πŸŽ™οΈπŸ–‹οΈ Siri and the keyboard

How the iPhone+AirPods leapfrog the iPad

February 1, 2020
productivity , iOS

The iPad just turned ten. And the birthday cards are pretty sad. In the last week, everyone from Ben Thompson in Stratechery to Dieter Bohn in The Verge to John Gruber in Daring Fireball celebrated the iPad’s first decade by mostly lamenting its failure to find a market-defining fit.

I’m probably always going to need a laptop for at least part of my job. And, when given the option, I’ll grab the laptop when I need to solve a problem. Using an iPad for real work feels like playing basketball in loafers. You can sorta do it, but you’re making it harder on yourself than it needs to be.

So when I think about the iPad, a beautiful device that my consumerist-evolved brain constantly envies, I tend to ask myself:

What problem does this solve that my phone or computer does not?

The obvious answer tends to be “portable streaming and basic email”. It’s definitely more portable than my laptop. Weighing roughly 1 lb, it’s 33% as heavy as my MacBook Pro.

But I’m almost always going to need to have my laptop around, which means the iPad doesn’t really replace something. It just adds 1 pound.

Until I start thinking about typing. The reason an iPad almost solves a new problem is that solves the input bottleneck in iOS with its screen and keyboard.

I don’t have my iCloud account or other personal apps on the corporate laptop I use every day. So when I want to respond to friends and family back in the US on iMessage, start a new note, plan out a to-do list, I turn to my iPhone. And I hate typing on my iPhone, so I wind up thinking “well, this would be where an iPad fits.” Especially because that would also be easier to use than running to grab and open up a personal laptop.

But it’s not actually the iPad that I’m looking to use. What I really want is to create content on a device that is as portable as the iPhone and with the apps and accounts that I use on iOS. And the AirPods Pro might finally solve that. The iPhone+AirPods, not the iPad, could cover the middle ground between smart phone and laptop by solving the input problem.

What is the actual problem with my iPhone?

The iOS keyboard is better than the absence of a keyboard but it sets an effective rate limit on my ability to communicate. Some people in my life might prefer that, but it frustrates me. I lose patience after about 20 words.

I have even connected bluetooth keyboards to my iPhone before, but that somehow makes things worse. Without the ability to navigate with keyboard shortcuts, I find myself awkwardly fumbling between keyboard and phone screen in a way that happens less often on the iPad. I also don’t want to lug around a keyboard just for that purpose.

Siri is for drafting and responding

iOS ships with an alternate, always-onboard, input system: Siri. More specifically, the dictation feature in Siri. I’m not going to spend any time here talking about the value of Siri as a personal assistant, but instead focus on a single UI button that changes how I interact with my phone to solve the typing problem.

In the keyboard drawer, bottom right, is a microphone icon. Without having to announce to the world “Hey Siri,” I can instead just tap it and it will begin converting what I’m saying into text.

This solves my very superficial issue responding to messages on my phone. This feature also lets me communicate in long-form on my iPhone without growing disappointed at how fast my thumbs can type.

This breaks down when using punctuation or making edits. Dictation flows in one direction. So I’ve started to use this more for first drafts of things or places where I’m not concerned about the presentation (quick text messages).

Why do AirPods Pro change this?

They introduce a new input device that you probably always have with you.

πŸ™„ I really, really hate that the naming convention for the AirPods Pro product is to pluralize AirPods. I’m going to stick with it here, but it feels so goddamn awkward.

This feature has been around for a few years, but a different product changed my mind about using it. I have the AirPods Pro and I like them quite a bit. The portability is great, the noise canceling makes it possible to watch movies on the bike at the gym, and they integrate well with the phone. Are there better noise canceling and wireless headphones out there? Probably, but I’d have to do the research. I’m just bought into the ecosystem at this point and like these a lot.

The AirPods solve one last hurdle in just using the phone for dictation. When talking to the phone directly, I need to raise it to speak, then lower it to review, then maybe raise again. Minor nuisance, but one that makes it feel not like an input device and more like a turn-based game.

If I can’t see the screen, then Siri really hasn’t replaced the keyboard for me. AirPods close that gap and, unlike bluetooth keyboards, I generally always have them on me. Especially when I’m mobile and not in a place to break out a device with a physical keyboard.

Does this make me look like a crazy person in Portugal?

Yeah. Probably.

I try to only do this in public when it’s one-off responses. For example, if someone texts me while I’m on my 30-minute morning commute or walking the dog in a place that isn’t crowded.

If done with reckless abandon, this believe that the AirPods are the default input device of the future makes is such a bad idea. That world looks like a hellish nightmare where everyone is walking about, talking to themselves, with noise-cancelling headphones blocking out the external soundscape.

What’s next?

The AirPods eat the Watch.

I wear an Apple Watch daily and I absolutely use my phone more often to check the time.

Here’s the deal though: I love the Watch. The Watch is the best health and exercise companion that exists. I just don’t find a lot of value in the screen itself when I have my phone on me. And I almost always have my phone on me, which I recognize is now a trend in this article and something I should probably address.

Like the iPad and MacBook tradeoff, the Watch is never going to replace the iPhone for me. However, I do expect the AirPods to become the next Apple product that replaces and consolidates the other devices in my life when Apple inevitably releases long-rumored health monitoring features.

Does that mean that we’ll reach a future where we’ll always wear AirPods? Ugh, hopefully not. Probably will be embedded into the AR glasses, but that feels like a regression - I paid real money to not wear glasses anymore. Whatever the form factor, wearables are going to make for a convenient and very weird future.

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