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The iPad and Mac Development

So. The iPad. (You may have heard of it. It’s a neat little gadget Apple released last week without much fanfare.) There are commentators out there declaring it the world’s most expensive Etch-a-Sketch (unfair; it has no stylus), and others praising it as being as “magical” and “revolutionary” as Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive would have us believe. My own opinion on the device is somewhat schizophrenic (in the colloquial sense, obviously). I’m split between my thoughts as a user and my thoughts as a Mac developer.

Most of what follows is my thoughts on, and reaction to, the iPad from my perspective as a Mac developer. That is, as a developer rather than as an end-user, and specifically as a developer who has dedicated the past several years to developing an application for the Mac platform. My views on the iPad as a Mac developer are different from my views as an end-user. I think it’s important to establish this up front, in case what follows comes across as me bashing the iPad before it’s even in stores. Far from it. As an end-user, my reaction can be summed up as: “Pretty cool for a lot of people!” As someone who works on a writing and organisational program for the Mac, my reaction is, in short: “Oh bum.”

So, just for the record: I like the look of the iPad. I think it could turn out to be a fantastic device for consuming media and information (which is what it is for - more on that below). The main problem with computers as they currently exist is that they make many otherwise intelligent people feel like idiots. No one has to write to customer support just to work out how to use their television. Part of our job as developers is to make our programs as easy to use as possible - I’d go so far as to argue that this is in fact the hardest part of our job. (“What do you mean you don’t understand why the outliner button is greyed out? It makes sense to me, and I designed it!”) And it’s sometimes tough to admit that if more than one user is getting frustrated by an element of your program, then it’s probably a design flaw. (Note: 2.0 has a more fluid and integrated approach to the outliner, corkboard and Edit Scrivenings buttons - no more arbitrary greying out. Also note: If anything confuses you about Scrivener, I will still never admit it’s a design flaw.) With the iPad, Apple have thought about what most users actually do with their computers and tried to make the resulting device as easy to use as possible. That has to be applauded, not least by those of us who spend time trying to help family members troubleshoot computer problems. In that regard, I think this guy nails it:

But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t care much about whether or not the iPad will result in me receiving fewer phone calls from family members with computer issues; what you most likely want to know is what impact the iPad has on Scrivener, if any.

The first user-request for an iPad version of Scrivener came before Steve Jobs had even finished speaking - I don’t think he’d even got to the part about iBooks yet. (Just for the record, we developers have no inside information - we are just as much the “little guys” to Apple as everyone else.) Since then there has been a steady trickle of requests for a version of Scrivener that runs on the iPad. This is as understandable as it is inevitable. I have long objected to an iPhone version of Scrivener because Scrivener’s interface just would not scale down to the iPhone screen real-estate, and a scaled-down version of Scrivener that had to drop all of the features for which I created it in the first place always struck me as pointless. Moreover, I don’t see the iPhone as a serious writing tool anyway; it’s something for taking notes on when you’re out and about, sure, but for that you can use the brilliant WriteRoom and then import your notes into Scrivener using the importer. (Yes, I know I’m a bit late in getting 1.54 out, which updates to, and many apologies for that - 2.0 has been taking up all my time, but 1.54 hasn’t been forgotten and will be out soon.) I’m also not averse to working with other iPhone developers to offer compatibility with other note-taking or outlining apps (quite the contrary - feel free to contact me if you are such a developer). But the iPad is a different beast isn’t it? After all, there is a keyboard dock for the iPad and Apple have even ported iWork, so how can my objections to an iPhone version hold up when it comes to the iPad?

So yes, you may quite reasonably be wondering: Are there any plans for an iPad version of Scrivener? And if not, why not?

The short answer to the first question is: Not at the moment. But I’ll attempt to give a full answer to both.

Before I continue, I’ll say again: what follows is my opinion as a Mac developer. My opinion as a gadget-geek and user is somewhat different, and will follow at the end. Sorry, but I have to reiterate this simply because I know from bitter experience that there is a minority of folk who vociferously take to task anyone whose words can be interpreted as constituting even the slightest attack on Apple (my partner once wrote a piece for a national UK newspaper - which was unfortunately poorly sub-edited - that dared to suggest Apple were a little too tight-lipped when it came to certain ongoing product defect and support issues at the time, and the ugly comments left by a handful of dolts on the otherwise brilliant MacRumors still make me ashamed to be of the same species as the commenters to this day) - though of course I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you, good reader. Right, enough prefatory apologies.


