Reviews

But can it replace paper? iPad in business

But can it replace paper? iPad in business

iPad

Before the iPad came out, lots of people argued that it was just an underpowered net book that would be another Apple flop, rather like the Newton, or a marketing-only success powered by the willingness of the Apple fanbois [sic] to buy anything with the Apple logo on it. After all, wasn’t it just an oversized iPod Touch?

More than 3 million sales later, the iPad, with an associated boost to Mac sales, has propelled Apple to #3 computer manufacturer in the world. The argumentative continue to argue that it can’t replace a desktop and is reconciled to being an expensive toy for the selfish. However, in real life iPads are making their way into business.

Almost the first thing people ask me when they see my iPad in a meeting is “can it really replace paper?” 1 That’s my favourite question, because it was my main reason for buying it in the first place.

A little context. Every since I stepped into corporate life in the UK, I’ve been faced with swathes of attachments that have to be printed off before meetings. Most of the papers have no life beyond the meeting. This is not a public sector waste issue. It was exactly the same in the private sector, and it was exactly the same working for an arts organisation. It’s also the same for a host of voluntary organisations and charities I’ve been involved with. It is a facet of the wired age: the more we use our computers, the more we produce documents, and the only way we know how to use them is by printing them off.

Of course, most of us are gradually learning to read our emails on-screen, read PDFs on screen, and make as many notes as we can directly onto the computer. While we’re at our desks. Away from our desks, it’s a different matter. A laptop is fine for working on the train, and ok for working at home. But take one into a meeting, and the picture changes. Some companies have, of course, so embraced digocracy that all meeting rooms are equipped with specially designed tables to keep laptops out of sight but fully active, with good protocols for sharing data and switching from one laptop to another for the main screen. But this is unusual, and, the last time I was in such a meeting room, we mainly used paper and the person tasked with presenting struggled to get their laptop hooked up.

In a directors’ meeting, putting up a laptop is like putting up a barrier. People can’t tell whether you are looking at your documents, doing your emails, playing solitaire, or a mixture of all three. In a full Board meeting, putting up a laptop (unless you’re doing a presentation) is a gross breach of etiquette. In a one to one meeting, it’s just plain weird.

I used to use a PalmPilot — back in the days of the Palm V whose battery went on and on, and the form fitted neatly and simply into a jacket pocket. For some reason, the market dictated that Palms had to go into colour, become fatter like iPaqs, and have shorter and shorter battery life. Eventually I gave up.

The PalmPilot was great for taking notes, though it did annoy some people who assumed I was playing solitaire. But it was no good for reading documents. Just too small, and not widely compatible. For some reason the iPhone never bothered with handwriting recognition, which I’ve always felt was a missed opportunity. It’s great for reading emails and websites in corridors, and for quickly grabbing information, but if you use it in a meeting more generally people again believe you are doing email. Many boards ban mobile phones altogether. And rightly.

So, the iPad. The form is big enough to read documents. Use something like Penultimate 2, and you can write notes as you go. How good? Very good. I’ve been using the iPad for all meetings for which I’ve received electronic documents since the day it arrived. No-one has yet accused me of typing out my emails (lack of a physical keyboard a real boon for that), and, as people can see over your shoulder, they know you aren’t playing games. Unless you are of course, in which case you might as well take a Sudoku book into the meeting. But don’t expect to keep your job long in that case.

There are a few issues that seem like they might be troubling, but aren’t. And there are a couple of things that could do with resolving.

First off, battery life is really, really good. Unless you use a bluetooth keyboard, which drains it rather more quickly, the iPad really is good for ten hours. Long enough even for the most exhausting meetings. Second, glare from the screen is nowhere near the problem you might imagine. You can reposition the iPad as much as you like, and no-one really minds. If you keep moving a laptop, people ask if you’re alright.

On the down-side, Word compatibility is not 100%. The big issue is when people send you Word documents that have other documents embedded. The iPad can’t read these in Mail: it just replaces the embedded document with a file name. Not at all helpful. The result is that you have to manually save each of the files on a lap/desktop before hand and either email them to yourself or drag them across on something like Files HD. This is cumbersome and annoying. I’ve actually just had to ask the person who sends me these documents to send them as separate attachments. This isn’t really a big issue, as they are the only person I’ve ever met who does do this. But it’s nonetheless not full compatibility.

