The iPad and Other Media Tablets as Productivity Tools

It’s the gift-giving season and it’s likely some of you are thinking of giving someone or even yourself a mobile media tablet such as Apple’s iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab or Barnes & Noble’s NookColor. You may or may not be inspired by the fact that a growing number of bankers, executives, doctors and other professionals are getting such devices issued to them at work. However, can today’s media tablets help such employees be productive, or is there something missing — such as suitable stylus for those who find finger-based input onerous?

Thumbs Down for the Finger as Input Device

To facilitate enterprise use, I strongly believe that a mobile device needs stylus support, so I suggest waiting to see what 2011 brings. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very fond of both my Apple iPad and my NookColor (Android), and find touchscreens addictive. But for some mobile tasks, using a stylus is much more productive than a finger. As a long-time fan of Palm’s Vx PDA and the Treo 650, I found the stylus very useful. On the other hand, I’m not so enamored of the Palm Pre Plus due to the small screen and lack of a stylus. I find the device hard to use for my fingers, unfortunately making it a non-productive device at least for me. Now imagine having to either enter a lot of data on a mobile app, or select from a large number of options. Certain professions require this. Now imagine doing it every day. For example, when a colleague asked me to create two medical diagnostics apps for the iPhone and iPad for hospitals, I thought about how onerous these would be for daily use without a stylus. Another colleague discussed a simple image manipulation app for the iPhone, but if you’ve ever tried cropping a photo with your finger, you know how awkward that can get. Can you imagine the awkwardness of tasks such as signing digital documents, or worse, take notes with your finger? Note-taking, in my opinion, will become a very common activity on media tablets, if stylus support is included.

What’s Coming

It’s a fact that 2011 will bring a whole slew of media tablets for most or all of the top mobile operating systems, and stylus support would be nice for those who feel the finger is just not an accurate data input tool for the enterprise, or even for personal creative use. Never mind the fact that a stylus can have a finite number of predefined pressure or capacitive settings as necessary, unlike a finger. A stylus also doesn’t get tired like a finger, after hours of use, day in and day out. At the moment, there are a number of stylus makers out there. I’ve personally only researched them for the iPad. What I’ve found so far might suffice for simple uses, but I haven’t seen a for-iPad stylus yet that seems precise (pointy) enough for notetaking or drawing/ diagramming. An informal poll of tech-savvy people I know who have iPads or Android tablets suggests that they’d all like to use the devices for notetaking, and I don’t imagine that’d be much different for all the professionals being issued tablets by employers.

Thumbs Up for the Stylus as Productivity Accessory

As a productivity techniques evangelist, I’m a long-time fan of mind maps-based diagramming — something I just don’t relish doing with my finger on media tablet. But as soon as a viable stylus is available, I may never diagram or write on paper again. What’s missing, at least in the iPad arena, is a stylus sanctioned by Apple, unless I’ve taken a Rumpelstiltskin-like snooze and missed some important news. On the other hand, as mentioned in a recent All Things Digital article, a number of stylus makers are trying to persuade Android handset makers into supporting stylus-based touchscreen input. If Apple does not offer their own stylus solution with the next generation of iPads (rumored to be shipping in Feb 2011), or at least sanction a third-party stylus for the iPad before the end of H1 2011, Android tablets could potentially offer a huge advantage for enterprise use. As well, a stylus would open up the possibility of creative tasks on media tablets. For example, photo cropping or drawing, or the aforementioned mind mapping and diagramming. Combined with the popular Swype method of text input (over the virtual mobile keyboard), a stylus could be just the accessory to turn a media tablet from the expensive toy it’s sometimes perceived as, collectively, to a high-productivity tool. Expectations of Apple’s iPad outselling every other media tablet out there in 2011 may not come to pass if private and business users show that they want precision stylus support. So if you’re undecided about which media tablet to purchase, you might want to skip Xmas, skip Boxing Day sales and wait until Q1 or Q2 2011, to see if any of the upcoming mobile devices have serious stylus support. On the other hand, if you just want to play popular games such as Angry Birds or Infinity Blade, there’s something to be said for the addictive factor of using your fingers.