for many people the iPad may be all they need, and that the number of people this is true for is growing.

      • iWill slb

        My problem is, even on an iPad mini 2, when I run pages and switch to safari, usually it reloads the page. Even when I switch between tabs in safari it reloads the damn page, we’re in 2014, this should not happen. And even Samsung ugly tablets can run some apps side by side, not to mention Microsoft surface.

  • Kroben

    The iPad for work is a real subject. The way we work is clearly changing with the iPad (at least for managers and white wollar jobs) . By eperience, I think that the productivity you can get from a tablet depends a lot on the apps you’re using. For this the iPad is in my opinion the best device. However choosing the right apps is not always an easy task when you know there are thousand apps dedicated to productivity. In my the start-up we work we prefered an all-in-one solution (Beesy) that is able to handle individual productivity and global productivity thanks to collaborative features.