At the time of writing, there is quite of lot of uproar in the UK papers over Leicester City Council's planned £40,000 spend on furnishing their Councillors with iPads (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-10859748). Their claim is that they can save around £90,000 on the cost of managing the large amount of documentation they have to read and carry around with them. Presumably these claimed costs are to do with printing and so on. The counter argument of course is that their staff already have laptops and these are plenty good enough.
To be honest - I'm not too happy at the thought of public money being spent to furnish these people with iPads. I accept the for and against opinions on the merits of tablet computing - but what I don't understand is why they haven't chosen one of the business focused devices that have been on the market for the last 10 years!
Where they are correct is that the iPad is an excellent document reader. Out of the box, the email program will open the most common formats like Word documents and PDF files, the super sharp screen is easy to read and, being a tablet, you can read it like you would a book or a magazine.
If you have cause to read a lot of documents in your work or in general this could go some way to justifying a purchase, but of course there are compromises that must be breached.
Managing documentation is something that has become very easy on computers. There are myriad ways to move your files around and with USB memory sticks, the internet, recordable CDs and so on - getting to them wherever you are is cheap and readily accessible. With the iPad, things have taken a bit of a step back.
Your iPad is Synchronising . . . still synchronising . . . yep still going . . . zzzzz
The simplest way to move documents onto your iPad is via iTunes. Boot up your computer, load up iTunes, point it at your files and then connect the iPad.
Hmm. Reading that back, my iPad is starting to look like it needs me to use my computer a lot more often than I would like! Not to mention the fact that, even if I do it regularly, synchronising takes several minutes to do. If I were moving just a few documents, I could easily have read them on the computer by the time I'd moved them across! By now, iPad naysayers everywhere would be laughing heartily whilst turning back to their laptops.
Okay, so how to avoid having to connect the ipad to my computer every time? Well, the ipad has email, so I'll email it to myself! Well, this is advantageous in that it's quick and simple and I can pick it up on the ipad whenever I want! But email was never a good documentation management system, besides which, you'll now have more than one copy of everything. Managing your 'My Documents' on your computer and having to make sure you know you have the latest version in your email is going to become quite a headache! No, this is not a good solution for anything but the odd one or two documents here and there.
Step Up Dropbox!
So what we need is something that doesn't require the ipad to be physically connected to your computer every time, but that can access your documents library whenever and wherever without you having to plan in advance or manage multiple copies. Hello Dropbox! (www.dropbox.com)
Dropbox is an internet service company who provide synchronised storage for your files. The idea is that you install Dropbox on each of the devices (for example, your home computer(s)) and a 'My Dropbox' folder will be installed on each one. The 'My Dropbox' folder is exactly the same as your 'My Documents' and you can put files and folders in there the same way you would with any other. The big difference is that any file you put into that folder is instantly copied to your reserved space at Dropbox HQ and then copied on to any of your other computers that also have Dropbox installed and linked to your account.
If you have more than one computer, the advantages are obvious. Let's say you're writing a letter. You make a start at home, but then want to finish it on the train on the way to work. Rather than having to plan ahead and say, copy the file onto a USB stick, simply save it to 'My Dropbox' folder and then the moment your laptop connects to the internet, it will get a copy too! Any changes you make will remain synchronised between the two, so long as an internet connection is present.
This is only the start. As well as being able to access a copy of the document on each device you own, you can also get to your files from any web browser on any computer. Very handy if you need to get to a document from home on your work PC for example. One of the other big advantages, even if you ever installed Dropbox on one PC is that it acts like a backup. If your computer ever went wrong, you know your documents are safe. In fact, if your entire house burnt down taking all your computers with it - there is a copy at Dropbox HQ which is safe and well. Finally, there are shared folders where you can share documents with other dropbox users. Ideal for privately sharing documents, or photos with family members for example.
So, even for non-iPad owners this is a pretty essential service. Even better, for up to 2GB (many thousands of word documents) the service is free! Larger storage is available, but at a price.
For non-ipad owners, this is absolute Gold! Now, 'My Dropbox' has replaced 'My Documents' as the place where I put all of my files when I'm working at my PC. Without having to plan at all, I can use the 'Dropbox' app (free from the App Store) to read any of the documents I have anytime I want on my iPad! As most documents tend to be small in size, even over my 3G connection I can open and be reading a document in moments on the ipad without a computer in sight! One limitation of the free version, iPad users will need an internet connection to download a document for reading each time. In order to store them locally on the ipad, you need the paid version. Don't fret however, give the free version a try after reading this review and come back over the next week for my review of 'GoodReader', which may just take care of this!
There is no doubt that with Dropbox, the iPad is a real contender when it comes to a comfortable, convenient way to read electronic documentation. I won't do the math, but I expect some people who spend a lot on printing may find that this is a big step towards that elusive dream of the 'paperless office' and financial savings on printing that we've been promised for years now!
As always though, I have to speak of drawbacks. As far as I can see, there is only one. But it's a big one, particularly if you want to use this for work.
Physically, Dropbox give you space on their servers. You are trusting them to keep your files safe and secure. Certainly you must keep your username and password private as this is the weakest point of entry. Their systems will be as secure as banks, as their entire reputation rests on that trust. Unfortunately for us outside of the US, those servers that hold your files are located in the US. The US have very different laws when it comes to what you can and can't do with data. There are tough laws in the UK about data protection and you must consult your IT Department and possibly HR about what data belonging to work you would be allowed to put in there. Secondly, the US Government has the legal right to look at your data without having to file for any sort of court paperwork, or even provide a reason (Google the 'Patriot Act' if you want to learn more). Scary stuff! Not scary enough for me to stop storing general case study documentation, or my own documents telling me how to best install a piece of software, but definitely something to think about.
In summary, if you've read that last paragraph carefully and still feel comfortable - Dropbox is absolutely essential for any iPad owner who wants to get a bit more out of their shiny gadget than just playing games and watching videos.
Featured image used under 'Creative Commons' license. Thanks to mortsan.