21 Comments

Summary:

I worked for many years as a consultant, and spent more frustrating time in Excel spreadsheets on a Tablet PC than I care to remember. With Numbers it looks like Apple has beaten Microsoft at its own game, and on the first try with the iPad.

Numbers entry formulas

A lot has been written about the iPad and slates in general, typically detailing the leisure activities that this type of device does well. It’s common knowledge that slates are good at content consumption — reading e-books, watching video and the like. Fun activities are great but sometimes it’s necessary to do some real work. Nothing says work like dealing with spreadsheets, pushing numbers around the screen and making sense of them. The Tablet PC from Microsoft should be good at spreadsheets, after all they created Excel that is top dog in the corporate world. Sadly, using Excel on a Tablet PC is horrible, and with Numbers it looks like Apple has beaten Microsoft at its own game, and on the first try with the iPad.

I worked for many years as a consultant, and spent more time in Excel spreadsheets than I care to remember. I used a Tablet PC for all of those years, all day every day, and trying to work in spreadsheets was so painful it gives me the creeps, even today. You would think that Microsoft, having developed both the Tablet PC and Excel, would have optimized the user experience to make it all work together seamlessly. Unfortunately, they not only didn’t do that, what they produced yielded a horrible environment for getting the work done.

Kevin pointed out the new demo videos that Apple has produced to show off different capabilities of the iPad. They are well done and typical of how Apple shows off a product. Out of all the iPad videos, the Numbers demo caught my eye given my history with spreadsheets on the Tablet PC. I watched the Number video spell-bound. I confess I have watched that video five more times, and I am still blown away by Apple’s method for data entry in a Numbers spreadsheet.

The iPad is touch input only, at least without a wireless keyboard at play. That requires a solid touch data entry process to make working with the Numbers spreadsheet a pleasant experience, and not the exercise in frustration that Excel on a Tablet PC becomes.

The Numbers demo video shows how Apple approached this need, and it looks absolutely incredible. Work in a spreadsheet cell consisting of numbers, and the iPad produces a number entry system. Want to work with a text cell, you get a QWERTY entry method. Need to enter a date/time entry? You get a system optimized to make that easy. No matter what you need to do in Numbers on the iPad, it senses the best way for you to do so and presents that method automatically.

If Apple can do this with version 1.0, why couldn’t Microsoft do this over all the years the Tablet PC has been around? Why has Microsoft still not done this? It’s sad, even embarrassing that they haven’t cared enough to make something like this from Apple. It’s been said in the past that the Office team and Tablet PC team at Microsoft were not working together to make their respective products better for the user. If that’s true then shame on Microsoft.

Want to compare data entry using Numbers on the iPad with Excel on a Windows 7 Tablet PC? Take a look and see why I am not happy with Microsoft for the hundreds of hours I struggled to get my Excel work done on the Tablet PC.

 

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  1. Just a small technical nag, James and Kevin, but could we have the bottom row of pics disappear when we mouse away – the strip covers details in images I’d like to see.

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    1. We can pass that feedback along to our tech folks, but it may be a global WordPress function. For now, you can right-click the image and open in a new tab for the full pic. Not ideal, I know, but as a workaround, it will get you to the details your looking for.

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      1. Thanks!

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  2. why didn’t you use something like Inscribe which allows you to adjust the layout of the keyboard pretty instantly ?

    (or the Microsoft on-screen keyboard, which has the option for a full number pad)

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    1. I don’t see how recommending a third-party Windows solution is an effective rebuttal to James’s point that Numbers for iPad does this natively and Excel doesn’t. And a full number pad is something substantially different from a numeric-entry-optimized keyboard: the Numbers keyboard allows no-shifting-needed access to the $ and % characters, while the Formulas keyboard has all of the arithmetic operators on dedicated keys.

      (An aside: am I the only person who watched the iWork portion of the iPad keynote? Phil Schiller demonstrated this feature on Numbers in January.)

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  3. Richard Garrett Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Thanks for pointing this out, James and Kevin. These work-flow issues permeate a lot of devices, even in the simplest of applications. Relatively small problems become major issues/aggravations when repeated over and over again (for example, in a contact app on a touch screen device why doesn’t a keyboard open immediately ready to populate the first field rather than force a user to tap on that field?). Another pet peeve, why doesn’t the cursor disappear (and/or get the heck out of the way) on a computer screen when I start typing?!

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    1. “(for example, in a contact app on a touch screen device why doesn’t a keyboard open immediately ready to populate the first field rather than force a user to tap on that field?)”

      Because limited screen real-estate dictates that not having a keyboard up until the moment it’s absolutely needed will make it easier and faster to find the field you want to edit. Think about it – if you want to edit a field at the bottom of the screen, with your idea you’d be scrolling, and scrolling using only half of the screen at that. Not the most ‘friction-free’ method of input there…

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  4. The irony is that, at MacWorld in 2007, Steve Jobs claimed that one of the advantages that a touch screen has over a hardware keyboard is that virtual keyboards can be reconfigured and customized while hardware keyboards are fixed. That means that Microsoft has had three years to steal this idea.

