This week’s home screen features Robert McGinley Myers (Twitter). Rob blogs over at Anxious Machine about “anxiety, technology, and scary things”. I think Rob has a great voice. I really liked his recent piece on The Affordance of Intimacy and doing work on the iPad. Okay Rob, show us your home screen.
What are some of your favorite apps?
The apps that have had the most profound effect on how I use my iPad are Instapaper, Documents by Readdle (paired with PDF expert), Doceri, and Editorial.
I believe Instapaper (App Store) was the first app I ever bought for the iPhone, and it may have been the first app that showed me how apps could change my relationship to digital information. I had long been an avid reader of online journalism, and I had been hacking together my own ways of saving those articles for later by copying and pasting them into text documents, which I would then try to read on my smartphone. Marco Arment’s solution was so elegant that I’ve never looked back.
Instapaper still has the most options for beautiful typography, size, and spacing, and no other app does a better job of saving my place in the article. I know a lot of people have switched to Pocket (App Store), which may do a better job of parsing images and videos from a link, and I wish Instapaper would implement some form of tagging so that it would be easier for me to find articles I’ve saved, but for me there’s still no better app for simply reading.
As a college writing instructor, I also spend a huge part of my work life grading papers, and Documents by Readdle (App Store), paired with PDF Expert (App Store), has made me feel closer to and more in control of the papers I grade. I wrote about this in a blog post, The Affordance of Intimacy, but the short version is that I used to grade papers by tracking changes and inserting comments on my Mac. But PDF Expert gives me such a feature-rich experience of markup tools that I now grade everything on my iPad. And maybe it has something to do with the more direct experience of writing my comments on the screen itself, but I don’t dread the process of grading nearly as much as I used to.
One of my favorite features of PDF Expert is that you can zoom way into a document to write something, and then you have a handy little button to tap that will zoom all the way back out again. Another feature is that when you type or dictate text into a text box in the margin, PDF Expert automatically reformats the text so that it doesn’t overlap with any text in the document. I also love the seamless integration with Dropbox. My one wish is that someday Readdle will enable TextExpander snippets in the app (though I recently played with using Type2Phone to execute TextExpander snippets from my Mac to my iPad, and it works pretty well.)
Another app that has changed my work life as a teacher is Doceri (App Store) (an app I first heard about on an episode of MPU), which turns your iPad into a kind of smart-board replacement. The app pairs with a companion desktop app on the Mac (or PC) and allows you to annotate anything that’s appearing on your computer’s screen by writing on the iPad. I mainly use it in conjunction with Keynote. What I love is that I’m no longer bound merely by the content of the slide. I can put something on the screen for my students to consider, and then as we talk, I can draw and annotate the slide with whatever comes up.
Finally, I know a lot has already been written about Editorial (App Store), but I’m really not sure I would be a blogger without it. I used to contribute to a blog in my former job in public radio, but I never really blogged for myself until the summer of 2013, when I bought a book about Markdown and downloaded this app I’d read about in MacStories.
What amazed me about Editorial in conjunction with Markdown was how easy it was to read something in the attached browser, select text, quote it, and then insert a reference link, all just by tapping a few buttons. It felt like I was reaching into the web, grabbing a piece of it, and stitching it directly into my own tapestry. To me, the best blogs are records of interaction: a person reading the web and then reacting to it, adding his or her own thoughts. Editorial enables exactly that kind of blogging. I actually write more on my blog simply because I want to use Editorial more, and I can’t think of a higher complement.
Which app is your guilty pleasure?
MG Siegler wrote a great post on his blog a while back about “The First App You Open in the Morning.” I remember reading it and realizing that the first app for me was always Reeder, my favorite RSS app. The reason I love it is the fact that it’s always delivering new things, but I’ve been wondering lately whether this is good for me.
