How scribbling on an iPad makes your work life easier

Table of Contents

  1. Summary


If you spend a lot of time writing in the margins of reports, editing presentations, or filling out endless forms like the more than 70 percent of the U.S. workforce who are knowledge workers, there’s something you should know: You should be using a tablet for all of these things.

Why? The iPad arrived two years ago, but there has been a recent influx of tablet-based apps that make editing, taking notes, annotating or suggesting changes to documents easier, which makes your need for a printer and red pen unnecessary. Tablet apps like Skitch and PDF Expert mean work-related tasks, like filling out a form, signing a document or editing a presentation, are done directly on the iPad, with a finger. It saves time, and it means you don’t have to keep track of paper (the U.S. throws out about 72.5 million pounds of paper each year, according to the EPA). Plus it reduces confusion from multiple versions of documents.

IPad nation

There are other tablets on the market besides Apple’s iPad, but when it comes to work, the iPad is quickly becoming a go-to place for businesses to manage their documents. That’s mostly thanks to the iPad’s popularity (somewhere north of 60 million units have been sold in just over two years), its always-on connectivity and the subsequent dash to the platform by developers who make these time-saving productivity apps.

The rise of annotation apps is yet another example of the way tablets are upending our traditional habits and making work flows easier. Small and large businesses alike see the benefit of tablets, and 2012 is predicted to be a banner year for business adoption of them. At the close of 2011, 73 percent of companies surveyed with fewer than 1,000 employees and 89 percent of companies with more than 1,000 employees told the NPD Group they planned to purchase tablets for their workers.

The best part of this transition to mobile devices is how the iPad has transformed itself, meeting our needs for a computing platform and offering use cases we never dreamed of with a laptop. Sure, we could carry around documents on a laptop and maybe even take notes with a stylus on some old-school tablet PC, but the total package of apps, the cloud and easy-to-use software is coming together in new ways.

It’s not just sales reports or marketing presentations that can benefit from annotation apps, either. There are tablet apps for annotation or markup for nearly every line of work, including creative businesses like video production, music and Web design. Here are a few of the most interesting ones.

Business class

PDF Expert

PDF Expert, which costs $9.99, allows you to take notes on PDFs or select and highlight text on an iPad with just a finger. While there are several other apps that allow that, PDF Expert combines the functionality with other useful features: You can also sign documents with your finger as a pen or quickly fill out forms. You don’t need any other software, which makes it easy (and cheap) to try it out.

It’s a popular solution, because it is compatible with other hosted document and file services, like Google Docs or Alfresco, or any of the other popular cloud-based services, like Dropbox or Box. Passing documents around digitally goes a long way toward saving trees, and by keeping everything in the cloud your stuff can follow you anywhere your iPad goes.

Annotation is “a use case you don’t think about in the desktop world,” said Todd Barr, the chief marketing officer of Alfresco, a file-sharing service that incorporates solutions like PDF Expert for companies.

Barr argues that when faced with the need to make edits quickly, most people print a PDF and mark it up with a pen. Or they edit the text on a computer but create a separate version of the document, which creates confusion.

Igor Zhadanov, the CEO and co-founder of Readdle, the company behind PDF Expert, decided to focus the business on the iPad because of the possibilities for business users and its potential to replace a laptop.

“People said they absolutely had to have PDFs on an iPad,”; he said. “We allow people to get access to their files, documents, and deal with their content — whatever they wanted to do — but without carrying the laptop.”

PDF Expert is good for companies or even smaller groups of users that do a lot of document sharing or that fill out a lot of forms — say, people in the insurance business or in the medical profession. There are 200,000 users so far, and that number is growing, according to Zhadanov. “Businesses are reaching out, trying to fit the iPad into their business processes, trying to replace laptops,” he said.


Skitch is owned by Evernote, the popular mobile note-taking app. Skitch’s tagline sums up the appeal of tablet annotation apps admirably: “Express yourself with fewer words, emails and meetings.” Skitch lets users mark up images, notes, screen shots, website layouts and more with text but also symbols like arrows and shapes. Where PDF Expert seems more strictly business, Skitch has a more playful, artsy side.

Skitch was already popular for desktop users before migrating to mobile, where it is available for iOS and Android. It has more than 6 million active users, and it is easy to see why: Quickly sharing edits or changes via email or another service can mean a more efficient work flow.

It’s great for people who tend to mark up images or artwork often. You can share your annotated stuff via a link, email or Twitter, and as you might expect, it easily integrates with Evernote.

Creative arts


Musicians probably scribble notes on paper more than anyone. That is how musician and former IBM researcher David Jameson came up with Scorecerer, an iPad app that lets you import sheet music onto your iPad, on which you can then take quick notes during rehearsal — or when inspiration strikes — with just a finger.

Scorecerer offers free desktop software that automatically scans in and crops physical sheet music and uploads it to your iPad. Then, with the $4.99 Scorecerer iPad app, you can tap with two fingers to zoom in on a note or a bar, make a quick note, tap again to zoom out, and be done.

The concept grew out of Jameson’s obsession with making work flows as efficient as possible and his love of the idea of carrying around his sheet music library in one device.

“I play with a band,” said Jameson. “When the singer would say, we need such and such [change to the music] I would think, ‘Damn, I need to write that in [the sheet music] there. How could I really quickly get this in?’ Scorecerer presents a successful solution: Around 5,000 copies of the app have been downloaded so far.


Scribbeo is an annotation app for images, both moving and still. Video editors can mark up a scene or a shot right on the iPad — with notes for a video editor, say — with a finger, in addition to leaving voice notes.

This can be done locally on an iPad (or iPod touch or iPhone) or in a networked setting, so that everyone involved can collaborate. The app itself is 99 cents, but if you have several computers you want to access Scribbeo, the company will install enterprise server software for an additional cost.

More than any other example listed here, Scribbeo’s iPad annotation app saves time, money and resources. The scenario that Scribbeo was expressly built to combat is the behind-the-scenes madness involving TV show “dailies,” which means the raw video footage printed at the end of each day.

Zed Saeed, the lead developer of Scribbeo, who has long worked in post-production in film and TV, described the typical “very cumbersome wasteful process” normally involved: All footage is printed to a DVD, then 30 or so copies of that DVD are burned. Since many executives need to see the dailies, they are delivered around town. The next day, they are picked back up and shredded. The Scribbeo solution is to store the dailies in the same place they are processed. Edits or notes can then be seen instantly by anyone, no matter if they are not in driving distance.

Scribbeo’s customers include the creator of the show NCIS: Los Angeles as well as ABC’s CougarTown. But it’s not just professional video editors who might be interested: Sound mixers, art directors and even restaurant owners currently use the software for collaboration.

Moving forward

While these are specialized apps at the moment, some tailored to specific industries, it’s likely the idea of sharing, editing and moving documents or images on the iPad is headed to the mainstream. The company that can have the most impact in pushing it there isn’t Apple, however, but its onetime chief rival: Microsoft. There have been rumors that Microsoft might be working on an iPad-compatible version of its crown jewel, Microsoft Word.

That, argues PDF Expert’s Zhadanov, would normalize the idea of using the iPad for work. “Word on the iPad would be a game changer,” he says. It would push the iPad into being a true productivity tool for people in almost any industry, because of Word’s gigantic installed user base.

It wouldn’t just be the app makers who would benefit but everyone who wants to spend less time thinking about the tech they use to get work done, and more about the actual work.

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