The iPad as Netbook Killer

Mac users (note: Mac users - Windows and Linux users have plenty of options) have been craving an Apple netbook for years now. The nearest thing they were given was the MacBook Air, which was a disappointment to many - myself included - partly because of its utter lack of connectivity unless you used wireless and paid-for adapters. Mainly, though, the problem was that it wasn’t cheap - certainly not cheap enough to become a college kid’s knockabout machine - and it wasn’t much smaller than a MacBook - just thinner. So thin, you could fit it in an envelope - it just had to be a big envelope.

(Another quick aside here: I’m not one of the users who have been craving an Apple netbook. I love my MacBook. It is my favourite machine ever, and given how much I loved my old iBook that is quite an achievement. But then I don’t keep it in my rucksack much - it gets plugged into my monitor and external keyboard during the day for development and writing, then taken downstairs and plonked on my lap in the evening so I can search IMDB to find out who the heck that actor on TV is, you know, the guy who was in thingy, with whatsherface. So as a user I am more than catered for; I’m happy. But as a developer, I have to take into account what other users are after, and how that affects Scrivener.)

Even after the Air, then, Mac users have been hoping for some sort of netbook. Something light, affordable, and with a 10” screen and keyboard. (A bunch of other users have been hoping for a tablet, but mainly for art and graphic design work, which is something the ModBook at least provides, even if Apple aren’t making money from it - it’s an entirely different sort of tablet to the iPad.) There is an elephant in the room here - a very small and possibly illegal elephant.
I’m hesitant to mention it in case anyone misinterprets my doing so as condoning behaviour that violates Apple’s EULA (I’m not), but to omit it would be ignoring an important indicator that there is demand for a Mac netbook. I’m talking, of course, about the significant number of people who, fed up with lugging their MacBooks around and waiting for Apple to provide them with something smaller, have resorted to using a so-called “hackintosh” - that is, hacking OS X onto an existing Intel netboook such as a Dell mini 10v. These are otherwise loyal Apple users (although the idea of “brand loyalty” is rather sickly, isn’t it? May as well be loyal to a genus of flowering begonia), people who haven’t used anything but Macs for many years, who don’t want to use anything other than Mac OS X, but who just want something smaller on which to run their applications when out and about - writers on research field trips, students moving between lectures all day.

Did the iPad deliver what these users wanted?

Well, yes and no.

To quote Steve Jobs from his keynote speech:

“Everybody uses a laptop and/or a smart phone. And the question has arisen lately, is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something that’s between a laptop and a smart phone? And of course we’ve pondered this question for years as well. The bar’s pretty high. In order to really create a new category of devices, those devices are going to have to be far better at doing some key tasks... Better than the laptop, better than the smartphone. What kind of tasks? Things like browsing the web... Doing e-mail. Enjoying and sharing photographs. Video... Enjoying your music collection. Playing games. Reading e-books. If there’s going to be a third category of device, it has to be better at these tasks than a laptop or a smart phone, otherwise it has no reason for being. Now, some people have thought that that’s a netbook. The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything. [Cheers and laughter of recognition from the audience, who have cleary thought exactly the same thing for many years now.] ... They’re just cheaper than laptops.”

(Digression: Honestly, if Steve Jobs had a sense of humour, after revealing the name of his latest product he would wait until the inevitable whooping and cheering had died down and reveal a steaming pile of faecal matter, or a dead kitten or something. I swear the crowds at these things more and more think they are at a U2 concert. But then I’m English, and to us a stroke of the chin accompanied by a muted, “Hmm, interesting,” could be considered over-effusive.)

The moment Steve Jobs opened his keynote with the above words (not the digression about the faecal matter and dead kitten, obviously; the bit about netbooks), my heart sank. It was as clear a statement as we’re going to get that Apple has no interest in entering the netbook market; at least, not with an actual netbook. So is Mr Jobs right? Is a netbook really no better than a laptop or smart phone at anything? Within the parameters he set above, I’d have to agree with him; the iPad is indeed probably better than a netbook - at the tasks he listed. But you’ll note that the list of tasks he gave excludes any kind of content creation. (Yes, later in his speech he showed off iWork for the iPad, but that was given to the team to “see what they could do”, and content creation was not on his list of essential tasks at which this new device should excel. I would say that is important, and telling.)

So, for the sake of argument, and ignoring for a moment the lists given on many other sites about multitasking and video conferencing and suchlike, what do netbooks do better than laptops from the point of view of the average Scrivener customer?*

1) Most importantly of all, they are smaller, lighter, more portable. (Great! - So is the iPad.)

