“I suspect we’re seeing an early preview of what the future holds for carpentry: laser measures, automatic digital miter saw fences, Bluetooth, iPads . . . .” Gary Katz, THISisCarpentry, July 30, 2010
iPads? Really, Gary? I think that’s going a little too far. iPads are Apple products and Apple computers are for long-haired, tofu-eating, poetry-reading, and otherwise useless people who use them to design wine bottle labels, right? We meat-eating, boot-wearing, beer-drinking, hardworking types need real computers that can crunch numbers, run drafting programs and surf the web for—wait, it will come to me—yes, search the web for discounts on tools. Who needs an iPad, I say.
So, a few months ago, my brother Mike gave me an iPad in return for work I had done on his house. My first reaction was that I would have been happier with a case of Belgian ale. In fact, I gave it to my kids to play games on. Then one snowy night, out of boredom, I started playing with it. That’s when the light went on. This thing can do a lot more than show videos and play simple games. It can email, perform document management and data management, track expenses, and perform calculations.
With its handwriting recognition and emailing capabilities, I could see myself jotting down trim measurements on the third floor and instantly sending it to my cut man’s phone on the first floor. Then I looked at my brief case filled with catalogs, scribbled job notes, and receipts sticking out of every corner. My smart phone and laptop—those guys are getting benched. In only a week, the iPad found a very important place in my tool box.
The contraction of the local remodeling market has forced me to wear all of the administrative hats at the same time, as well as return to wearing my tool bag daily. This means that my office needs to be wherever I am. This tablet computer has really helped that happen. It has increased the efficiency of the administrative side of my business akin to the nail gun’s effect on the production side.
What is an iPad?
For anyone who’s been under a rock for the last few years, the iPad is the big brother of the iPhone—without the phone. Think of it as the missing link between smart phones and laptops.
The iPad is based on the same technology as the iPhone—commands are entered via a touchscreen.
The same iTunes program that you use to control and organize your iPod also controls and organizes the iPad.
The iPad comes in two versions, each with different levels of memory. The cheaper version has a wireless modem that allows it to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi networks. The other version has a 3G card, like the iPhone, that you can use whenever you’re not near a Wi-Fi network. And, like the iPhone, the iPad runs programs called “apps” (self-contained applications), which you download from Apple’s App Store.
iPad vs. a Computer
When I picked up the iPad for the first time, I was struck by its size and weight—10″ on the diagonal, only 1/2-inch thick, and 1.5 lbs. The iPad is very simple; it has no keyboard or mouse, and just four buttons—power, mute, volume, and a command/home key.
Then I turned it on. It came on instantly, like turning on a light. I love my laptop, but it takes forever to come out of hibernation. (I was also happy to learn that the iPad lasts up to 10 hours on a single charge.)
The iPad is menu- and icon-driven by way of a touchscreen. With the addition of a stylish pen (sold separately), the screen can be used as a note pad (see “Note Taking,” below). It understands my scribble and converts it into text. This makes it the perfect tool for taking notes on the job site—unlike my laptop, which is kind of awkward for taking notes while walking around.
For email and surfing the Web, the iPad is friendlier to use than my smart phone. I can actually read the text without a magnifying glass. And the touch screen makes it really easy to surf the Web.
But I had one major concern with the introduction of another computer device: how would I track information across multiple devices?
Now with four devices—a laptop, a desktop computer, a smart phone, and an iPad—avoiding duplication of information was critical to me. Every time I added a new contact to my phone, I did not want to also have to separately add it to my desktop, and then try to remember to sync that to the iPad.
Likewise, if I added an appointment on my iPad while in the field, how would I know if my wife had booked a different appointment on my desktop at home for the same time?
Then there is the problem of tracking documents. Say I start working on a proposal at night on my desktop. My wife might edit it in the morning on her laptop. And I might have to change it again in the field on the iPad. This could be a total train wreck with too many devices, each with their own version of the same documents. So, I decided to look for programs (apps) that I could use to share information across all of my devices. (Note: with the upcoming release of iCloud and iOS 5, syncing between devices will be even easier.)
