Road Work

ipad with keyboard

Above: Though a keyboard expands the iPad’s usability, it still can’t keep up with a laptop.

The annual planning committee meeting for the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL) was held March 4-6. About 30 people attended, representing institutions from the U.S. and Canada. It seemed like an opportune time to conduct a little iPad experiment. Could I get my work done using only an iPad? Just to be sure I wouldn’t cheat, I left the laptop at home which also saved me packing space and luggage weight.

The planning weekend involves an in-depth assessment of over 200 technical research papers submitted to JCDL. Since the conference is sponsored by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the committee has to maintain a high standard of scholarship, and it means we also have to keep the acceptance rate low. Every paper is evaluated by at least four peer reviewers, each providing a detailed assessment of the content, writing quality, validity of methodology, results, and overall value to the JCDL community. There are also submissions for posters and software demonstrations which go through the same rigorous review process.

By the time the committee meets in March, all of the reviews have been collected and the papers have been ranked by total score. Typically, only a few papers have significantly high or dramatically low scores; the vast majority fall somewhere in the middle. Since no more than a few dozen papers will be accepted, the main job of the committee is to figure out which of the many papers in the middle belong in this year’s conference proceedings. The decision is made on a paper-by-paper basis, with the scores and final decision tracked on a master spreadsheet.

It sounds like a perfect match for the iPad: All of the papers are submitted as PDFs using a specific ACM template (tiny print in two-column format, no more than 10 pages long, which equates to about 8,000 words). The iPad is a great PDF-reader tool, and I have several excellent apps that can annotate the content, expand, link, and more. In addition, I also have the iPad’s version of Excel spreadsheet software (“Numbers”), e-mail, 3G connectivity, wireless networking, and a decent browser (Safari, in this case). That’s about all I would need from a laptop, so theoretically, the iPad should suffice. As a crowning feature, I also had the ZAGGmate Bluetooth keyboard (see photo) which runs for weeks without needing a recharge and has a full set of keys, including arrow keys.

There’s theory and there’s reality. The reality was that the iPad fell short as a tool for that meeting. The spreadsheet did not convert from Excel to Numbers very well, and keeping up with the many column edits was impossible. Even switching to landscape mode on the iPad did not improve the readability of the spreadsheet. Keeping up with scoring was impossible. Another problem was the time to switch between applications. On a laptop, a simple cmd-tab (or ctl-tab on a PC) moves you instantly from application to application. For that matter, you can share the screen real-estate and have more than one app visible at a time. On the iPad, though, you have to push the dock button, select the app to switch to, and wait for it to resolve on the screen.

During the meeting, we switched quickly between the browser-view of the submissions list, the spreadsheet view of score summaries and weights, the browser for the individual reviews of each paper, and the PDF of the paper to look at specific details, images, or other features. The iPad just couldn’t keep up with such rapid context switching, particularly for different browser windows as we went from view to view.

After-hours and during travel, the iPad is a great solution. It’s a half-pound lighter than the laptop, even with the keyboard attached. The power dongle is really small, and the device doesn’t need charging very often. Having 3G on the iPad meant not paying for Internet access at all during the trip, so it saved money, too. I own a lot (a lot) of ebooks, and the iPad is a much better book-reader than the laptop. And of course there are the games – Pinball on the iPad is great fun, and a nice diversion when the tarmac delays accrue.

In case you were wondering, the rest of the attendees all brought their laptops, even though many of them own iPads. Some carried both on the trip, a phenomenon I saw several times as I waited in line at the security gates. At the meeting, I counted laptops and found that they were 50 percent Mac and 50 percent PC-based; no clear winner there.

The laptop would have made my work during the meetings easier and faster, but would not have been as useful during the actual travel portion of the trip. It looks like I’ll be a multi-device user for the next trip, but whether it will be laptop + iPad or laptop + Kindle remains to be seen.