2) They still allow you to type fast on a small keyboard. (Okay - so does the iPad, although you’ll need to carry around the keyboard and assemble it - fine for writing in coffee houses, but not so good if you need to write on your lap for any length of time, I’d wager. Of course I could be proved wrong on this - maybe the dock is particularly sturdy and good at balancing on knees.)

3) Despite their lightness and portability, you can still run your preferred OS, and therefore most of your preferred programs on them. (Ah…)

So, again, did all of those Mac users who wanted a netbook device - a more portable Mac - get what they wanted? Well, it depends. Yes (in a way) and no.

Yes, Apple delivered a small, light, affordable and portable device. It takes some extra assembly to add a decent keyboard, but you can type on it, and accordingly to initial reports it responds well to fast touch-typing.

But also no - because Mac users cannot run Mac OS X on Apple’s answer to the netbook. And thus they cannot run their favourite applications unless those applications are rewritten for the iPhone OS, which is what the iPad uses.

In other words, Mac users hoping for a Mac netbook are, frankly, out of luck. If you were after a more mobile device that runs Mac OS X, it still doesn’t exist - and although I hope I’m proved wrong, Mr Jobs seemed strongly to imply that it never will, because the iPad is their rebuttal to the very existence of the netbook; Steve Jobs doesn’t like netbooks, so you’re not getting one. But then, does it really matter that the iPad doesn’t run OS X? (Obviously not if you’re not a Mac user anyway, but what if you are?) After all, it does almost everything else, doesn’t it? Well, again, it depends. I would imagine that to the vast majority of people, no, it doesn’t matter one jot. Apple has provided a device that may well bring them even more customers - the iPhone wasn’t something limited to the Mac community, and likewise, the iPad has a global appeal. No Windows user is likely to object to it because it’s a Mac and they don’t like Macs - because it isn’t a Mac. In a sense, in terms of computers, the iPad is platform agnostic - no one worries that their phone OS doesn’t run the same OS as the one on their computer, and by not pidgeon-holing this device as a Mac, Apple are not limiting their latest computing device to users of Mac computers. Quite the opposite - with the iPad they are after the same general user-base they achieved with the iPod and iPhone - it doesn’t matter what OS you are accustomed to on your main computer, because this device is intended as something different. This is something new that is dedicated to making the access of all that content out there easy and convenient; it fits between a smart phone and a computer.

However, no matter how you look at it, it’s not a Mac netbook, and thus to those hoping to have the full Mac experience on a mobile device - to those who use their computers predominantly to create content and who therefore wish to run a full range of Mac productivity applications without pared-down feature-sets - that surely does matter. For those users, the iPad is not a viable alternative to a netbook. Such users are almost certainly in the minority, I absolutely understand that, and perhaps the point of the iPad is that computers were built for content generation and finally here is something for everyone else. So, the number of computer users who spend more time generating content (outside of the day job, that is) than consuming it must be a minority to begin with. And of those, most will be happy to use a desktop or laptop machine for content generation, and an iPad for general browsing and the odd bit of note-taking. It’s only the minority of the minority who will now still long for a more mobile laptop on which they can run the whole h
ost of Mac apps. I still wish there was something coming for them, though - not least because a good number of Scrivener users seem to fall into that very minority.

And for me, as someone who develops for the Mac platform, it also matters. How much does it matter? I don’t know yet. Why do I keep asking myself rhetorical questions? Maybe I’m lonely. But I digress (again). Nobody can possibly know how much it matters because it’s not even in the stores yet. Half the pundits are declaring that the iPad is going to be a runaway success and every home will have one while the other half are saying it’s a damp squib that fails to be either computer or smart phone, neither fish nor fowl, and so is surely utterly pointless. It’s too early to know if either side will be right or something inbetween will be true. Whatever the outcome, even at this early stage it would be irresponsible not to consider the implications of the iPad for my own Mac application, especially with so many users already clamouring for Scrivener-for-the-iPad.