Programs for the iPad
Email and Scheduling: Microsoft Exchange Server
Last summer, I changed my email delivery platform to a Microsoft Exchange server. Exchange provides instant synchronization of contacts, email, notes, tasks, and calendar across all of my devices—phone, both computers, and iPad. An appointment entered on my phone instantly appears on the desktop and laptop computers, as well as the iPad. New customer contact information entered into the office computer now appears in the laptop, phone, and iPad contact lists.
Setting up the Exchange account was a snap. I simply went to my Web host’s control-panel Web page and pressed a button to transfer my email to an exchange server. (They charge me an extra dollar a month for this, which is totally worth it.) The instructions on their Web site walked me through the settings that I needed to change on all of my devices. (See additional information on setting up the Exchange service on the iPad: http://blog.fosketts.net/guides/ipad-exchange-activesync/ ) What a great relief and time-saver it is to have all of my devices sharing the same e-mails, contacts, etc.
Task Management: TaskTask HD (Exchange Tasks)
The iPad doesn’t come pre-loaded with work tools. But the iTunes App Store has a wide array to choose from. And many are free. The first thing I needed was a “task” or “to do” program.
After some research, I settled on TaskTask HD ($4.99 in the App Store) for outlining and tracking all of my job tasks. Since this app integrates with the Exchange server, it syncs with all of my devices.
If you are like me, you know that a lot of time is spent each day making and managing lists—projects lists, project task lists, material lists, customer product selection lists, punch lists, pending estimates, etc. I even have a list of lists. My phone is great for viewing lists but is poor at creating or editing them, mostly because I can’t work on its tiny keyboard. On the other hand, my laptop is great at managing lists but not very convenient on the job. The iPad is perfect for doing all three—creating, editing, and viewing. And it’s always at-hand and amazingly responsive.
Sharing documents across your systems: Dropbox
To share documents across all my devices, and with suppliers and subcontractors, I downloaded Dropbox. With this free service you create a virtual password-protected folder that allows you to consolidate all of the files on all of your devices to one central “cloud” location, and each of your devices connects to this “cloud.” Anything added to a Dropbox folder on one device automatically appears in the Dropbox folder on your other devices. Essentially, with Dropbox, you’ll never lose or forget a folder again. Even if your phone dies, the same file will be available in your Dropbox folder on your computer or iPad in your truck, or your desktop at home. I’ve set up a folder for each of our active jobs. All documents—from estimates and plans to job notes and purchase orders—are kept in that folder. What a game-changer this application has been for me. When a question comes up, I no longer fumble for files, or try to remember if the document or drawing is on my laptop or desktop computer. And, it no longer matters on which device I last edited them, they are always available for viewing on whatever device I have at hand.
Document Management: neu.Annotate PDF and Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite for iPad
The next thing I decided to do was to download all my catalogs to the iPad. Since most catalogs, from hinges to molding, are available on the Internet in PDF, I went to the iTunes App Store to look for apps that would allow my iPad to view PDFs. Many of these are free. I selected neu.Annotate PDF which allows me to make notes on the documents. Now, I’m no longer lugging around a box of catalogs, or misplacing them. And the iPad is no heavier for all the catalogs it now contains. Adding new vendor catalogs, or updating existing ones, is as easy as a couple of quick taps on the iPad’s touchscreen.
The Quickoffice app ($14.99) allows me to view and edit Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PDFs. So, now I can perform word-processing and spreadsheet functions on my iPad. But, don’t expect the same level of functionality on the iPad that you have on your computer. For example, as of now, Quickoffice cannot work with Office 2010/2011 documents.
Over the years I have developed several types of take-off spreadsheets (and in most cases, by “developed” I mean “stole”—thanks, Gary). The spreadsheets were fine for sitting at a desk with a computer looking at plans. But today, a majority of the work I do is in existing residential homes, not new construction. This means take-offs have to happen on-site, walking room to room. A laptop does not do that well, and I found myself going back to the paper pad. The problem with paper is that it gets lost, and, quite frankly, sometimes I just can’t read my own writing. The whole reason we use forms is to remove error, so writing the information in a notebook and then re-entering it—sometimes days later—on the computer is counterproductive. The slim iPad is perfect for walking around with, for and working on forms.
At this point, my laptop is getting jealous.
