For the last 15 months I have owned an iPad, which I use for many purposes but, mainly, for my academic activity. Every now and then I am asked or find myself involved in a debate on why and how to use an iPad (or, in general, tablets) for research. Although an offtopic in this blog, this post here will save me lots of typing and talking elsewhere.
For the sake of the context, I must say that I am a social scientist working in the crossroads of the Knowledge Society and development, especially in what is related with individual empowerment (education) and social empowerment (governance). I teach at a 100% online university, which means that all my working tools are a computer, some common software and access to the Internet. My professional life is mostly digitized, and gathered in my personal research portal. I mostly do not work with paper and mostly do not work offline. I am quite a fast typist (my liveblogging sessions a proof of it) and have a very light (circa 1,000g) while powerful laptop which I can take anywhere without hesitation. I do not own any Apple computer and do not plan to own one in the nearest future (i.e. I am not an Apple fan).
So, how does an iPad or a tablet fit in this context at the professional level?
Reading it not anymore what it used to be.
Reading used to be sitting with a bunch of papers. Maybe a pen would be handy to scribble some notes on the margins, underline some sentences. Maybe not on the margins, but on a piece of paper. Maybe even on a notebook. You would stand up to look up something on the dictionary or the encyclopaedia. And that was it.
Now reading is, for starters, not knowing what you will be feeling like reading. Maybe it will it be a couple of academic papers, maybe it will be correcting some assignments, or proofreading a paper of yours. Or them all: some trips are long and you want to carry everything with you. What is the weight of 500 pages? And the weight of 5 MB?
Besides the dictionary, or the encyclopaedia, you might search for a description of Aztec god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli or you might even want to see how Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli looks like; you can wonder how Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray would sound like when playing before Jack Kerouac or just listen to a live performance by Gordon & Gray; or you can imagine Jon Krakauer’s Stampede Trail or locate it on a map and pay a visit to it.
Now combine everything said above: picture yourself with a dozen papers; reading all them at the same time (those papers with interesting bibliographies…); underlining and taking notes on them; writing some other notes on a separate file which you can tag and categorize and store and search and retrieve; accessing on the go the authors’ personal websites and their curricula and their list of published works; writing a short e-mail to them asking them for a pre-print of a difficult to find paper; forwarding your annotated copy of the paper to a colleague; or copying and pasting a table of data on a spreadsheet to plot some graphics (why hadn’t they in the original paper?).
And that is enhanced reading.
Picture yourself doing all that sitting (or standing) on the train. Or sitting on your couch.
And that is a tablet.
Why not an eReader
I tried several eReader devices based on e-ink before trying the tablet. There are two main reasons why an eReader is not an option for me:
eReaders are very slow for academic papers reading. They may be fair enough to read a book (whatever its kind) whose content has been repaged for your device and for you to turn the pages sequentially, once a minute or two.
But if you are reading a PDF, A4-sized, with footnotes or endnotes and definitely with a bibliography, you will find yourself turning pages very often. Mainly because it is not optimized for the eReader. And also because the eReader is not prepared (yet) for continuous and quick page-turning. And if you want to compare different papers in parallel, the exercise of exiting a paper, opening a new one, closing that one and going back to the former one… that is simply not bearable for the common human being.
The second reason is that, usually, e-readers lack everything that is not strictly for reading purposes: browsing the internet, writing an e-mail or running an application (notebook, spreadsheet, etc.) are not usually supported by e-Readers. And if they are… aren’t we already talking about a table?
An eReader is mainly to read and to read plain text. But academic reading, enhanced reading, is much more than that.
Why not a laptop?
First of all, there is weight. Even if we assume that your laptop does not weight much more than your average tablet (which is quite an assumption), the iPad, one of the heaviest ones, is similar in weight as a 200 pages hardcover. You are already used to handle that weight. The best ultralight laptop will normally double that weight (and cut to a half the autonomy, BTW): if you think a hardcover edition of a book is heavy, try holding a pair of them for more than a while.
Second, there is comfort. Let’s speak only about reading for a while: for reading purposes, the extra keyboard in the laptop and the tactile screen in the tablet make a huge difference. Not only a keyboard is almost useless when reading — almost because you just type scattered notes ‐, but it is only uncomfortable: it takes extra space (and weight) of your surroundings (remember the crowded train: I spend, on average, 2h on it, daily) and key operating is much more difficult than simply touching a screen.
Besides weight and comfort, there is a third aspect, very subjective, but that I have tested several times, and is friendliness.
I’ve been to several “serious” meetings where people brought their laptops to take notes while I tapped and typed on my iPad. Unbelievable as it might sound, laptops all raised suspicion on whether their owners would be taking notes or reading e-mail or checking their preferred social networking site. On your iPad “of course” you are taking notes. Laptops are for writing and working and iPads are for taking notes, and you are supposed to take notes during a meeting.
And the fact that laptops raise a wall (the screen) between the owner and the rest and the iPad does not (because it rests on your lap or almost flat on the table) makes a huge “emotional” difference. Really.
Related to that, working at home is also different. We scientists know that there is no big difference between reading a paper for work or for leisure. But there actually is a tremendous difference between reading that paper in your home studio sitting in front of your desktop, or reading it sprawling on your couch. Especially if you do not live alone and it’s Sunday. Believe it or not, my Sundays or afternoons are very different now.
On the other side, laptops — or desktops — are unbeatable for writing. But we were talking about (enhanced) reading, right?
The added value of the tablet
In my own experience, the main added value of the tablet can be summarized in some keywords: read, notes, train, couch, shoulder bag.
Having get rid of most my paper usage in the last years, with the tablet I succeeded in getting rid of all paper. Period. This means, specifically, getting rid of:
- The annoying collection of separate sheets and stickies with casual notes you will never revisit but never dare to trash: the tablet keeps them all together, searchable and easy to transfer (to other people by e-mail, to more serious documents).
- Printouts of readings with limited life-span (destroy after read): thousands of times more digital documents in your tablet than printed ones in your usual bag, immediate transfer, time and paper saving — and healthier back.
Even more important than working paperless, the tablet provides full mobility, especially if accompanied with an Internet connection (embedded 3G or using your cellphone as a hotspot). And full mobility means that the tablet is always in my shoulder bag. Instead of everything else. The laptop is something you consider bringing with you: the tablet is always with you, as a pen or a notebook used to be.
For those more curious, I’ve shared my setup (or most of it) in the following set of snapshots. Enjoy.