Mac Development and the iPad

Okay, I’ll admit it: when I saw that what everybody had expected all along had actually been realised - that the iPad was essentially a large iPod Touch - I was gutted; gutted because of the implications for Scrivener, which currently runs only on the Mac. Perhaps the biggest disappointment and frustration for me as a developer is that, in a way, I feel that Apple’s decision to use the iPhone OS for a tablet that is ostensibly intended as an entry into the netbook niche of the market (rather than saying straight up that it is something completely different to a netbook) is a bit of a two-fingers-up to us indie Mac developers; developers who have been quietly contributing great applications (at least, I like to think Scrivener is a great application…) to the Mac platform, and who have even persuaded users of other platforms to switch (I’ve lost count of the number of users who have e-mailed me to say that they bought a Mac just to use Scrivener - perhaps the biggest compliment of all). Getting people to switch is irrelevant to Apple in the case of the iPad, though, because it’s not a Mac, so hasn’t set out to rival Windows at all; its stroke of genius is that it sets out to replace a hardware solution (the netbook) and by adopting the iPhone OS instead of Mac OS X it raises itself above platform partisanship; it transcends the Mac/Windows divide.

I should step back a little here and explain what I mean by “indie development”, because this isn’t something that everyone realises about us. Often when we think of a software company, we tend to think of offices and cubicles and a handful of sweaty developers being hounded by a line manager, a PR team, some techies giving phone support and advertising folks on the other side of the office writing copy about how they are producing the “funnest” thing ever or suchlike. Or, at least, that’s what I used to think of when I thought of software companies. But that image is only true of the larger software houses (although I’m sure none of their coders are sweaty and many may even shower daily). Many software companies aren’t like that at all - we aren’t. If you’ve read our About page, you’ll know that we are just two guys. I wrote Scrivener because it was the tool I wanted for my own writing - in fact, I taught myself to program just so I could create Scrivener. I didn’t study programming at university (I studied history and medieval literature, since you asked). I’m only a “professional” programmer in the sense that it is now my full time job (since I gave up teaching because Scrivener had taken off). David came on board to help out with all the non-coding stuff (for a large pay cut, so he could work with his friend - which would be me). He’s not a programmer either (he studied physics, since you’re so nosey). There are no Literature & Latte offices. My office is a spare room in my rented home, with a view of the garden and the occasional dog-walker in the fields earmarked for housing estate development opposite. David’s office is his garage. (No snow days for him.)

The great thing about the Mac is that this sort of one-guy-and-maybe-a-friend software development is still feasible. Years ago a lot of software was written by only a couple of guys - the old ZX Spectrum games, for instance; even the first versions of Final Draft. But it’s getting more and more difficult for a single person to code and maintain a complex application for a large enough user-base. We could argue all day about Apple’s faults, but one of the great things about Apple is that they have really fostered a strong independent development community. There are some wonderful independently-developed apps on Windows, don’t get me wrong, but I’d argue that it takes Windows developers a lot more time and money to polish them up to a high spec, and to do so they have to pay for a lot of third-party frameworks and development tools. On the Mac, all your development tools are free, so you can try developing software even if you don’t know whether or not you’ll ever make a penny back, and you don’t have to think about start-up costs. At all. And the development tools are fantastic, a real pleasure to use. Even better, because Apple have control over all their hardware, you know that as long as you follow their guidelines and test your app on all the versions of OS X you want to support, it should then work the same on the computer of every user out there. Windows programmers don’t have it nearly so good.

So why is the iPad being based on the iPhone OS such a potential problem for Mac indie developers, in my own humble opinion?

Because suddenly our Mac apps don’t run on all the machines a user might expect them to run on. Because those of us with only one programmer are now faced with the demand for supporting two viable computing platforms. We could debate the semantics of whether the iPad is indeed a computer or not, but initial murmurs would indicate that there are a good number of users out there who want to use it that way, if only as a secondary platform to their main workstation or laptop.

Wait, surely the iPhone and iPad are teeming with applications from independent developers, so how can this be a bad thing for indie development? Well, yes. That’s true. I’m not trying to say that Apple aren’t still fostering a strong independent development community, because they clearly are - it’s just on a different platform, no longer the Mac. And it’s a fantastic thing for all those iPhone developers out there; I envy them the excitement they must be feeling right now about the iPad, along with all the software houses who have the resources to start thinking about an iPad version of their flagship programs straight away, such as the excellent Omni Group. But as an independent Mac developer, here’s the thing: The iPhone and iPod Touch are undoubtedly small mobile platforms - in the smart phone category - and even if users ask from time to time for a scaled-down version of their favourite app to run on them, no one really expects to do any serious work on them - that has until now been left to Mac OS X, which was - was - Apple’s computing operating system. But building the iPad on the iPhone OS and then declaring that it is intended as something to replace netbooks, and by providing a keyboard accessory and porting iWork, their own main productivity suite, to it, Apple have changed the game. The resulting implication is this: either you build an iPhone/iPad version of your application, or you miss out on all the users that wanted a netbook and so bought the iPad - because the iPad is Apple’s answer to the netbook.

