iOS first - The Pros and Cons

Let's not make this a philosophical discussion. This article is about my personal productivity and whether it’s possible for me to go forward with fewer devices in my life. Your own needs may vary.

Considering alternatives to existing modes of operation is a good practice for anyone from time to time. I believe that a little „thinking outside of the box“ when it comes to how you get your work done can help you refocus and get down to what really is essential.

The question that has been bothering me for a while now, is where exactly I stand in between OS X and iOS. I have a lot of devices in my life. Too many, in fact. I have an iPhone 6s Plus and an iPad Air. I also have a 13 inch MacBook Pro. I am increasingly wondering whether it’s really necessary to maintain all of them in my setup. 

There is an increasing redundancy in terms of functionality between iOS devices and the Mac. Nowadays, it’s possible to do a lot of things that have once been considered Mac-only tasks on an iPhone. But has the mere possibility of working on iOS made it compelling enough to jump ship entirely from OS X?

Where I stand

I have been a Mac user only after I got my first iPhone. The Mac replaced the PC for me and I never regretted switching to an Apple-centric ecosystem.

In my personal work environment, I prefer simple solutions over complex systems. I like to get my work done swiftly and smoothly without worrying too much about system maintenance. Instead of digging into the wiring, I prefer hardware and software that gets out of the way. 

There is always some overhead to shed or some friction to reduce and that’s what I am after.

The particulars

There are a few aspects about my work that are potentially different from yours:

  • My day job as a doctor on an intensive care unit does not directly depend on my digital devices, at least for the largest part of it. Luckily, I hardly get any work-related email throughout the day.
  • Most tasks that I use my devices for fall into one of these categories: writing, reading, research, communication, task management, photo management and health tracking. I only sparsely use my devices for entertainment purposes (podcasts excluded).
  • I prefer to do my work in a non-stationary manner. I like to get up from my desk and change my location while I’m working. I also dictate quite a bit.
  • I don't have to fumble with large datasets or big files in my work. I predominantly work with text documents and images that can easily be handled across different platforms. 
  • I have moved most of my media into the cloud. I prefer not to have stored movies or music on hard drives.
  • I really don't need a lot of parallel processing power for the majority of my work. Batch editing of image files is one of the few examples of processor-heavy tasks in my workflow. 
  • I use very few external hardware alongside my devices. I try to cut as many cables as possible.
  • I prefer single-tasking over multi-tasking any day. Split View on iOS and it's counterpart in OS X El Captain is as much as I can handle efficiently.1
  • Folders and a complex file system structure have somehow never worked for me. I have a dyslexic problem when it comes to naming or tagging files in a consistent manner. I am instinctively drawn towards systems that handle the organizing part for me without much of my doing.2

Where iOS shines

Getting work done on my iPhone and my iPad tickles a spot that working on a traditional computer somehow doesn't. I just love the immediacy that iOS brings to the table:

  • My iPhone is always with me.
  • iOS is blazingly fast.
  • iOS is always on and ready to go without boot-up times.
  • When compared to my Macbook Pro, my iOS devices are ultralight and portable.
  • I never worry about battery life when I'm working from an iOS device.3
  • The iPhone is my main camera. Taking a picture, processing it and sharing it can be done at a breeze from iOS.
  • The iPhone and the iPad have Siri and dictation built in.
  • I don't get distracted as easily on iOS as I do on OS X.
  • I prefer a touch screen and voice input over a mouse and a keyboard any day.

Do I really need a Mac?

As much as I enjoy working on a Mac, I am asking myself whether I truly need one as part of my setup. 

Does my mere affection for OS X as an operating system blur my critical view on the matter?

To a large extend I am using my MacBook because I just happen to likeit. Everyday, the simple circumstance of affection for OS X and the Mac lets me neglect a large part of the overhead that comes along with keeping them within my system.

What about synchronization between the Mac and iOS devices? Isn’t a case to be made for an integrated system in which OS X and iOS complement each other? Doesn't each device have its own place without being contested by the other, after all?

iOS has become more capable over the years in terms of functionality. Today, it is less clumsy and more straightforward to work from an iOS device. Especially when you are a writer, a blogger or a photographer, the addition of a Mac into your system can make your work more complicated than it has to be.

In fact, almost everybody is iOS first these days, anyway. Everybody has an iPhone and everybody depends on it. Communication happens primarily via iOS and I don't see this ever changing. 

While you could imagine working without a Mac, you just couldn't without an iPhone. 

I have never used OS X „stock“, meaning „as is“ out of the box. Over the years of working on OS X, I have nourished a certain dependency on a whole bouquet of „maintenance and functionality“ apps like Bartender, Launchbar, TripMode, Yoink, Hazel and many others. Somehow, my list of apps like these keeps on growing. 

On iOS, with the increased functionality of the Share Sheet, Continuity and Document Providers, I have settled more firmly with only a few staples that make my workflows possible.4

On OS X, you are well advised to equip yourself with a net of backup infrastructure from online services like Backblaze to local backup options like Carbon Copy Cloner and external hard drives. This can be largley omitted by going iOS-only where iCloud and Dropbox form the backbone of my backup infrastructure.

