Writing on the iPad: A Story of Love, Heartache & Infuriating Bugs

Even when I close any notifiers and twitter-/chat clients, I’m just too easily distracted to get writing done in proper on my Mac. I blame Command-TAB, however I guess I’ll have to take full responsibility myself…

Then I bought a keyboard dock for the iPad, because it hit me: The iPad is single-tasking (in terms of its interface-regime). It doesn’t have menubar items. It doesn’t have Command+TAB or a dock (in the traditional sense). In fact, one of the things I love the most about it is exactly the fact that it becomes the very app you have open at any given time, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

I keep the keyboard dock tucked away in the kitchen, ready to go. Drop the iPad in and it’s off to the races. The kitchen gets me in a completely different mindset than the living room or bedroom (where my normal setup sits). It’s about as ergonomically wrong as it gets, but something in the mixture of the location, the distraction-free interface and the free-form nature of the iPad itself… It changes the nature of the beast, and I can concentrate on writing.

This setup works well, and with the exception of catching a glimpse of a ‘new mail’ badge as I bounce off of the home screen to get a link or reference from Safari, and getting distracted, I so get more writing done this way than I’ve done on my Mac for a long time.

There is a snake in paradise however. Pages. No, I could care less that the buttons are leather, or whatever it’s currently trendy to be upset about. My concern is that the QA department apparently never bothered testing the damned thing thoroughly with real keyboards!

Editing

The on-screen keyboard, if angled right in landscape mode, is actually quite the little trooper. But editing is a hassle. Selecting with the finger is imprecise and has a built-in delay, and writing longer pieces is practical only if a keyboard isn’t an option.

On the iPad, as on OS X, option+delete removes the word preceding the cursor position. Quite useful when the otherwise quite good auto-correction gets something wrong.

On OS X, it only deletes the preceding word, but crucially, leaves the space preceding said word. So if you had: “Steve Ballmer scares me|“ (the orange line after “me” representing the cursor), and you hit opt+del, you’d end up with “Steve Ballmer scares |“. This is immensely practical of course, because the most often usecase for opt+del is to remove a just mistyped word.

On the iPad however, you’d get “Steve Ballmer scares|“.

Other than breaking usage patterns, which is in itself a large enough problem, it also only makes sense to do this if the most often use of opt+del was to follow up with punctuation of some sort. But that is obviously not the case.

Then there’s the fact that if you opt+del in this situation on the iPad: “Steve Ballmer scares |children”, it actually does the right thing, and you end up with “Steve Ballmer |children”.

Huh?

It’s not until you try this for a few minutes you find out just how often you opt+del your mistakes. And of course after you’ve retrained yourself to correct for this behavior on the iPad (opt+del and space), you’ll carry that over into OS X, and you’re even worse off…

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lose-lose situation.

But it doesn’t end there. Oh, if only.

Limbo, Inception and Oh My!

Another thing fundamental to how we work in text on OS X, is pressing ‘down’ at the end of a document, when the cursor can’t actually go any further down, which sends it to the end of the line. Without this behavior, the cursor would have to be manually moved to the end of the line, which can take a little while (using ‘right’ with a keyboard, or having to touch the screen on the iPad).

On the iPad however, this is not the case. Not, at all.

The cursor can do one of several things. If the line is empty, the cursor will do nothing. If however, the line contains text, the first keypress will leave the cursor in-place, but send its state into a limbo state. Yes, you heard me. The physical manifestation of the cursor remains, but its state is now caught in-between places. Pressing ‘up’ from here will bring the cursor back from limbo, which will leave it in the same place, however it otherwise reacts as you would expect, which means that another ‘up’ command will move it up to the next line.

But, and this the kicker, when the cursor is in limbo, one further ‘down’ command, will send it whirling through a wormhole, to the second line of the document! Not the first; the second. Furthermore, if you pull off this trick, inverse of course, pressing ‘up’, at the top of document, you’ve entered some sort of Inception-like universe behind the scenes of Pages, where you can fill up a buffer with ‘up’ commands without moving the cursor, and only when you’ve emptied it again in the opposite direction using ‘down’ commands, will the cursor once again get the kick and regain consciousness.

Whether time slows down for the cursor in these other dream worlds is unknown.

An Overextended Apple

These are obviously simply bugs. It happens. But I can’t help but feel that when issues like these, caught within 5 minutes of using Pages with a keyboard for the first time, end up shipping, something’s amiss. Even Apple can run out of resources, but given that Pages is meant to prove the iPad as a semi-serious productivity platform, it seems quite odd that these slipped through the QA net.

And yes, as a sidenote, this behavior is only present in Pages. Everywhere else, the behavior is as you would expect it, coming from OS X.

The Home Key Escapes. The Escape Key Saves.

There’s another problem entirely in the decision of replacing the Escape key with the Home key. Surely someone thought the two did kind of the same thing, and that’s a fair mistake to make, though it is certainly not the case, which again, given an hour or two with an iPad and a keyboard, your muscle memory will remind you of quite bluntly.

This is particularly a problem until we get iOS 4.2 where the individual apps states are maintained when you leave them. That isn’t the case with 3.2, which means that when I’m writing a mail to my brother in Danish, a dictionary not included in the iPad, and word suggestions keep popping up, inevitably (I’ve just done it three times in a row), I will try to dismiss the popups with the Escape key and find myself back on the home screen, my draft lost as Gmail reloads the next time I open it.

Auto-correction replacements, document drop downs, selected word bubbles. Whenever one of them pops up unexpectedly I’ll hit Home in less than a second. Boom. Home screen.

This happens more often than you’d think. Escape has become a universal “Get lost kid, you bother me!”-key. A way of getting out of unforeseen trouble without consequences. In fact it’s common for dialogs be dismissible using the Escape key only if that can be done without data loss.

At least on OS X, I have no idea what kind of a clown car Windows is driving these days.

Contrusion

I love my keyboard dock. I love pages. Please fix it Apple, thanks.

XOXO.