Also, if you’ve got documents in an older version of Apple’s own iWork, the iPad’s iWork won’t open them. That’s right. It happily imports Word, PowerPoint and Excel (though you can read these in Mail without importing them into anything else), but it insists you buy the up to date version of Apple’s own software if you want to read your iWork files.To me, that’s a bit cheap and un-Apple like. Never mind.

The other slight gripe is that if you shell out for the VGA adaptor, you discover that (just like the iPhone), it only displays from particular apps. YouTube, Keynote, probably a couple of others. But you can’t put up an email, a web-page, or (for example) an egg-timer. That’s a bit cheap, too.

All in all, I’ve worked out that I will save more than twice the cost of the iPad in the first year by not printing stuff out. I won’t gain all the benefit of that, as work won’t contribute to the iPad costs (and it shouldn’t). But I’ll certainly get a lot of benefit: even voluntary organisations that pay mileage would baulk at reimbursing for the cost of paper and toner.

Verdict: a Winner.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Just in case you are wondering, I still work for the NHS, and I bought the iPad myself. No public money went into the funding of this article
  2. best with one of those cheap spongy stylii that you can get for a couple of quid
A personal obsession: the Nikon 500mm Reflex

A personal obsession: the Nikon 500mm Reflex

Eyelashes

Eyelashes

The Nikon 500mm Reflex is my personal photographic obsession. I don’t know anyone else who owns one. I’ve never met anyone who owns one (though I’ve met several people who used to own one). They stopped making them years ago, and it’s easy to see why: they are murder to focus, murder to keep steady enough to shoot with, and it’s impossible to build one with auto-focus.
Perhaps I should explain a little, if you’re not a photographer. Or, if you like, you could just click on the pictures. Conventional lenses are made of a tube with one lens after the other, in decreasing size from the front to the back, which capture the light and focus it into the camera. In the old days, lenses were ‘prime’ lenses, which meant they had just one focal length, which governs the magnification. These days, most lenses you see around are zoom lenses, which vary their focal length. Zoom lenses are bigger than the comparable prime lenses, though the convenience usually cancels out the weight issue for most people. The longer the focal length (and therefore the greater the magnification), the physically longer the lens. Also, in order to get enough light through to auto-focus and take pictures in ordinary conditions, the larger the front lens. By the time you are at 200mm, your lens may well be 25cm long and 77mm at the front. At 300mm, your lens might well be a couple of feet long (note the change of units). At 500mm or 600mm you are dragging round a monster, which needs both hands to lift, comes in its own case, and costs as much as a small car.
Enter the reflecting, mirror or catadiatropic lens. Also known as the Newtonian lens. The mirror lens has a curved mirror instead of the main light gathering lens. The result is, at 500mm focal length, it’s only about 15cm long, although the barrel is quite fat — 9cm across, in fact. It’s incredibly light for its focal length. There are some compromises, though. You have a fixed aperture — typically f8. If you want a larger aperture, you have to have a fatter lens. If you want f2.8 (my astronomical telescope is an f2.8 500mm lens) then you’re getting back towards the size of a conventional lens. The other thing is, no autofocus. Autofocus works on light polarity, and a circular mirror completely messes this up. Actually, there is a way of autofocus without using polarity, but it isn’t as good, and nobody has ever bothered on a commercial production camera to implement it with a mirror lens. Just to be confusing, Nikon refer to their catadiatropic lenses as ‘reflex’, just to confuse you with ‘single lens reflex’ camera.
So, back to the 500mm Reflex. I used to have a 400 or 300mm mirror lens (I forget which) when I shot with manual focus Olympus OM1 cameras on film. Those were the days. After I moved over to digital, I spent almost a year trying to track down a mirror lens on eBay at a price I could reasonably afford. Naturally, when one finally came along, three did.