The money argument

Frankly, the Mac is an expensive platform, quite more so than iOS. 

Apple’s upgrade cycles of Macs are relatively short and I find it’s not sustainable to always be on the latest and greatest Mac hardware - at least for my wallet.5

Everything from apps to accessories comes at a considerably higher cost when built for the Mac and OS X than for iOS. I am always willing to pay for great software and I love to support my favorite developers. However, if you keep the whole suite of Apple devices including an iPhone, an iPad and a Mac, the investment in maintenance and upgrades can grow out of hand, especially as there is no universal software running on iOS and OS X. 

Buying a Mac will take a heavy toll on your wallet over time. Does the supposed added convenience of the Mac over going iOS-only justify its price tag? If iOS can get you pretty far already in terms of productivity - essentially turning the Mac from a necessity to a nice-to-have gadget - why then pay this premium for OS X?

The case for the Mac

With all that said, shouldn’t I just go ahead and dive into an iOS-only work setup? What’s holding me back?

I keep my remaining ties with OS X primarily for the great work of indy Mac developers. Over the years, I have fallen in love with a few Mac-only apps. One example is the great Deckset which lets you build slides from Markdown. Other favorites of mine are Marked 2 by Brett Terpstra or the Macphun suite of photo editing apps including Tonality. I am „bought into“ these apps and I can hardly imagine leaving them behind.

However, I find it hard to justify the Mac as part of my setup for the sake of individual apps only.

Then there are aspects of my work that I haven’t been able to answer comprehensively in favor of an iOS-only setup. I haven’t fully replicated these workflows that I use on my Mac on my iPad, yet.

  • Scientific writing: Scientific writing and especially scientific citations are broken in general. The fundamental flaws, however, affect iOS worse than OS X. Most of my academic work I therefore still do on the Mac. Here, I rely on a chain of commands that link Papers for Mac (my research tool of choice) with cite keys in Ulysses (my text editor of choice) and document formatting in MS Word (a program that I am forced to use and that I would never purposefully choose as a tool by myself).6 On iOS, I haven't found a way to seamlessly cite scientific articles for peer-reviewed publications, yet.
  • Presentations: Presentations play a big role in my academic day job as well as in my side business as a nutrition coach. For building slides, I have left Keynote and PowerPoint a long time ago. These days, I build my presentations in Deckset using Markdown. The syntax of Deckset has become second nature to me. The design themes offered are great and I love that I don’t have to drag around text fields or resize fonts. However, Deckset is Mac-only and I haven’t found anything comparable on iOS, yet. More so, all my past presentations written in Deckset won’t be compatible with any future app, as I am using annotations for the presenter’s mode in Deckset heavily. I guess I have to live with exported PDFs from my old slides going foward.
  • Money management: I have written in the past about how I use YNAB to keep a budget. YNAB has helped me build a financial safety net and checking my balance no longer is a pain now. The company has recently updated their product to Version 5 which is more cloud-based. However, it is still tied to a desktop computer for the main budgetting work. The iOS apps still function as mere companions to the browser version and don’t include the whole functionality of YNAB on the desktop. I hope these priorities change in the future.
  • Doing taxes: So far, doing taxes has been a stronghold for my Mac. To me, it involves the combination of a tax software, Evernote and multiple overlaying windows. However, I have recently quit Evernote as my digital reference system (and you should do so, too).7 Further, I dislike working with multiple windows. From this year on, I have fundamentally changed the structure of my paperless office and my tax declaration in 2016 will probably be done on iOS. At least, that’s my plan.

Don’t look back

Moving over to an iOS-only setup is a daunting and in many facets a complicated process. However, I feel like this process has already begun for me. As unsettling as the premises of future iOS look like to someone who is caught in between iOS devices and the Mac, I will have to make a bet on the path I take.

Most likely, I won’t be turning back. 

  1. Most people trick themselves into believing they are multitaskers while, in fact, they are not. Also, I find that working with multiple overlaying windows is a hindrance to focussed work. ↩︎
  2. I am more of a gatherer than a hunter in file management, i.e. I am someone who uses the search bar lot. ↩︎
  3. How far away is the next wall outlet really in your life? It’s something else on the road, though. However, carrying an external battery for an iOS device is way simpler than having to bring the charger for a MacBook. ↩︎
  4. The apps that are the fundation of my workflows on iOS are Drafts, Workflow and Copied. ↩︎
  5. To me, neither Macs nor iOS devices age particularly well. I tend to upgrade my devices on a about yearly basis as I want to make the most of the technological advancements. I just can’t justify this approach with the whole suite of Apple devices. ↩︎
  6. Unfortunately, citations with Papers aren't compatible with Apple’s Pages anymore. ↩︎
  7. Evernote is dying. It’s about time to think of a Plan B if your system still depends on it. ↩︎