Note Taking: WritePad
WritePad ($9.99) is a writing app that turns my iPad into a note pad. I can write directly on the screen with a stylus, or even my finger, and the app converts my handwriting to text (something which no human seems to be able to do). The text can be saved and emailed, or sent to Dropbox. It is so easy to pick up the iPad, jot down a note to a supplier, press a button, and off it goes. No more playing with the tiny screen on my phone or waiting for the laptop to boot up. This was the first program where I really went, “WOW.” This is the app I use to jot down those measurements for trim on the third floor and send to the cut man on the first floor.
There are a number of construction calculators designed for the iPad. Calculated Industries makes several of them. For $19.99 you can get the Construction Master Pro calculator. This calculator works just like the hand-held units we all rely on.
I tried several other construction specific calculators available for the iPad, but found them all clunky and confusing. I think I’ll stick with what I know.
cadtouch R3 ($19.99) is the current drafting program I’ve been using on the iPad. To be honest, the iPad is not that great when it comes to drawing anything other than doodles. When it comes to drafting I still prefer the power and interface of a full computer.
XpenseTracker ($4.99) is a great little application I use to track my receipts and job expenses. Let’s face it, even with the greatest of intentions, no one jumps into the truck and waits three minutes for their laptop to fire up just to enter the purchase of one sheet of plywood. Most of the time, that receipt goes in your pocket and through the wash, which means it’s never entered as a job cost (which means lost money). Now, I’ll jump in the truck, grab my iPad and enter the receipt, because that only takes seconds, not minutes.
When it comes to sales calls, the iPad is especially handy. First, it helps me get to the appointment. The iPad has a built-in GPS and map program that is a hell of a lot easier to use than the old 3×4 GPS that sat on the dashboard of my truck. Since the address and contact information is already in the iPad, I just tell it to take me there. No fumbling with the little GPS screen keyboard.
I used my Microsoft Publisher software to create several brochures of my work—kitchens and bathrooms, custom cabinets and millwork—and loaded all of them onto my iPad. I’ve also used that iPad on two recent customer presentations. The brochures are a great way to show off my work. If, at any time during the presentation, I want to show a specific photo on another project, I just navigate to the catalog on my iPad containing all of the project photos I’ve ever taken.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, the iPad contains all my product catalogs. Now, instead of sitting at the homeowner’s table with a bunch of paper catalogs and photo binders spread all over the place, my presentation is neat and clean. I also think the iPad has helped me appear both organized and professional.
We’re just beginning to touch on the functionality of the iPad. I’ve read that a thousand iPad apps are added to the iTunes App Store every day. Surely, more construction-specific programs will be developed for it. Here are my top picks for future iPad apps: I would love to see Intuit really beef-up their on-line “cloud” version of Quickbooks and make it worth the price. Then I could enter my expenses and checks on the iPad and have them sync to Quickbooks. I would also like to see suppliers make virtual catalogs and pricing systems geared towards the iPad format. PDF catalogs are okay, but they could be better.
I predict that, as cloud computing systems continue to develop and expand, the iPad and its like will become the main form of computing.
For a new tool to make it into my tool box, I have a few requirements. It must either perform a function that no other tool can do, or it must perform that function better than any other tool. It must make me more productive, and the increased productivity must justify its cost. I prefer my tools to be multi-taskers; I don’t like single-taskers.
The iPad surpasses all these requirements. Although many of its functions can be performed by my laptop or cell phone, neither can perform these functions as well. The iPad has replaced my binder of catalogs, reference books, calculator, and piles of scrap notes. It has almost replaced my laptop on the job site. If it saves you just two hours a week in organizing and tracking down misplaced information, the iPad will pay for itself in just a few short months.
But it is not just for construction. On long trips the kids use it in the back of the car to watch movies. Recently, my friend used his iPad with a marine app that has a GPS chart program to sail his boat from the Chesapeake to Atlantic City. And for the golfers out there, try the golf course GPS program—guaranteed to take a few strokes off your game. The list goes on.
This iPad has made me see the light; I’ve drunk its elixir and am a devoted fan. Now, I’m off to have some tofu ice cream and read Billy Collins’s latest collection of poems on my iPad’s iBooks app.