Working in Paris & London with only an iPad

For the past couple of months I’ve been travelling from London via Eurostar to meet with a client in Paris. I travel on a Monday, have a couple of hours of meetings and then the next day spend the morning and early afternoon working from the client’s office. Later in the afternoon I dash back to the Gare du Nord and return home to London.

At first I lugged along the standard-issue work laptop, a low-end Dell, but the 2.5 hour battery life and the paucity of power points on the Eurostar prevented me from making the most of the journey. I am a consultant and project-related activity fully saturates my working day. I simply cannot afford to be out of touch for hours and hours. For nearly all of my working life I’ve used Mac’s, so I decided to purchase a new iPad to keep everything flowing whilst I am hurtling along under the Channel or beneath Paris on the Métro.

Very quickly the iPad became my indispensable tool. This is going to sound a wee bit like something David Sparks might write, but here’s how I keep myself on track and in touch whilst wandering around the world.

The first thing I did was purchase a Zaggfolio Keyboard Case. Although the iPad soft-keyboard is surprisingly comfortable to use for short e-mails, I write at least a thousand words a day of specifications, instructions, random musings and the like, so a physical keyboard was essential. The battery life is amazing, though it would be nice if it was a wee bit more sturdy. The plastic just feels a bit budget on this premium-priced product.

So now that I can type more words than anyone ever would want to read, how do I keep everything together? Perhaps it’s my geek background on a Macintosh for so many years, but I am keenly aware of different file formats and flowing data from one application to another and from device to device. The only sane way to store notes is as plain text and then to flow the text out as needed. This keeps application specific cruft from doing crazy things later downstream (ah, the pleasures of Microsoft Word).

I haven’t explored the newer Markdown-enabled editors like Byword, but I have used Simplenote now for several years. The web editor is straightforward and stable and the iOS app, after a rough patch resulting in a draft not syncing properly, now works smoothly as I hop from 3G to Wi-Fi to being connectionless.

So I take exceedingly detailed notes in Simplenote and then often post those notes to Basecamp. The only frustration with this workflow that Basecamp isn’t particularly iOS-friendly. There’s no native app and the in-browser text editor doesn’t allow rich text formatting via mobile Safari.

I also use Good to access my work Exchange e-mail when offline. The e-mail client is bare bones, but it suffices for plain text e-mails. One frustration is that one cannot delete the quoted portions of HTML/Rich Text messages when replying or forwarding – so the whole e-mail thread gets transmitted. It’s an irritating quirk. Good enables access to behind the firewall apps such as JIRA and this is where Good becomes unusable. JIRA is a terrific issue tracking and Agile project-tracking system (though I’m intrigued by Trello – looks more mobile-friendly), but the crippled browser in Good causes the app to hard crash at random times when updating JIRA tickets. Frustrating and unacceptable. Good strikes me as the sort of awful ransomware that has infected corporate IT systems for decades. There must be a better secure environment in which to use Exchange on iOS devices.

To keep non-sensitive project documents with me everywhere, I use Dropbox and edit them with Docs to Go. Dropbox’s file synchronisation is perfect and Docs to Go provides adequate MS Word and Excel editing capabilities. The main inconvenience with this workflow is the inability to attach files to e-mails and Basecamp messages. To overcome this, I simply insert links to the file on Dropbox and this is fine the majority of the time. It also reduces problems that occasionally arise with e-mail attachments.

If I need to quickly generate a wireframe, iMockups works well and I occasionally use iThoughts HD for simple workflow visualisations.

To chat, I use Skype on my iPhone and often employ it on my iPad as a simple conference phone. It works, though the option set seems limited compared with the functionality on OS X (though both are an improvement compared with the UI abomination of Skype on Windows 7 – ugh).

For generating project plans on the go I use OmniPlan for iPad, but I’m extremely disappointed that one can’t import/export MS Project files. The same lack of flexibility prevents me from using OmniOutliner, an indispensable app on OS X.

If I had to do more heavy presentation work or edit very complex MS Office documents on the go, I suspect I’d bring a 13″ MacBook Air along but, all in all, the always-connected new iPad with 3/4G allows me to roam away from the office and get things done in cramped spaces. The battery lasts comfortably all day on a single charge even when using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and the iPad still has enough juice for me to watch a film as I wind down at night in the hotel.

It’s essential to maintain flow when working on a project. At a moment’s notice, I need to gather together vital documents, designs and project plans and take them with me wherever I need to go – a café, home, on a train or in a boardroom. The iPad makes this possible and practically frictionless. Parfait.

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Working in Paris & London with only an iPad

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