The iPad is a strange animal—we don’t know where it fits, yet. Is it a laptop replacement? Is it an entertainment device? Can I do “real work” on it or is it merely a brobdingagian iPod Touch, a more colorful Kindle with better email and Web browsing?

Spiritual traditions associate the angle of the spine with the state of mind. We use the phrases “lean back” and “lean forward” to differentiate between “production” and “consumption” activities. When I write, I lean forward; when I watch The Fugitive, I lean back in my airline seat. Laptops are mostly lean forward devices, even if we watch the occasional movie on the road. Is the iPad a lean back device?
Apple’s ads for the new product, on TV and Silicon Valley billboards, depict lean back use with (insufferably clean-looking) models in lounge attitudes as they surf, flip pages, and select videos. And their posture doesn’t change when they tap their way through the iWork for iPad productivity suite. What, I’m supposed to do work while reclining like the models in the ads? It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation that illustrates the tablet PC’s uneasy positioning. If you don’t offer an office suite you’re pilloried: This product is useless! But if you deploy the obligatory word processor+spreadsheet+presentation triad your ergonomics/UI contradictions are exposed.

(The apps in the iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote--show great promise, which is a way to say that they’re imperfect. See last week’s comments on file sharing.)

Apple’s properly black microfiber iPad Case accessory valiantly struggles against the posture incongruity. It folds into a lectern and offers a better typing angle than when the device rests on your thighs:

The lectern works reasonably well in landscape mode, but shows its kludgy side when you rotate it to portrait. The raised top side becomes the left side, still raised. Ah well…

My occasional frustration with the iPad’s shortcomings is partly due to their contrast with the device’s shining qualities. For me, the half skeptic/half enthusiast, the charm hasn’t worn out after three weeks. The iPad is fast, the touch UI is very well executed, the battery lasts forever, and I can fly through “office tasks” such as pruning, reading and replying to email, or traversing the fifty or so blogs I follow on a daily basis.

When we turn to printing, however, we see another illustration of the iPad’s unsettled position. At home or in the office, I’m on a WiFi network that lets me see the printers on my PC or Mac. Windows 7 and OS X can find and connect to them quite easily so I’d expect to see my printers from my iPad, as well. But no. If I want to print from my iPad, the simplest solution—and trust me, I’ve tried many—is to email my file to a PC and print the attachment.

Just as on the iPhone, peripherals aren’t part of the picture. It’s part of the iPhone/iPad ethos: No peripherals, no need to get the right driver. Move right along, sir, nothing to drive here. But that hauteur hasn’t thwarted enterprising geeks. On the iPhone they came up with a number of file sharing and printing workarounds. I bought a few and wasn’t too impressed. On the iPad, I tried PrintCentral and Fax Print & Share Pro.

They both try to bridge the device’s limitations but, in my certified klutz experience, they create more problems than they solve. Network connections break, documents don’t print or else print gibberish, to say nothing of instructions such as “Enter your iPad’s address on computer:” Right…so much for simplifying computing.

PrintCentral asks you to install a software module (WePrint Server) on your PC or Mac so it can take your iPad document and print it “normally”. And so it does, if you can manage your way through a forest of menus and settings. On the other hand, PrintCentral does provide file sharing. I can download a file from a server (I tried both Word and Pages files), open it in one of the applications the iPad supports, and then edit and save it. This is in contrast with the iPad’s native file sharing where I can click—pardon—tap on a document residing in (remote) file server, such as iDisk, and view its contents, but nothing more. Better than nothing but not good enough for production purposes.

The other app I tried, Fax Print & Share Pro (beware of longish names on anything, cars, banking services, software) is even more ambitious. It purports to print directly to my Brother 2170W wireless networked printer, but no deal—it prints gibberish, even if I carefully re-install it (I’ve been trained on 12 years of Windows) and select the recommended “IP Printing” variant.
(As a side note, I’m partial to Brother printers. They’re made by a Japanese sewing machine company, thus the delicate mechanics of moving paper inside the beast tend to work. Further, they don’t insist on installing hundreds of megabytes of self-serving crapware on my machines, and the drivers are updated nicely via Apple’s Software Update channel.)
The Fax part of Fax Print & Share Pro comes with four free fax transmissions. I used up three of them trying to get it to work. On the first try, it faxed the cover page but not the document. Second attempt: No cover page and the app told me that the file couldn’t be faxed. Finally, I tried a simpler .rtf document. It worked, but the impression had been made. Third time wasn’t a charm.
I haven’t tried the app’s Fedex Online Printing module. Click on the link and you’ll see that “strange” file formats aren’t supported. As we say in America: Some restrictions may apply.

The diversity of supported and unsupported file types gets us back to the driver problem, one that bedevils normal humans—and could $$pell an opportunity for Apple and others. The printer driver converts your file’s contents—what you see on the screen—into instructions that the printer understands. The problem is that files are built in a bewildering but necessary variety of ways, and there’s no real standardization in printing.
When you see a printer on the network and say Print, the document ought to print. It’s almost as simple as that on a personal computer, even if the chain is sometimes fragile and a link breaks. The iPad isn’t there yet, but if I can see a network printer on the device, “driverless” printing for The Rest of Us can’t be too far behind. I’m not assuming the iPad will ever offer all the printing capabilities that we “enjoy” on a PC/Mac—that would ruin the simple (too simple, some say) iPad user experience. However, I believe the day isn’t too far off when I’ll be able to open and save a document from/to MobileMe’s iDisk without a third party app. (Today’s iDisk app works on the iPad, although it’s still the small screen iPhone version.)
The next step for Apple or an enterprising developer would be to take my file, convert it somewhere in the cloud, and then send it to my printer without asking me to deal with the plumbing. It’s more complicated than I make it sound but, as the PrintCentral example shows, we’re already doing it locally. Replace my local PC acting as an intermediary between my iPad and my printer with a remote server and we have direct printing. Present tense used with poetic license.

As for the iPad’s louche identity, nothing that a couple of million units won’t make taxonomically correct.

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