Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The iPad and CloudOn: a great combination

About a month ago, I finally relented and bought an iPad. I’d been holding off for a couple of years, mostly because I couldn’t justify the expense. I couldn’t really use the device for work, since it doesn't run Word, and since I don’t travel much anyway, or even work outside of the house much, I don’t have need for a small form factor device other than my laptop.

But the sharper screen and rumours of an impending release of Office for iPad were too tempting, and I finally bit the bullet. And despite the fact that the Office rumours seem to have been unfounded, I'm loving it. It’s a great little computer for reading news and email over breakfast, and it’s cooler and lighter for surfing in the evenings. The interface is as snappy as promised, and the battery life also lives up to expectations. The camera is quite good, and taking pictures with it is, surprisingly, not as awkward as I thought it would be. Writing a lot of text on the on-screen keyboard would get old very quickly, but with a bluetooth keyboard and my recently purchased Origami Workstation, the typing experience is excellent, and the voice recognition is also very good.

But what has got me really excited about my new toy is not the device itself but an app. CloudOn allows you to access a virtual copy of MS Office on your iPad. This means that I can do real work on my iPad and, hence, I can use it as my “travel” computer, rather than my laptop. 

By “real work,” I mean receive documents by email, save them to my usual file system, open them in Word, translate them, and send them back to my client. Basically the same process I use on my “real” computers. 

Here’s how it works: When you download CloudOn from the iOS app store, it asks you to create a free account and then link the app to either a Box.com account or a Dropbox account. I use Dropbox to sync my work files across my two computers, and it was a snap to enter my credentials and access all my work files. 

From the CloudOn workspace, you can cut, copy, rename, delete, or email any file. (Incidentally, in the iPad Mail app, you can tap and hold an attachment and choose “Open in Dropbox…” to save it directly to your Dropbox account.) My only complaint is that the copy function isn’t very flexible. On a “real” computer, you can easily duplicate a file and save it to the same folder; the file system will automatically append “copy” or “1” to the file. But this doesn’t work in CloudOn. In fact, the rename function doesn’t allow you to append anything to the file name; you have to create a whole new name for the file that doesn’t exceed the number of characters in the original. One way around this limitation is to copy the file and then create a new subfolder and paste the copy there. That way, you’re free to do your work on a copy of the original, as any good translator should do. It’s a bit of a kludge, but it does the job. I’m not really complaining too hard; it is a free app, after all. But I do hope the CloudOn developers will address this in a future update.

Once you’ve made your copy, you can open it in Word (or Excel or PowerPoint, as the case may be) and work on it. The interface isn’t as snappy as a desktop, but it’s definitely good enough. Most of the standard keyboard shortcuts don’t work, so you have to use the touchscreen interface and the Word ribbon for functions like undo, bold, italic, change language, etc. Not ideal, but for short periods, it's acceptable. Files save automatically, just as they normally do with Dropbox, and it’s a snap to attach a completed file to an email message and return it to your client. 

Multitasking on the iPad has a long way to go, but Apple has implemented some new multitouch gestures with iOS 5, and it's easy to swipe between apps. This means you can have Safari open with tabs for Termium, WordReference, and Thesaurus.com open and simply swipe back and forth between Safari and CloudOn. A little clunky, but again, acceptable for short periods.

Clearly, I’m not about to switch to the iPad as my main computer, but I’m very excited about the prospect of leaving my laptop behind the few times a year I go on the road and for those times when I just need to get out of the house and work for a few hours at the local coffee shop. Until Microsoft comes out with an official iPad version of Office (and I would pay a significant amount for a native iPad version), CloudOn is a highly acceptable solution, and its integration with Dropbox has made it a very valuable app in my arsenal of tools. 

Finally, I have to admit that I’m old enough to find that toting around a device as light, small and elegant as the iPad, combined with a small bluetooth keyboard, feels very much like science fiction to me. Laptops have been around long enough that they’ve lost their “wow” factor. But the iPad is still new enough that it feels a little like it comes from the future. In that sense, the iPad really is, as Steve Jobs was fond of saying, a magical device.

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