"Real Work" on an iPad Means the Same Way I've Always Worked

So many people say that you can’t do "real work" on an iPad, which usually means that they can’t do the work they’ve always done in the way they’ve learned to do it. In the minds of these people the fact that my wife uses her iPad to manage her job as the Program Director at the local figure skating club is not, real work.

The fact that I write, code, produce videos, publish books from my iPad is also not ‘real work’.

I think that part of the problem comes is that you require a mindshift change in your work if you want to work on an iPad. You have to learn a new method of working that doesn’t conform to the established methods of desktop computing. These methods started over 30 years ago and have changed many times. Many of these initial transitions were wholesale improvements, but still people say that you can't get 'real work' done if you're using a GUI.

Hard core command line people lamented the advent of the GUI system. They could no longer get real work done on it and people that focused on GUI's to do their work, clearly weren't "real" at whatever field they could name. I've even found this with the CMS that runs my site. They regularly only present the command line way of doing things instead of the "more complex" GUI way.

@amberlturner @curtismchale But we want you to learn because the alternatives can be waaaaay more complicated 🥰 - @jackmcdade

This type of thinking neglects the fact that if you aren't comfortable with the command line then it's not easier. You first have to jump the barrier of being comfortable in the command line, and then run what they say on the system. You have to setup SSH keys, and hope that your server even has SSH enabled. Then find your web directory, and then you can get your commands working1.

While 30 years ago the argument that command line was the way to get real work done could have held water, it would be a hard argument to make today. Yes, some tasks in fields are better from command line interfaces2, but the vast majority of computing is better performed in the GUI interfaces we have today.

I feel that the iPad is sitting in the same spot. Yes, some things are easier to do on a traditional windowed desktop environment, but lots of our computing isn't ideal for that setup.

The big thing about the iPad is that it's asking people to change their method of working after 30 years, and people hate change. Because they hate change they throw the "real work" argument forward, and then walk away smugly confident in their assessment.

Let's dig in to the advantages I see with using an iPad as a working machine.

One App at a time

My favourite thing about working on my iPad is that it's a single window/focus at a time application environment. I've written about it at length already, so I won't go into every argument.

Let's just acknowledge that the iPad performs best with maybe two applications in focus. For me that's often a writing app and then my research. When I'm programming, it's usually only Blink Shell.

In either situation there are no other applications even slightly visible like you have an a tiled windowing interface like macOS, Windows, and Linux. While the apps aren't the main focus of your work, I don't see how they could do anything but steal small portions of your attention.

Windowed desktop UI

I've seen this again recently as iPadOS 13 Beta has been buggy enough that I've turned back to my Mac Mini for work recently. While I can do my work well, I'm far more likely to switch between other applications and not simply focus on my work like I do when I'm on my iPad3.

Cloud First

I can't count the number of times I've talked to someone that has had a hard drive crash and lost all their stuff. By default you must take extra steps to backup a traditional computer so that a catastrophic failure doesn't mean you loose everything you've ever done on the computer.

iOS is different though, even with Apple being pretty stingy about cloud storage. In so many ways iOS and iPadOS pushes you to put your work in the cloud. If I was to loose this piece in the middle of the sentence I may loose a few words, but the rest is backed up in iCloud and I had to do nothing but use my writing app in it's default configuration.

Instead of learning about backup and then checking it many times, I just have to hope that huge chunks of continents don't suddenly explode and I loose my data because all the data centres are dead. Also, if that happens I figure I'll be happy to have my family close and not care about my data4.

Automation is Easier

Especially with iPadOS 13, automation is easier on my iPad. Yes, I could write a bash script to do stuff on my Mac5. Yes we have Automator or Hazel and Keyboard Maestro on a Mac, and in some ways they're more powerful, but they also have a higher bar to jump.

I've tried to show my wife Automator, Hazel, and Keyboard Maestro and she just looked at me like I was making everything more complex. When I showed her Shortcuts on her iPad so that she could save a document to a shared folder and then have the link in her clipboard and open an email, she was excited about the time saved.