That’s a pretty b
ig blow, so I’m going to reiterate it: Mac users have been clamouring for an Apple netbook for years now. Users have been wanting something with a 10” screen that they can throw in their bag, something smaller, lighter and easier to haul around than a 13” MacBook. And I think it’s fair to say that everyone expected that, were Apple to introduce such a device, more users would come over to the platform from Windows. I get requests for a Windows version of Scrivener nearly every day, and along with price the other main reason many of these Windows users cite for not wanting to buy a Mac is size - they want a small, cheap netbook for college, something they can throw in their bag and carry between classes without shoulder-ache, for instance. They don’t want to carry a MacBook - it’s portable, but not something you want weighing on your shoulder all day. They want something smaller.

Well, this week Apple told us all, “You didn’t know it, but all along you didn’t want a netbook at all. This is what you wanted.” And then they introduced just such a cheap, portable device - but it won’t be bringing users over to OS X, at least not directly. So all those of us who develop for the Mac won’t see anything of those Windows users who are tempted by the iPad unless we switch our allegiances to the iPhone OS. And even worse, there are plenty of Mac users who have been putting up with a MacBook (which they consider too clunky) who are now talking about ditching their MacBooks in favour of an iPad. We could in fact lose users. On the other hand, as apparently happened with the iPhone, the iPad may draw users to the Mac platform indirectly - Windows users may buy an iPad, fall in love with it and discover that the nearest full computing experience is Mac OS X. Only time will tell.

So, there’s my dilemma. As a user, I think the iPad looks like a wonderful gadget, and I think it is going to be welcomed by the vast number of people who get frustrated by the often apparently arcane nature of computers - the people it’s for. I’m looking forward to trying one out myself, especially once they get iBooks running in the UK (I hope that’s the plan). As a developer, it makes me want to scream.

Projecting forward into the murky and unfathomable future, another concern must be whether or not this augurs anything for Apple’s long-term commitment to Mac OS X. Jonathan Ive has clearly stated that he sees the iPad as the future, the right direction for Apple. I’m not saying it’s a bad direction, but I do wonder where that will leave those of us still tied to traditional platforms such as OS X in five years’ time. Again, it’s too early to say; only Apple really knows what the future is for these platforms. But I think I’m justified in being a little worried about the implications of Apple’s netbook solution not running OS X for those of us who have dedicated ourselves to providing software for that platform. Will there ever be a Mac OS 11? And if there is, will it be a version of the iPhone OS? Or are we heading the same way the games industry has headed, with a handful of people using full computers to create content that is then delivered to closed devices (as with games programmers who write for the Playstation or Xbox, for instance)?

Before I’m accused of overreacting, let me just say that I don’t for one minute think that Apple intended this as a big-two fingers-up at its indie Mac development community. Of course not. Apple are just doing what they do - working on great technology with the end-user in mind, and they are right to do that, because that is ultimately their job. I’m merely expressing how this step feels as an independent Mac developer without the resources to support multiple platforms - because at the end of the day, the iPad (and iPhone) is, to all extents and purposes, another platform.

So, onto the reality of getting Scrivener onto the iPad.


Will Scrivener Come to the iPad?

Well, were the iPad running OS X, or even a stripped-down version of OS X, a port would have been a no-brainer. (There is a common misunderstanding that the iPhone OS is just a stripped-down version of OS X; it’s not. They both use some of the same core libraries and are built around Objective-C and an AppKit - Cocoa. But the classes available for use in each are very different. For instance, Scrivener’s text input is a highly customised version of Apple’s NSTextView. It uses a modified version of its rich text system. The iPhone has no such thing - it has a UITextView, which doesn’t even support rich text. Scrivener’s binder is a customised version of NSOutlineView. But the iPhone doesn’t support outline views at all to the best of my knowledge. The only way to navigate trees on the iPhone is by drilling down into tables. These may seem superficial UI differences, but the differences go much deeper. As I’m not overly familiar with the iPhone frameworks (yet) I’m sure someone else could explain the differences better, but suffice to say it’s not a case of just changing a few lines of code and rebuilding.) But given that the iPad is not running OS X, right now I can’t see a way for us to produce an iPad version of Scrivener in the near future. Not because I’m not interested in such a thing - although I am reserving judgement until I hold one of these things in my hands. Practicalities, however - the dreaded Real World - get in the way. So, below are some of the reasons why we are not planning an iPad version just yet.