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  5. Clayton Meisman Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    One thing that people are missing here is that this is not a comparison of the IPAD vs Tablet. This is Numbers on the IPAD vs Excel on window tablets.

    In this instance it is NOT an OS design thing as much as a software design decision and the input panels that open up. Apple went in and said what makes sense for a touch interface on a spreadsheet. MSFT never did this.

    This is what made the iPhone so great. They not only designed a great phone, but they made the software/Apps based on what makes sense for the target device.

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    1. The point is, though, indicative of a key problem with Windows tablets: at least 95% of the applications you’re running have no support for the improved touch-friendly APIs in Windows 7. There’s almost no incentive for Windows developers to go out of their way to code those features when the vast majority of their potential user base relies on keyboard-and-mouse input. Developers for a mobile OS, on the other hand, assume that touchscreen input (and multitouch input, these days) is the default or only method of interaction with the device, and code their interfaces accordingly. This is why I think of Android tablets as viable competition for the iPad, and Windows tablets as an interesting dead end (for the mass market, anyway).

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      1. Well said. I am so anxious to see cool Android tablets hit out hands in volume.

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      2. James, do you have any idea why Google is being so restrictive about who (in terms of OEMs) gets access to the Android Market? I’ve yet to see access granted to any device that isn’t a smartphone. (The Dell Streak gets half an exception – it has a native phone app, but it’s certainly not being pitched as a smartphone.) Is Google trying to reserve the larger-screen mobile device market for Chrome OS? Or are they trying to protect the Android app “brand” from fragmentation by insisting on a minimum device feature set? Or is it just a licensing fee that other device makers don’t want to pay?

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      3. It’s funny that you’re asking about that Scott. I’ve been looking into that for the past 2 says with Google for an upcoming post. ;)

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      4. I remember from early Android tablet rumors that Google implied that any device with a screen larger than 4 inches would not access the Android Market.

        The thought was separate markets would be developed for these larger screened devices to allow for special apps for them. ARCHOS opened its own market as a result.

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  6. Jahan Khan Rashid Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Stop it, stop it with the posts!! your converting me!!

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  7. This is killing me. I told myself that I was gonna wait for a 2nd generation iPad. Let them work out the kinks and install a webcam. But after watching the iWorks Tours, I’m startig to weaken.

    Must Hold Out!!! Must Not Give IN!!!

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  8. OMG! That slideshow is hilarious. I admit, I asked “where’s the spreadsheet?” after the first pic, but I got it after that. Kinda slow sometimes.

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  9. Why you ask James? Why the handhelds devices of the 90s never evolved (remember the Jornadas from HP)? why the first PDAs were eclipsed by single function devices like mp3 players? Why Windows Mobile died? Why Excel is a pain to use on a tablet? Why tablets never really took off? Isn’t the answer to all these questions plainly obvious and basically the same? Because MS never really believed in mobile computing, they never really invested any serious thought, effort and planning. What they have offered is a sea of incomplete, inconsistent, incoherent, fragmented proposals that tried to squeeze a desktop inside a mobile computer – a trasvesty that only us the devoted geeks were willing to tolerate…

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  10. Don’t you understand that Microsoft Tablet PCs are built for geeks. They prefer everything to be more difficult than things need to be. All the programs are designed to be feature-rich, not user simple. Geeks equate simple = stupid. That’s why no geek will ever buy an iPad. Geeks are too smart to be caught with any device that undermines their superior technical skills.

    The iPad was conceived for the “stupid” low-tech consumer who would be struggling with the usual Windows Tablet PC if it were presented to him. That’s why all Windows Tablets were failures for consumer use. Apple was smart enough to build a device for all those millions of consumers who are constantly struggling to keep pace with technology. Provide those users with a very simple touch interface built from the ground up. Not tacked onto a desktop OS as a mere afterthought to run what are basically standard mouse-driven applications. Every previous Windows Tablet was built to pack as much hardware as they could so users would have some sort of desktop computer in as close to a tablet form as possible. They weighed too much and were rather bulky, yet they performed nearly as good as a desktop machine. Great for the geeks, but freaking lousy for a consumer looking for an easy to use, light and nimble true tablet.

    Enter the iPad, designed from the ground up, not trying to fool users into thinking it’s a desktop or notebook replacement. It’s a simple tablet, built for simply downloading digital content for viewing. Basically a playback device, not a heavy input device. The OS is built to disappear as soon as the user moves from one app to the next. This is a true anti-geek device. No computer knowledge or technical skills necessary. The iPad is meant to live strictly inside Apple famed or hated “walled garden” as most of Apple’s handheld mobile devices are.

    So, yes, geeks will despise Apple for building a crippled “piece of crap” as they are always saying to whomever is listening (nearly no one). However, the iPad will become a huge success for those users that merely want to use the device to enjoy the simple things they want to do with it. Read a book, watch a video, play a few games, run 150,000 or so apps. Consumers will buy iPads at a furious rate and Apple will have another hit on its hands. Apple took a big risk and will now reap big rewards. The naysayers, pundits and geeks will easily be proven wrong by calling the iPad an epic failure. At least based on unit sales and profits. Kudos, Apple, for helping out the low-tech consumer.

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