Desktop vs. iPad apps (depth vs. simplicity)

The Omni Group has been making quality productivity software for the Mac for some time. OmniOutliner, for example, is an awesome tool that I use for everything from making expanded sermon outlines to organizing activities for different areas of ministry. And OmniFocus, their task management program, has become absolutely essential to my workflow. But what I most admire the Omni Group for is the way they went about converting their best products as iOS apps. Their designers understand that a tablet is not just a scaled-down computer. It has its own unique strengths. And so the Omni Group did not want the iPad apps to simply emulate their popular desktop products (and fail). Instead they designed the iOS apps to take advantage of the interface and portability of the tablet and smartphone.

Recently, a post on the Omni Group’s blog explained their design philosophy, illustrated by the choice of style elements in the two versions of OmniOutliner. The Mac version is quite powerful, a flexible tool for many different applications.

For iPad, we wanted to offer 90% of the functionality people want, with about 10% of the effort. Most importantly, we wanted to stop compromising the experience of casual users in order to offer esoteric functionality to power users. As the Alan Kay quotation goes, “simple things should be simple; complex things should be possible.” . . .

Lots of desktop software starts out hard, and gets a little harder when you want to do something really demanding. But you can do pretty much everything you could realistically want to do. iPad software, though, starts out really easy, and then more steeply increases in difficulty as you try to do more complicated stuff. Eventually you hit a point where you can’t do certain elaborate tasks at all. Why? Because it’s actually quite rare that you want to do something that complicated! Almost everything you want to do in your day-to-day life is way to the left of the intersection of these difficulty curves. Accommodating the elaborate cases would almost certainly compromise simplicity for the normal stuff. The whole iPad experience is more than happy to sacrifice the super power-user workflow in favor of the commonest cases.

I point this out not just to praise the Omni Group’s efforts, but — as is the purpose of this blog — to justify my purchase of an iPad for use in ministry!

Because of its simplicity, the iPad version of OmniFocus actually outshines the desktop version in almost every way (review to come). OmniOutliner on the iPad may not be better overall than on the Mac, but it scratches a different itch. That is, depending the task at hand, the convenience factor sometimes trumps the limited features. If I need to work on something complex like laying out a church newsletter or writing a doctrinal paper for a pastors’ conference, I will do the lion’s share of the work on my desktop computer which offers a deeper toolbox. But for many of my day-to-day activities, a tablet offers a much simpler interface which allows me to get the task done quickly and move on to the next thing on my list.

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My two-week iPad only experience

Wisconsin Lutheran SeminaryI returned mentally exhausted from my two weeks of continuing ed courses at the seminary. (If you’re curious, I took courses on “The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, “The Doctrine and Practice of the Lord’s Supper,” and “Reconfiguring Your Sunday School.”) The first week alone I had 33+ hours of classroom time. It’s been 17 years since I graduated, and although I study on my own and have been back to the Sem a number of times, I can feel the effects of time beginning to take their toll.

I’m glad to report, however, that my iPad-only experience was a rousing (although still limited) success. There were some tasks that I actually felt were easier to do on the iPad. And those things I couldn’t do directly with the tablet almost always had a work-around.

Things that were better with an iPad:

  • Portability. Unlike the other students who had to carry bulky bags to class with their laptops, most didn’t even know that I had brought an iPad with me unless/until I brought it out for research or to take notes.
  • Reading. All of the courses I took required extensive reading outside of class. I enjoyed loading up the PDF files in GoodReader and sitting in the comfy chair out in the lounge or in the library. GoodReader has an excellent highlighting feature built into the app. Others had to hunch over their laptop screens — or kill an entire tree to print out the materials. Unless they had a Kindle.
  • Battery power. Most of my fellow students needed to sit near outlets to make sure they had a steady stream of electricity to power their laptops. (Although the seminary thoughtfully provided power strips in most classrooms.) I only need to remember to plug in the iPad before my head hit the pillow at night and I was good to go for another day.
  • Entertainment. Naturally I mean outside of classroom time, when my reading assignments were done. Far be it from me to check FaceBook while the professor was lecturing! One night I started watching a Netflix movie, but I soon drifted off. The best recreational use I got from the iPad was reading a book during the flight home. Read more of this post