1) Resources. We’re not Apple, we’re not Omni. As I say, there’s just me and David. Scrivener is a niche product - it has a whole bunch of users who are kind enough to rave about Scrivener, but not so many that we’re driving around in sports cars. So, we can’t afford to hire someone else to code Scrivener-for-the-iPad. But if I try to code it myself, then what happens to Scrivener-for-the-Mac? Realistically, I can’t do both - or at least, I can’t do both well. Scrivener is a big program, very complicated internally, with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. And there are still months of development to do on Scrivener 2.0. For me to develop a version of Scrivener for the iPad would mean abandoning Scrivener for the Mac (at least temporarily, but even after an initial release my time would then have to be divided), then learning to code for the iPhone OS, and then designing and building a mobile version of Scrivener. That’s not great for Mac users of Scrivener, even the ones who want an iPad version. (Oh, and did I mention I created Scrivener so I could use it myself? I really would like to get that novel written one of these days, too.) Perhaps the eventual ideal solution - should the iPad turn out to be a viable writing environment, which still remains to be seen - would be to team up with an iPhone/iPad developer who uses, understands and loves Scrivener and wants to give us huge swathes of the profits for his or her work (ha). But the problem there is that I’m a perfectionist control freak and like to keep control over everything that goes into Scrivener, so that’s not as straightforward as it seems. (In other words, I’m hell to work with; just ask David.)

2) Design. Is the sort of writing for which Scrivener is designed really the sort of thing for which the iPad will be used? In a way, the iPad - like the iPhone - is a notebook, a Moleskine, but Scrivener is the typewriter and corkboard, the book of clippings, the ring-binder - the stuff that requires more space. You might pull out your notebook in a café or on the train, you might even shuffle some index cards, but you wouldn’t spread your index cards out, label them, reshuffle your whole manuscript, pull out your clippings folder and lay out images and reference documents while you write in such locations - all the tasks that Scrivener t
akes up screen-space doing, the things it was built to do. You take your notebook with you when you’re working on a book, but not your whole ring-binder. Writing a long text is still for the most part something you do at a desk. Laptops enable you to take that desk with you; the iPad is very deliberately not the entire desk. It is stripped down, something to read, to play games on, for playing music and videos, and in a pinch you can use it to take down some notes or throw a document together if you really need to. Trying to force Scrivener onto something like the iPad seems to me to be missing the point of both Scrivener and the iPad itself. I am ready to be proved utterly wrong on this, but these are my impressions based on the way the iPad was presented to us in the keynote (see the section below on The iPad From a User’s Perspective), and until it hits stores that’s all I have to go on.

3) Inclination. I created Scrivener because it was the program I wanted to use for my writing - although Scrivener is now a business which pays my and David’s wages, hippy-at-heart that I am, money still isn’t my chief motivation for continuing the development of Scrivener. I do it because I know it could still be better, there are things I want to refine and get really right. But I love my MacBook; it’s the ideal writing machine for me. I can’t see myself ever using an iPad for serious writing - no, I haven’t seen one yet, but I write this with my MacBook on my lap with my fingers comfortable on a decent-sized keyboard and that works for me. So, I can get excited about the iPad for many things - for iBooks (maybe), for casual browsing, for watching videos - but not for use as a writing machine. Many Scrivener users may disagree and see the iPad an ideal writing platform, but if I haven’t the motivation - if I’m just doing it because I think I might make a quick buck - then I’m not qualified to do it right. (I know what you’re going to say: maybe the iPad isn’t good for all your writing, but what about notes and ideas while you are out and about? Well, again, in that case you could use something like WriteRoom and bring your notes into Scrivener later - there would be no advantage of having a version of Scrivener just for that.)

4) Scaling Scrivener down. This would be a massive feat in itself. It may sound simple - just do less! But it doesn’t work like that. And would a scaled-down version of Scrivener even be Scrivener? Would it do any more than other writing or notebook apps? Moreover, users are bound to disagree over what would be essential in a pared-down Scrivener. One user would argue it should just be a corkboard linked to notes; another would suggest it should be an outlining app, and yet another a table that allows navigation through text documents. Could the iPad even handle a .scriv file package? And what about users who have .scriv files of hundreds of megabytes - even gigabytes - in size? I can’t answer that yet. But I don’t relish the idea of cutting any of the features I built Scrivener to have, let alone starting from scratch. So the jury’s still out. In fact, that’s worth clarifying, as the difference between operating systems and the problems involved in porting software programs between them isn’t something that’s necessarily immediately obvious to end-users. Getting Scrivener to run on the iPad is not just a matter of taking the existing code base and cutting here, modifying there. I’m sure some of the code could be reused, but for the most part we are talking about having to write a completely new version of Scrivener from the ground up for a new platform.