I once had to take an aptitude assessment called StrengthsFinder, which is supposed to identify your top 5 “strengths,” to help you understand what you’re good at and why. My number one strength was “Input,” which essentially means I love acquiring new information. But I worry sometimes that my desire for the new distracts me from dwelling on the meaningful. I’m like a rat in a cage, endlessly pulling on the lever that will deliver a new pellet. I should be out exploring the world, or at least reading one of the longer pieces in my Instapaper queue. I like how the app Unread (App Store) tries to change how we read our RSS feeds, but I’ll be much more likely to use it when it’s on the iPad.
What is the app you are still missing?
For my to-do list, I use a mixture of Omnifocus (App Store) and Due (App Store), which are both wonderful. Omnifocus is the ultimate project management app because of its ability to show me precisely what I need to see at any given moment in my project. Due is the ultimate reminders app because of its ability to persistently remind me of what I need to remember to do. But neither quite meets my need for a “checklist” app.
I’ve been interested in checklists since I read Atul Gawande’s piece about them in the New Yorker, which he later turned into his book The Checklist Manifesto. His main thesis is that as our lives grow increasingly complicated, one way to reduce the number of errors we make is simply by using checklists for any complicated procedures we have to complete on a regular basis. Among other things, he writes about a group of hospitals that implemented a checklist to try to reduce the number of infections caused by intravenous lines. They simply asked all doctors and nurses to make sure specifi
c items were checked off on a list of best practices every day.
Within the first three months of the project, the infection rate in Michigan’s I.C.U.s decreased by sixty-six per cent…In the Keystone Initiative’s first eighteen months, the hospitals saved an estimated hundred and seventy-five million dollars in costs and more than fifteen hundred lives. The successes have been sustained for almost four years—all because of a stupid little checklist.
In other words, checklists are powerful. Even if we think we know how to do something, our memory is always less reliable than a checklist. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be an app specifically designed for implementing checklists in our work lives. Most of my Omnifocus projects are really checklists, because I do the same things in the same order to prepare for each class I teach. I’m currently using Applescript templates to hack together something like checklists for Omnifocus, but I’d love an app that just does this one thing well.
If you were in charge at Apple, what would you add or change?
The thing that often feels lacking at Apple for me is true respect and gratitude for the developer community. I know they give out Apple Design Awards, which is nice. And they love to cite how many billions of dollars developers have made in the app store (even though most of these are in app purchase dollars for mindless, addictive games). But I rarely get the impression Apple realizes that independent developers are actually the biggest asset Apple has. When I switched to using an Apple computer almost a decade ago, I thought I would get better hardware. But the main thing I got was better software, and that software was provided mainly by indie developers: apps like Omnifocus, Launchbar, 1Password, Textexpander, Keyboard Maestro, Fantastical, and so on. The list has only grown with the introduction of iOS.
Of course, Apple has done things that have helped developers, like creating app stores to help publicize and sell apps. But the chorus of frustration from developers continues to grow. The current implementation of sandboxing, first with iOS and then with the Mac App Store, cripple the power of many apps. And how long have developers been asking about trial versions and upgrade pricing? It would be one thing if Apple gave a clear answer for why they weren’t providing these options. But it’s quite another when developers are met simply with silence.
If I were in charge at Apple, I would acknowledge that my company had helped cultivate the greatest community of software developers imaginable, and that my company’s success depended on sustaining that community. I would do everything I could to communicate with that community, both by listening to their suggestions and ideas, and trying to implement the best of those ideas, so that those developers would continue to be enriched, both literally and figuratively, by developing for my platform.
What is your favorite feature of the iPhone/iPad?
I remember Steve Jobs onstage at the introduction of the iPad, talking about how amazing it was to hold the internet in your hands. You wouldn’t think just bringing the screen closer to your hands would matter that much, but it does. My favorite feature of the iPad is how my favorite apps allow me to reach out and touch the content (for lack of a better word), to interact with it in novel ways. Whether that’s plucking articles out of the stream for reading later, reaching through a screen to write on a student’s paper or a Keynote slide, or stitching a bit of the web into my blog post, each of these apps enable new, more intimate relationships with digital information. And that still feels amazing.