I showed her my text message shortcut to give her my ETA to home, and she built it herself on her device. My 8-year-old has played around with shortcuts, and while she needed a bit of help, she got 90% of the way there and I never showed her a thing. It was just a game she was playing.

iPadOS and iOS take what was once the purview of nerds, automation, and makes it much more accessible to everyone. We'll see this coming to Catalina as well and that's a great thing. Yes, automation will likely still be a fringe thing, but it's so much more accessible now.

iPad’s Don’t Have to Have a Keyboard

Probably the biggest thing I love about my iPad, is that it's an iPad and that means it doesn't have a keyboard by default. My laptop always had a keyboard attached even when I didn't need it. That makes my iPad easy to take with me around the house because I can drop the weight of the keyboard.

While this also means that it's not as nice on your lap as other options, keyboards like the Brydge fix this problem. I can also use the TouchType Pro case and an Apple Magic Keyboard if I want. This makes the keyboard is easily removable while still having protection around my iPad.

When my iPad is at my desk, it's in a great ergonomic stand so I'm not looking down6. When I'm cooking, it's just a screen with a recipe. When I'm watching a movie, it can be a screen on the counter and then move to the couch with ease. When it's time to write a quick note, I can pull over the keyboard and type for a second then put the keyboard out of the way again.

In short, the iPad is a much more versatile machine than my laptop ever was. It goes from work mode, to play mode in a second and I don't have to drag around the cruft of work mode, the keyboard.

There are problems still

That doesn't mean I think iPadOS is without issue. Yes we have external storage now, but I wonder if sneaker net is really just a vestige of how we used to work. Is it another spot where we go to the old fix instead of jumping into the new thing?

I can see the case for external displays sometimes with my iPad. Usually that's when I want to view documentation for code at the same times a writing code, but the iPad doesn't allow this and I'm not sure that changing around how iPadOS works to be closer to a traditional desktop works with multiple screens is a good idea for overall productivity7. I'd love to be able to pin an app to a second screen for reference and leave it at that8.

Most apps on iPadOS are pretty terrible about keyboard commands. Things 3 is an exception, and I'm sure there are others. iPadOS apps, if you can do something from the UI, you should be able to do it from the keyboard. There are no exceptions. Those that don't use a keyboard won't but us power users will use them all the time which saves reaching up to the screen.

You can't develop iPadOS or iOS apps on an iPad yet, and I think we need that at some point. My 12.9" iPad Pro is more powerful than many other machines out there, there is no reason it can't handle the load that building iOS would put on the system.

iPad Pro vs Mac Mini on Geekbench

The End

The small portable computer that attaches to a monitor and becomes a full desktop experience has been dreamed about for a long time. We've even seen options out there that look decent, but right now I think that the iPad is the closest thing we have to that ideal9. The hurdle iPadOS has to jump is less about the operating system itself and more about what users think when the sit down at a new way of working.

I don't think that you can't get real work done on an iPad, I think that most people are stuck with the mental model of how they work and when iPadOS doesn't conform to that they give up. I've tried to show my kids how the family Mac Mini works, and the always ask why they have to use a mouse and can't touch the screen. They ask about Siri and all the other things that they use regularly on their iPad but aren't available on MacOS.

To them, real work will be done on an iPad and they'll use macOS or other desktop systems like people purchase vinyl record players now. It will be nostalgia for the thing their parents did. Then they'll turn to their tablets and keep getting their real work done.


  1. My wife did a brief stint building websites and while I tried to show her some command line stuff, none of it stuck. It was all above what she was interested in learning ↩︎

  2. I regularly use sFTP in this fashion and it's blazing fast ↩︎

  3. And all the multi-monitor productive studies I've read have been flawed so I don't buy into the many monitors equal more productive argument either ↩︎

  4. I literally had this discussion last night with a friend that needs to backup his computer and kept talking about his iPhone being backed up already and why wasn't this easier on macOS because it felt so hard to him instead of easy like iOS ↩︎

  5. And I have, and I do regularly write them for my web programming work on my server ↩︎

  6. I don't mention the mouse support because so far it's been pretty dang terrible for me. Maybe that will get better, but maybe it won't ↩︎

  7. I guess I could get a 2nd iPad on the less expensive end for viewing other content, but that seems silly in some ways ↩︎

  8. Yes, mouse support would have to improve then ↩︎

  9. I mean come on, they all run Linux and it's always the year of Linux on the desktop isn't it ↩︎