5) The Touch interface. Although Scrivener is predominantly a writing application, a lot of the structural work is done with the mouse, or by tabbing around views and using keyboard shortcuts and the arrow keys to achieve the same effect. On the iPad, like the iPhone, this sort of manipulation is done using your fingers. While iPhone apps such as CarbonFin Outliner do a wonderful job at providing a full outliner in small environment, even on the larger screen of the iPad something such as Scrivener’s binder would be severely limited. Because you would need to use your fingers to manipulate the rows, moving items around would either be frustratingly fiddly or the rows would need to be so large that you wouldn’t be able to see many of them on screen at any one time. And given that one of Scrivener’s purposes is to allow you to step back to get an overview of your project, I’d say that’s not an insignificant problem. Think of all the features that would need rethinking: the binder, the way keywords, label and status are assigned in the different views, references, dragging between different folders that are far apart in the structure, and so on. In other words, not only would Scrivener need rewriting from the ground up, but as the Mac version is built to take full advantage not only of screen real estate but also of the keyboard and mouse, its whole interface - the very way the user interacts with the documents and meta-data on screen - would need completely redesigning for the touch interface.

6) I’m admittedly not a big fan of the App Store, because it’s a closed shop. Either Apple accept your app and put it on the store, or you can’t sell or distribute it. And Apple’s criteria for accepting and rejecting applications for the iPhone are notoriously nebulous and apparently whimsical. I certainly don’t relish the prospect of spending a year developing an iPad version of Scrivener only to have it rejected (perhaps because it is seen as competing with Pages or suchlike). Without transparency to the acceptance/rejection process, there’s no way of knowing in advance what problems you may run into. I have already read that Apple used a number of private APIs to create Pages for the iPad, for instance - but other developers have their apps rejected for using private APIs. Even legitimate workarounds can be rejected, though - one developer I know had an update to his app rejected from the App Store because it used HTML to render editable rich text, and Apple apparently wouldn’t allow this - meaning that only Apple are currently able to create apps capable of editable rich text on the iPhone. So while the App Store setup has worked very nicely for plenty of developers, it’s just not the sort of commercial environment I’m crazy about entering. I much prefer everything being open to all. I’ve nothing against Apple having their own store and limiting the products available there to only the ones they approve, but I don’t like the idea of that being the only way a user can access your application.

So, if you’re a user hoping for an iPad version of Scrivener in the near future - I’m sorry, but for all of the above reasons there are no plans in place yet. It’s not because we have anything againt the iPad - quite the opposite. Like many, I’m rather excited about the iPad. But even if there were an enormous audience for an iPad version of Scrivener and we were thus denying ourselves a fortune in not developing it (as a couple of enthusiastic users have insisted - perhaps not quite realising just how much of a niche application something like Scrivener is), this is sadly beside the point - because it’s not a matter of refusal but of being realistic about the resources we have available right now, and how to use those limited resources to best serve the user-base that is Scrivener’s foundation. Still, that’s not to say we aren’t interested in what happens with the iPad - we are, and we remain open-minded. How interested? Well, I have at least signed up for the iPhone OS developer program and ordered a book on iPhone development, if only out of curiosity and to see what is possible - to keep our options open for the future. Were it possible to develop something that didn’t take years (people often seem to understimate just how much work
and code is involved in creating and maintaining a program of Scrivener’s scope) and required little maintenance (that’s never possible), so that it didn’t detract from the full Mac version of Scrivener, then who knows what could happen?


The iPad From a User’s Perspective

As I’ve said above, as an end-user, I like the look of the iPad. I could never get excited about the iPhone - I don’t use mobile phones much, and for the little gaming I do these days I much prefer my PS3 or XBox. I bought an iPod Touch and what I really like about it is being able to browse the web - for reading, not posting - in bed or wherever, without having to prop up my laptop. For me, this is where the iPad is going to shine. I can use it for reading online papers in as comfortable a position as I read real papers, and I can watch movies more easily while travelling; but then I usually read print papers and don’t travel much, so in reality I probably wouldn’t have as much use for an iPad at all (I used these same justifications when buying my iPod Touch and I don’t use it as anything more than a regular iPod. On the other hand, I could keep an iPad on my coffee table especially for those IMDB searches.) But I do like the look of it, just because it looks like the sort of thing I imagined to be futuristic as a kid. Give me a hovercar and a robot butler to go with it, and I’m happy.