The inital result was disastrous. In those days I was shooting on a Nikon D2X, a camera which used an APS-C or ‘DX’ size sensor. These are very common in digital SLR cameras, but they effectively multiply the focal length by 1.5 compared to traditional 35mm SLR cameras. On traditional 35mm, the rule of thumb is that you need to have a shutter speed of 1/the focal length. So, if your focal length was 500, you would want 1/500 as the shutter speed. That’s pretty fast. Multiplying the focal length up, you’d actually need 1/750, except cameras don’t do that, so you’re stuck with 1/1000. Remember that the aperture is f8? If you’re a photographer you have probably spotted that 1/1000 at f8 is going to require either a very high ISO (plenty of noise on a D2X) or huge swathes of light. If you’re not a photographer, take my word for it: it’s very hard to find enough light to do that. In the gallery below you can see a couple of shot from Caracas, inside the tropics, in spring. And even they were hard to get.
Eventually I moved onto a D3, which is a ‘full-frame’ (ie, the same as 35mm film) sensor, with an ISO that goes up to 6400 without much noise, or 25600 at a pinch. ISO 25600 means you can essentially shoot in near darkness with a normal lens. At ISO 3200, the 500mm is back in business.
Next problem, though. Old fashioned manual cameras have a number of refinements to help you focus. Matte screens and split focusing screens were standard for years and years. They’re hard to come by for auto-focus cameras, though. Even though the D3 has interchangeable focusing screen, I’ve yet to find a split screen available for it. Probably because nobody else is foolish enough to be trying to focus a 500mm Reflex lens with one.
So. Back to my obsession. When I shoot for work, I just pack whatever lens I need, and leave it at that. When I’m shooting for pleasure, though, very often my hand goes wandering to the 500mm Reflex. It has peculiar qualities that draw me to it. First the elusiveness — I know that two thirds of all  my pictures, no matter how hard I try to focus them, will be out of focus when I finally look at them at full resolution. Not a little bit soft, such as could be fixed with FocusMagic, but heart-breakingly out of focus. Then there’s the care required to get any shot at all. The D3 shoots at up to 11 frames a second. Unlike point-and-shoot cameras, there’s no wait between pressing the shutter release and the picture being taken. Its CAM 3500 autofocus motors whip most lenses into sharp focus in a fraction of a second. But not the 500mm Reflex. You cannot ‘spray and pray’ with this lens. Each shot must be carefully set up. And that’s the other thing. Don’t expect to stand somewhere nice and zoom the camera until the shot is nicely framed. The only way to change the framing is to walk. And, with a 500mm lens, you have to walk a long way before it changes much at all.
And there’s always the question of light. Even on ISO 6400, you still need a lot of light to get the 1/500 shutter speed required. Any less, and you’re really asking for trouble.
That’s the elusiveness of it. Some photographer gravitate to Holgas, with their weirdly uncorrected lenses. For me, I wrestle with the Reflex. But there’s also the peculiar optical qualities. First, the out of focus highlights. On a conventional lens, they are blurred discs, droplets of light. On a catadiatropic lens, they are small rings. Then there’s the differential focus. On most lenses, you never have quite enough differential focus, even with the aperture wide open. On a 500mm lens, there’s always almost too much. Things which are a centimetre apart ten metres away are differentially in and out of focus. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to focus the lens — it’s hard to even see whether it’s quite in focus, and even harder to adjust. And then there’s the extraordinary foreshortening and closeness of a really powerful optical system. Look at the shot at the top of this page. That was taken from about three metres away. The entire frame was filled with an eye, part of a nose, and eyelashes. If you can hold the camera steady enough, it focuses close in — down to 1.5 metres, which is way close on a lens so powerful. This is the lens used at the start of Crocodile Dundee II, when the soon to be dead journalist is photographing drug dealers from a mountain side. You can be a long, long way off, and everything is close.
Anyway, enough of my obsession. Have a look at the pictures. My database tells me I’ve taken 987 pictures with this lens. But that’s just the ones that made it back to the house. If you count the ones I deleted, it’s probably more like 3,000. Below are some of my favourites. Enjoy.