My iPhone 5S is the most powerful computer I own

This kind of threw me for a loop. My A7-powered iPhone is the strongest, fastest computer currently in my possession. It not only easily outclasses my two A5-based iPads (an iPad 2 and first-gen mini), but it’s also more powerful than my Acer Chromebook or Windows laptop based on a 3-year-old AMD E-350 APU.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the decline of the iPad and tablets generally, that they’re not selling the way they used to. While I think this is mostly overblown, I will confess that I do a lot more with my phone than I do my tablets. Not only is the phone always with me, but thanks to the A7 it’s powerful enough to handle a lot of tasks I used to require a PC for, like photo editing (not painting, which still needs a bigger screen, but I don’t know how much bigger; I’d love to try Procreate on a 5.5″ iPhone).

For all intents and purposes, my iPhone is my “primary” computer. The iPads rarely leave the house, and the Chromebook is mostly used as an RDP terminal to remote into my always-powered and headless Windows laptop. They’re all special use computers, though. For most of my work, my iPhone is not only the right tool for the job, it’s the most powerful tool I have.

Do one thing well

It’s one of the fundamental adages of Unix programming. It’s better to do one thing well than many things badly. This is why traditional Unix programs tend to be small and focused on single tasks and get chained together into workflows. Awk does the pattern recognition, but Sed actually changes the text file.

While iOS is Unix under the hood, iOS apps are considerably more complex. But, it occurred to me, they don’t have to be  too complex. So I started looking at my phone (and tablet) to see where I was using apps that were a dessert topping and a floor wax but weren’t terribly good at either.

The biggest culprit was Evernote. I was using Evernote to do almost everything. It was my archival storage, journal, word processor, task list, shopping list, etc. I’ve been told to beware of “everything buckets” because they’re typically one-way black holes that data goes into and is never seen again. I can attest that this is true. Despite my best intentions, stuff I put into Evernote effectively disappeared until I searched specifically for it. It’s good for reference, but not skimming. 

So I decided to break out what I was using Evernote for into discrete applications that were specialists at what I wanted to do. 

Day One is my new journal and it works so much better. Journaling in Evernote was a chore I rarely got around to. Journaling in Day One is fun, and it’s easy to scan back over recent history to jog my memory.

Simplenote is my new notes app. When I need to jot something down or look something up, it’s just faster because it’s all plain text. No notebooks, less than a dozen tags. 

Dropbox is my filesystem. This was a close duel between Dropbox and Google Drive. Drive offers 10x the storage for the same price, and Google doesn’t have torture-proponent Condi Rice on their board of directors. But, ultimately I had to be practical. The apps I want to use support Dropbox and very few of them support Drive. If this should change, I may revist this. 

I update my blogs in Squarespace Blog. There’s no point in writing them somewhere else and copy/pasting them over. I just store half-finished work on Squarespace as unpublished drafts and edit them over time.

I keep bookmarks and read-later content in Pinboard, using Pinner on iOS. I decided on Pinboard because I was getting out of Evernote and Pocket isn’t really an archival/bookmarking service. Also, I really appreciate that Pinboard, unlike Pocket, has a discernable business model. I’m more than willing to pay for services I use if that keeps them around. 

I write fiction in Storyist. This was updated for iOS 7 recently and most of my complaints are no longer valid. Because it’s designed specifically for writing screenplays and manuscripts, it’s got all the features I couldn’t find in Pages, Word or Google Docs, and none of the cruft I don’t need. When the time comes to work with my editor, I can export from Storyist to Google Drive, but for drafting I’ll stick to a specialist app. (and yes, I’ll consider Scrivener if/when the iOS version ever comes out) 

I’ve also gone back to basics for a lot of functions where I used to use third party apps. I’ve gone back to Messages instead of third party messaging clients, the iOS Mail app instead of Gmail, Music and iTunes Radio instead of Spotify or Rdio, Safari instead of Chrome. I’m using Fantastical instead of the native Calendar and Reminders apps because there is a value to seeing my tasks and events on the same screen, but I’m not married to the idea. I’ve also ditched all my RSS readers and just read a “News” list on Twitter in Tweetbot with the same sources. 

How can you simplify your workflows? 

Not sure if want

We’ve seen a lot of cool stuff from Microsoft recently, first with the iPad Office announcement and then with the BUILD conference. New CEO Satya Nadella comes from Microsoft’s cloud division, and with him in charge and Ballmer gone, Microsoft looks like they might be serious about going from “a PC on every desk” to “Microsoft services on every device,” no matter who makes that device or what OS it runs.

So I started wondering. Could I be happy with Apple hardware, Apple media (aside from Kindle, because really, Apple, iBooks is embarrassing) and Microsoft services? I decided to find out.

Yesterday I signed up for a free month of Microsoft’s Office 365. This gives me the ability to edit data on documents in my Microsoft OneDrive via the iPhone, iPad and the web on my Chromebook. I have calendars, contacts, email and tasks via Outlook.com, and the tasks sync to my iOS devices, something Google Tasks doesn’t do.

So. How is it?

Meh.

The first thing I noticed is that Microsoft’s apps are maddeningly inconsistent. The iPhone version of Office (it’s not split into separate apps like the iPad’s Word, Excel and Powerpoint) has a nifty feature for viewing the “outline” of a document and jumping back and forth via headers. This is hella useful on a small screen and just the thing novelists need to quickly get to a particular chapter.

Word for iPad doesn’t do this. Neither does Word Online. So for the platforms where I’d be more likely to edit my manuscript, I’m stuck scrolling through an 80,000 word document. If I want to be able to jump around the document and type comfortably, I need to use the Windows or Mac versions of Word (which I can have on up to five computers).

But okay, maybe I can work around that. What about styles? As both an author-publisher myself and in my business formatting ebooks for others, styles are a must for formatting. Manually applying font styles or adding a discreet page break before chapter headings is something savages do.

The iPhone version doesn’t support styles at all. You can make text bold, italics or underlined, and you can change the text and background colors. But that’s it. The iPad version and the web version do support applying styles. And in opening a .docx file saved from Google Drive in Word Online, I found that the styles I actually wanted weren’t in the style chooser, crowded out instead by loser styles like “Heading 7” and “Intense Emphasis.” Seriously, who uses those? And oddly, there was no way to change this.

The iPad and web versions of Word don’t allow you to alter or remove styles in any way. The only way to get back to my beloved “Heading 1,” “Heading 2” and “Normal” was to — stop me if you’ve heard this one — open the file in Word for Windows and edit the styles there. Once I’d done that, the styles I wanted showed up just fine in Word for iPad and Word Online.

So currently, I’m still testing, but I have the sinking feeling that the New Microsoft is still more an idea than reality. Too often I’m sent running back to Windows to do any “real” work. I’m not saying the non-Windows versions of Word are afterthoughts, but they’re certainly not equal citizens, either. 

Next up: Microsoft’s OneNote vs Evernote.