I’ve been experimenting with using iOS for more and more of the work that I do lately — and for the past couple of weeks, have been trying to work mostly on an iPad Pro (but think the topic of hardware is a little orthogonal to the point I’m going to make here — will probably write on that in the future).

I’ve got a few reasons I’ve been trying this experiment. One reason is that I genuinely like using iOS, and the new split screen mode (yes, yes, very reminiscent of the one first developed by Microsoft for the Surface) makes it possible to use for most things. A more fundamental reason, though, is that I’ve felt for some time that for all but a small set of endeavors, windowed shell interfaces have not been serving us all that well.

We’re all extremely used to windowed systems now — stretching back to Xerox PARC of course, but also because we use them today for virtually all desktop systems — OS X, Linux, and of course the eponymous Windows.

They really have been workhorses, and revelations — the idea that you can have multiple applications running, see them all, drag & drop between them. And for a few types of work — coding especially, but also things like presentations & other types of creation where you’re pulling from a lot of different sources, especially from the web — they’ve been enabling.

Photo by Lee Campbell

But for most other tasks, they’re attention-diffusing — distracting for almost everything.

That sounds sort of strange to say, especially when I’m comparing it to a mobile OS that has notifications & messaging built in. But I think that the huge wins that come from not having a windowed system, with all the UX and attention baggage that comes along with window management — and the somewhat more natural integration of messaging at a fundamental level — may outweigh the challenges.

The proximal trigger for me was the sunsetting of Mailbox — not what I expected. But with the beta version of Mailbox for OS X, it felt like we had a good, unified mail experience that had first class support for native OS X, native iOS and native Android. Here’s why that’s important: e-mail is, still, my workhorse system that I spend a ton of time in — and using different clients on my different devices introduced some real cognitive load, I found. There are lots of amazing mail clients now for iOS — Outlook, Inbox, Spark & others. Not a ton for OS X. Lots of web mail clients, including Gmail & Inbox — but I find web mail pretty hard to love. Anyhow, what I found is that I liked working through my mail better on iOS (my iPad with a keyboard) using either Outlook or Inbox — way better than I liked taking care of it on my Mac.

iOS is decidedly not perfect — there are real issues. It’s pretty hard to pull stuff from sources like, you know, the web — without weird reliance on the camera roll — and because my iOS life is a mix of personal and work, the camera roll is a pretty weird place to have work show up in, amongst pictures of family, etc.

More generally, the inter application communication model is just overconstrained and underdeveloped. Even with split window, it’s a pain to use. Drag & drop not really implemented meaningfully. (And actually, even split window itself not implemented well for most apps, even setting aside fundamental issues like not being able to use 2 instances of the same app side by side (like, say, a web browser).) And lots of weird issues about the mix of keyboard and touch screen support.

And the situation with files is really not amazing— you have to use some weird mix of cloud storage — which almost by definition is split between iCloud, GDrive, Dropbox, etc etc. So it starts to feel a little like the explosion of messaging systems themselves, where you have to remember which substrate you had the conversation in to be able to find the files themselves. Ugh.

Not to mention that there’s just a ton of stuff that is awkward at best on iOS right now, and impossible at worst. It’s not quite workable for everything you want to do, not quite.

But I really, really do like the focus that comes from being in an OS without window management. I like writing better. I like doing e-mail better. I like reading better. And I like how integrated and fundamental messaging seems, compared to OS X.

The more I work, the more I value focus and intentionality — and leaving windowing systems behind seems like a pretty nice step forward (to the past) to me.

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