updated 05:48 am EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
iPad Air is a more capable productivity tool than some might expect
The question of how much productivity you can get done on the Apple iPad is one that has persisted since its introduction. Even if the question is not an easy one to answer, it seems almost irrelevant to even ask when one looks at how massively successful the iPad has been since its introduction. The question also depends on what one defines as being 'productivity,' when it has been clear for some time that plenty of people can and do use iPads for getting work done, particularly in creative endeavors. The recently announced partnership between Apple and IBM in enterprise, coupled with the arrival of Microsoft Office for iPad suggests that the iPad's capability in the workplace will be properly tested given that IBM also becomes an official Apple reseller and will help to shift many more units into the workplace.
As with the Apple iPhone, it did not take long to see a third-party accessory industry spring up around the iPad. Chief among these have been keyboard accessories of various kinds, with one of the best exponents of this particular type of accessory being Logitech. The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air is one of the company's most recent offerings and is the latest refinement of the its keyboard solutions for iPad. It weighs 0.9-pounds (425g) and is 0.79-inches (20.1mm) thick. It's attractive exterior comes in leather (black, blue, red/orange) or Tech Fabric (black, red/orange) and provides rugged protection for your iPad Air as well as its in-built Bluetooth keyboard.
Importantly from a useability perspective, it is good for up to 3 months on a charge. It also features full-size keys as well as special iPad short-cut keys for cut & paste; one important thing to note is that although it features full-size keys, it is not a full-size keyboard which means that it is both narrower than a full-size keyboard, while it also includes some quirky Logitech choices for the left Shift key size, in particular, while overall key positioning does not match what most people are used to. Nonetheless, it remains a good overall choice for investigating the iPad's productivity potential while running Office. As good as Apple's software keyboard is, it takes up half the screen when typing in a Word document. Connecting any type of Bluetooth keyboard instantly frees up the whole display to whatever it is that you are working on.
I've previously Logitech's and other similar keyboard/covers in the past to see if I could get away with using the iPad for Office-style productivity in the past using Apple's own Pages, Keynote and Numbers. However, I never really found it to be a completely satisfactory experience, though others may beg to differ. This was for at least two reasons; firstly any Bluetooth keyboard that is only as wide as a 9.7-inch iPad is always going to feel slightly cramped; secondly, as good as Pages, Keynote and Numbers are, the issue of full document compatibility between Microsoft Office documents is never completely guaranteed. Having access to a native version Office on the iPad addresses the second of these two concerns to at least some degree.
The sheer convenience and portability of the tablet form factor makes the proposition of a tablet/notebook hybrid attractive, which is perhaps why these types of accessories for the iPad continue to thrive. The device that comes closest to making the hybrid dream a reality is the Microsoft Surface, which I have spent some time dabbling with over the past 12-18 months. However, as we know, the Surface has never really taken off, with my theory being that it represents neither the best tablet that you can buy nor the best notebook that you can buy. To date, Apple believes that because of the difficulties of making the perfect hybrid mashup of tablet and notebook, it is perhaps best that the two devices remain distinct. This could also help to explain why Apple itself has not released a keyboard folio for the iPad as the user experience is not equivalent to a full notebook experience.
So where does that leave the experience of using combining the Logitech Keyboard Folio for iPad Air with Microsoft's Office for iPad? As a first up attempt at a touch-first version of Office for any platform, Microsoft has made a very solid entry with Office for iPad. At this stage, the suite includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote which are underpinned by Microsoft's OneDrive cloud platform. The advantage of this is that you can now get work done on your iPad and pick up with where you left off at work and vice versa as long as you have an Internet connection. However, you can also download and work on documents natively on the iPad as well, or merge documents at a later time. Office for iPad plays nicely with Office for Mac and Office for Windows, and while each app is a cut-down version of its desktop equivalent, each goes a long way to making the iPad a much better proposition for Office-style productivity than ever.
However, as with my previous experience with Logitech's iPad keyboard folios, as beautifully designed as the latest models are, they are still a substantial compromise in terms of comfort over a full-size keyboard. The Surface is a better proposition in this regard as productivity tablet, even if people still have wider issues and concerns with the Windows 8/8.1 user interface. The Surface TypeCovers 1,2, and 3 are all more comfortable to type on than the Logitech keyboard thanks largely to the wider footprint of the Surface. The iPad, however, offers a brilliant overall tablet and app experience that the Surface can't match and has gained widespread acceptance in enterprise with 98 percent of the companies listed in the Fortune 500 adopting it for use in the workplace. The Apple-IBM deal only serves to reinforce this dominant position.
A better proposition for getting Office-style productivity done on the iPad Air could be to pair it with the Apple Wireless Keyboard and the Incase Origami Workstation, a combination that helps to overcome the issue of a cramped typing experience; although it does not offer the level of integration offered by the Logitech Keyboard Folio. While my intention in this piece was not to make an emphasis of the comparisons between the iPad Air and any of the Surface models, one other distinct advantage that the Surface line offers over the iPad from a tablet Office-style productivity perspective is the split screen view that arrived in the 8.1 update. It is often the case that Office-style productivity demands at least two windows with documents presented side-by-side. However, developers have found code in iOS 8 due this fall that suggests that Apple will also add split screen multitasking in the near future.
Of course, not all tablet apps that help with productivity in the workplace (office-based or in the field) require heavy data entry. There are dozens upon dozens of apps that help people get things done where the built-in iPad software keyboard, or touch input generally, coupled with the mobility benefits of the iPad that make it an ideal choice. The iPad Air is a highly versatile device that continues to confound its detractors who once panned it as being 'just a bigger version of the iPhone.' As Apple and others have repeatedly demonstrated, the larger canvas offered by the iPad means that even though it is running a mobile operating system, it is has found a purpose in many different aspects of people's lives, not least of which is helping people to get more things done with it than some thought likely.
So does iPad Air + Logtitech Keyboard Folio (or equivalent) + Office for iPad = Productivity? Yes, but only up to a certain point. Which is where iOS 8 + OS X Yosemite (Continuity/Handoff) + Mac rounds out the full productivity equation. Who else is starting to see the massive strategic potential in Apple's deal with IBM in driving both iPad and Mac sales?
By Sanjiv Sathiah