UPDATE: Please see the bottom of this post for an interesting side story.
There has been a recent resurgence of discussion in the Apple commentator's world about the future of the Mac. In many cases, the discussion turns to how well, or not, iOS can take the place of macOS for many types of work.
I love my Mac and would hate to see it fade away. I've always had this feeling that some basic tasks are just more intuitive and simple on a Mac than on iOS but until a few days ago I couldn't come up with any concrete examples.
I recently purchased a 9.7" iPad Pro and have been using it for some writing – one of those tasks the commentators say an iPad is pretty darned good at. I wrote a fairly lengthy blog post for a friend's blog using Ulysses, both on the iPad and my MacBook and iMac. Most of the initial writing was done on the iPad but editing occurred on the Macs. Again, it seemed like the easier option to edit on a Mac. But what was the truth of it? Here's how I quantified the issue...
Having completed the blog post, I decided I should dig out a "to do" list I had created of future topics for my friend's blog. It was a fairly old list and I found it sitting in Apple's Notes app as a check list. I decided it would be better to copy the items into OmniFocus so I could prioritise them, add notes, and mark off those completed.
OmniFocus on an iPad is a joy to use. It's the type of app that really lends itself to a touch interface and I find it easier to use there than on my Macs unless I'm doing some major reorganisation. So I decided I would copy the 31 entries across on my iPad. Should be fun!
Here's what it takes to copy list entries from a Note to an OmniFocus task. Hold on tight...
Multitasking makes everything easier. OmniFocus has been brought onto screen and has a new project ready for the new tasks.
Eagle eyed readers may note the circles have disappeared from the Notes list in subsequent screen captures. That's because I removed them after I discovered they would be included as "- [ ]" characters in the copied text. A quirk, but not relevant to my point here.
I have tapped the button to add a task to the project. Now what?
A tap on the Note places the cursor (not captured in the screen capture) in Notes. With care, the cursor is at the end of the text I want to use to create the task (after the "1" in "Item 1").
I tap again to invoke the pop-up menu, from where I can enter text selection mode. I tap Select.
Initially only the nearest word is selected, so I need to carefully tap-drag to select the whole line.
Now I have my line selected, I can tap Copy.
I have my line of text copied, but I'm still in Notes. I need to go over to OmniFocus with a tap over there.
The first tap sets OmniFocus as the active app, but I can't paste anything yet.
Another tap brings up the Paste option, which I can then tap.
Boom! I have my text in the new task and I can save it. OmniFocus has the nifty "Save +" button which saves time by immediately opening a new task for entry.
At this point, it has taken 8 taps to copy a line of text from one application to the other. Several of those need to be made with some precision or additional taps will be required. This does not include those taps required to create and save the task in OmniFocus.
I repeated the steps to copy the second task across. But wait! Is there a better way? Does iOS offer better mechanisms to solve this simple task?
Well, there are action extensions, and OmniFocus most certainly has one. Let's add the third item in the "modern" way.
First up, the same tap, tap, tap, drag is required to select the line of text in Notes.
But instead of going straight to the Copy function, we need to tap the arrow to get to action extensions.
Now we can tap the Share... button. We're up to 6 taps now.
I had to scroll to find OmniFocus, but I could rearrange those to make it instantly accessible. So just counting the tap on the OmniFocus extension, we're up to 7 taps.
The OmniFocus extension pops up, but because I'm "coming through a different door" the context of my project is lost and therefore I need to select it. Again, some organisation could put the project at the top, so we'll give that as a freebie, but the tap to select the project takes us to 8 taps total.
A final, ninth tap on Save creates the task in OmniFocus. The modern approach takes more taps than the old school.
I use action extensions reasonably often and find them mostly intuitive and simple and quick. But when it comes to a repetitive task like this, all of those attributes melt away. Even the intuitiveness! When copying 31 tasks for my real list, my brain would start to get muddled on which step needed to be performed next. This is true on the Mac as well, sometimes, but this is a very, very simple task – copy some text from one application to another.
This same task on the Mac is far simpler. Again, with both apps open side by side and the project container and new task created, it takes the following steps:
Click on Notes. Drag over the text. Cmd-C. Click on OmniFocus. Cmd-V.
While that's still 5 operations, only one of those requires any dexterity – the drag. More of it can be accomplished with keyboard shortcuts, too. Cmd-Tab to switch between the apps and, outside of my counting scope, Cmd-N to create a new task in OmniFocus and Enter to save it. I could even select the text in Notes with the keyboard although I reckon that's slower and more fiddly.
Granted I could add a keyboard to my iPad, but should I require an expensive additional extra just to do a simple copy and paste task? I have no idea how different it would be with a keyboard, but I suspect that there'd still be a lot of touching the screen. The use of a keyboard on the Mac, plus the basic keyboard shortcuts (Cmd-N, C, V) are intrinsic to almost all apps because the keyboard is always present.
The nub of this issue, as I see it, is that a touch interface will never be good at detailed work that follows the same paradigms as the traditional desktop computer. Perhaps there is a clever way to multi-touch edit text that has yet to be thought of, but it's not here now.
A final note. Those eagle eyed readers may also note the time in my screen captures is out of order. There were so many individual taps that I found it hard to remember to take every screen capture the first time through. And the second time.
In this post I used a specific task between Apple's Notes and OmniFocus to illustrate a fairly basic concept. This was never intended to be a slight on either product, but rather the nature of iOS.
However, even though I did not reach out to the Omni Group, nor even complain about their OmniFocus product, the CEO of Omni Group, Ken Case, obviously came across the post and reached out to me to explain that I could have done this particular task more easily. This is a fantastic level of support! And so I thought it deserved a callout here.
Postscript: After publishing this post I noted that where I had used image captions to describe the steps, the text was too small in comparison to the few passages in regular paragraphs. In the space of a couple of minutes I edited the post to move all of the caption text into text blocks, including creating most of those text blocks. One hand on the keyboard, one on the mouse, and my eyes planted firmly on the screen this was a quick and fluid task. Ignoring the fact this task isn't even possible on iOS, if it were, I don't think I would have been done in two minutes!