Perhaps the most salient point I have heard made about the iPad is that it wasn’t really designed for us content producers anyway. To recap on Steve Jobs’ list of key tasks for the iPad:

• Browsing

• Email

• Photos

• Video

• Music

• Games

• eBooks

With the exception of writing e-mails, everything on this list involves the passive use of a computer. It’s not about getting things done. It’s a reference device. It’s the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made real, and Ford Prefect didn’t write directly into his copy of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide - that’s not what it’s for. Because of the Scrivener support forums, I spend as much time posting to the internet as reading from it - but that’s not average use. Most users of the web spend more time reading than writing - and even heavy Twitter and Facebook users will have no problem firing off short messages with the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Likewise using the iPad to send e-mails to family and friends will be just as natural as sending texts. I spend my day on abortive attempts at writing a novel, writing code, and writing support e-mails. The iPad isn’t aimed at that sort of computer use. Why should it be? Almost every other computer in existence has been designed for producing content rather than specifically for devouring it, and yet there are vast amounts of people out there who just browse the net, write the occasional short e-mail, listen to music and so on. Sure, they may spend all day writing documents in Word and hammering out e-mails, but that’s work. At home the iPad may be ideal for them. And if they really need to write a letter or something a little longer they can always use Pages and the keyboard dock. Someone pointed out to me that this sort of computer use just hasn’t really been catered for until now, and it strikes me they’re right; you don’t need a four-track recorder to listen to a record or a typewriter to read a book, after all, but until now it has been computer-to-do-everything or nothing at all (or a smart phone). In that regard, the iPad could be a killer, and if enough users see it in that way then it could well be as revolutionary as Apple hope - it’s finally something really affordable and usable for the computer user who doesn’t really like computers.

(I’m still not convinced about iBooks. The idea of reading for long periods from a backlit screen really isn’t appealing. iBooks itself looks beautiful - but then it would, because so does Delicious Monster - but the beauty of the reading environment has little to do with reading itself; for reading, all you need is something that isn’t going to strain your eyes and a good font. But maybe it’s aimed at the casual reader who just wants to read a couple of pages on the train to work, who knows?)

So. The iPad.

My final thought on the iPad as a netbook replacement is simply this: does it really have to be either/or? Is the iPad really a replacement for the netbook, a better solution for everything a netbook can do, or is it really something different to a netbook, something better at some of the common tasks we use all computers for? Couldn’t Apple have created the iPad for consumers of content and still created a smaller MacBook running OS X for producers of content? Why not give Mac users, their most loyal customer base, what they have been hoping for as well as bringing a fantastic browsing and reading experience to the wider public with the iPad? It seems a particular shame given all the streamlining work that went into Snow Leopard - 10.6 seemed a surefire contender as a netbook OS. Sadly, the answer may be simply that the iPod and iPhone have given Apple a taste of the big time, and have made Mac users less important to the company as a target demographic. After all, why target 5% of potential users when you can target 100%? The result is that the iPad is a great device for casual computer users regardless of the platform they are used to, but Mac users are still left in the cold without a really portable Mac and independent Mac developers have to face the possibility of losing existing MacBook-using customers as well as potential switchers. Or perhaps ultimately all of this speculation will turn out to be no more than a storm in a teacup; the iPad could become wildly popular as a means of reading and browsing while writers and other creators continue to use their Macs for the act of creation itself. And who knows, maybe all that work on streamlining Snow Leopard wasn’t for nothing - we can’t rule out its appearance on a netbook entirely. Remember what Steve Jobs said about the Kindle and e-reading?

Incidentally, if you were wondering what that strange sound was throughout your reading of this rambling post, it’s nothing to worry about; it was just the sound of my knee jerking uncontrollably.

(On the plus side, this post was written in Scrivener and copied to Blogger using Scrivener 2.0’s new “Copy Special > Copy as HTML” feature.)

*NOTE: There is no such thing as an “average” Scrivener customer. They are all extraordinary. Did I mention we have a paid update coming out this year?


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