My wife and I just returned from a two-week vacation to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary. Like most executives, even a holiday in a remote corner of the world doesn't eliminate the need to stay in touch with the work, and a few hours spent keeping up with work can make the return home far less painful.
While I'd normally bring a laptop on a trip like this, I decided to leave my trusty MacBook home, and brought my iPad Air 2 and a Bluetooth keyboard as my primary computer across the world to Bangkok, Thailand, and the Maldives. I've tried this experiment in the past with various tablets from Apple and Microsoft, and always came away feeling the hardware was excellent, but the software simply wasn't ready to serve as the primary computer for most users.
Software choices have expanded and matured greatly with the introduction of the iPad, with Microsoft's Office finally being available for iOS and Android devices. While I'd be less hesitant to bring an iPad as my sole computing device in the future, there are a few caveats to relying on the device.
Accessing its best feature
Perhaps the best feature of the iPad is that it works very well as an entertainment and basic communications device. I could easily read books while on the beach, watch a movie on the plane, and read my boss's tweets. A few taps got me onto airport and hotel Wi-Fi, and other than a painfully slow connection, I was able to get emails and access our corporate intranet from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Even though my laptop has a great suspend and resume capability, nothing compares to a tablet for quickly accessing information and content.
For writing longer emails and documents, the large selection of Bluetooth keyboards makes typing less of a chore. I penned a TechRepublic column from the Munich airport using Microsoft's Wedge Mobile Keyboard, and had no problems other than the small keys and additional weight.
Getting the basics mostly right
One of the biggest frustrations of using a tablet, in particular the iPad, was the inability to perform standard productivity tasks like editing an Excel spreadsheet emailed by a colleague, or reviewing an annotated Word document and adding comments. This missing link has finally been rectified with tablet-specific versions of the Microsoft Office suite, which now support third-party cloud-based file storage.
The iPad version of Office is excellent, and very similar to the latest Windows versions. Everything from tracking changes to charting features is present, and users will quickly find familiar functions. Until recent upgrades to the suite, users were locked into using Microsoft's OneDrive service to easily get files between their PC and iPad. Now, users can employ Dropbox to open, store, and retrieve files in the iPad versions of Office, allowing users to choose how to store and exchange files. This does, however, expose one major flaw of the iPad.
There's no user-accessible file system like a traditional computer, meaning that I can't readily save an emailed attachment, then easily open the file in another application. Services like Dropbox or OneDrive essentially replace the file system, and dealing with emailed files takes on some additional complexity. Whereas you can simply "Save" a file on your desktop, on the iPad you generally open the attachment in the iPad viewer and then use the "Open in" icon to open it in the actual Office app, where it can then be saved to your Dropbox account.
On one hand, you have access to essentially unlimited storage that automatically syncs across your devices; on the other hand, you're forced to use an awkward combination of apps, "Open in" icons, and synchronization processes to manipulate files. While imperfect, once you get the hang of things it's fairly easy to open an emailed document, make a few changes, and then email it back to your colleague directly from the Office apps.
Days before departing on the trip, Apple announced multitasking features in the next version of iOS for the iPad. Until this trip, I never felt a strong desire for multitasking, though a basic productivity function became a struggle without it.
I needed to quickly assemble a presentation and, as usually occurs with this type of task, was using material from several existing presentations. I was able to store these in Dropbox and open them in PowerPoint; however, I could not open multiple documents at the same time, requiring a tedious amount of saving, closing, opening, and copying to perform this basic task.
I also missed multitasking when downloading large files over a slow Wi-Fi connection. Switching to other apps paused the download, forcing me to leave the iPad open to a single app for up to 90 minutes, while a 100MB file downloaded via a secure FTP app.
Frustrating video transfer experience
While the iPad and Office did surprisingly well with most of my work-related tasks, I was frustrated doing an otherwise basic task: copying videos from a USB drive. We spent several days diving while on vacation, and one of the divers took videos of our dives on her GoPro camera. I spent nearly an hour attempting to get these videos onto my iPad, a task that would have been trivial with a "normal" laptop.
Despite the dive shop providing access to their Mac, no combination of iTunes or third-party apps would let me get the dozen video files from a USB stick onto the iPad without erasing my existing photo library.
Apple often creates interesting new computing paradigms, but in this case, the "Apple way" was unnecessarily frustrating and convoluted, and prevented me from getting copies of cool shark videos. While this lack of dive videos was far from world-ending, an inability to transfer an important work-related file could have dire consequences.
The bottom line
With capable email, a competent Office suite, and a willingness to make a few compromises, tablets finally make sense for the average executive who wants a lightweight, multipurpose device. Everything from expense reports and travel bookings, to editing a complex spreadsheet, to catching up with a novel on the beach can be accomplished on the iPad.
As long as you're aware of the inherent compromises of such a device, and don't plan on transferring files outside email and cloud-based services, a tablet (in particular, the iPad Air 2) is a viable primary computer for executives and those who spend most of their time using email and Microsoft Office.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.