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Prisoner of iTunes - the iPad file transfer horror

The conflict between consumption and productivity

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iTunes - walled garden or prison?

There are a couple of possibilities. Apple might - working on the basis that this is intended to be a mass-market consumer device - have thought that customers needed to be shielded from filenames and file systems just as much as file systems needed to be shielded from customers. If this is the case, those of us wanting to use the iPad as a business tool have come to the wrong place, because Apple is not going to help us.

Or maybe Apple just messed up - maybe it was focussing on the consumption device aspect, and didn't give adequate consideration to the productivity side. This seems to me to be at least possible, even understandable. There have been many unsuccessful productivity-focussed ultralight devices (I've used quite a few of them), and as Apple has demonstrated with iTunes, consumption is where the money is. But, if Apple isn't going to take iPad productivity seriously in the longer term, why is it selling iWork productivity apps for it? It seems to me that's grounds for hope.

The third possibility that occurs to me is that the iTunes walled garden has reached the end of its usefulness. It worked pretty well with the iPod, and although it initially seemed bizarre (and it's still annoying) that the iPhone came with brainless Bluetooth and no Wi-fi iTunes capability, iTunes still kind of worked. But the more non-entertainment, non-copyright stuff you're trying to move around, the less credible iTunes becomes as the way to move it. Yes, somebody owns this music and it's probably not you, so you can grasp why Apple won't let you sync your phone or your iPad with more than one computer at a time. But you took these photos and you wrote these documents, so why is Apple messing you around, routing you through iTunes and threatening to wipe them? That message, incidentally, is a particular fail if Apple's trying to shield novice users from scary stuff.

The difficulty here is that Apple's restrictive file transfer system is putting a brake on the ability of dual-purpose consumer/productivity devices like the iPhone and iPad to interact with other devices and computers. You can fiddle with the switches in iTunes in order to determine what syncs with what, which apps go with which device, but these are activities that have a lot in common with rearranging your CDs in alphabetical order, and they're certainly not about making life easier for you. Essentially, iTunes is over, and Apple surely knows that.

But consider the sunlit uplands, and the possibilities. Like the iPhone, the iPad has some syncing capability with Apple's MobileMe. Wouldn't it be handy if it were able, like a Mac can, to back itself up there as well? And to have its own version of Back to my Mac, so you could link to your home or office computer from any Internet connection? Wouldn't it be great if it could sit on a wireless network and share files with computers, just like you'd expect a great productivity device to do? Ah, but how does Apple do all of that stuff without knocking great holes in the iTunes DRM wall?

The solution is by no means straightforward, as this anonymous Android developer explains. With Android, the ability to back up and restore apps also gives users the ability to steal apps, so how does Apple give more access to the file system without trashing the marketplace it's built with iTunes?

Currently I understand the difficulties the company finds itself in, but I'm likely to get a lot less understanding if there's no sign of progress in the next update.

And despite the current restrictions, as I said at the outset, there's enough good about the iPad as a productivity tool to make it a keeper. The on-screen keyboard works fine, even if you turn off the click in meetings (which you should - otherwise people will hit you), it's fairly light, and it has reasonable battery life. I've gone for a 3 Pay as You Go MiFi unit rather than getting a 3G iPad, on the basis that I'm abroad frequently, and don't want to get hammered on international data roaming. I'll likely pick up the Verizon equivalent next time I'm in the San Francisco office, and see if I double up with a French SIM in the 3 MiFi unit for when I'm in France.

And will I carry it around instead of carrying the Air around? Actually, it seems to me I haven't got a lot of choice, as the combined weight is too great to be practical. So a machine at either end it is, with the iPad in the middle and the Air for trips. And we'll see how we do on those file transfers… ®

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