After five days of using the iPad Mini, it became obvious: sometimes an iPad is not just an iPad. Confused? 

***

If you are a regular reader, then you are familiar with my workflow. I switched my entire workflow to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I own a Mac Mini (attached to an XDR Display) because I use Photoshop to edit my photos. Adobe Photoshop is subpar on the iPad.

Unlike many who find faults in the iPad and its OS, I am quite satisfied with my own device. Big screen, big battery, great camera, great speakers, nice external keyboard, ability to use a Pencil as an input device, and most importantly, built-in LTE connectivity. 

The Mega iPad does everything I need to do — from Zoom calls to writing documents, answering emails, reading articles, watching videos on various streaming services, and indulging in Twitter.

The availability of alternative browsers such as Brave and Firefox allows me to use most of the services I previously used on the MacBook. The newest version of the iPadOS has some solid improvements that have made me appreciate my iPad Pro even more. 

And you can see that most of my iPad use during the day (and sometimes in the evening) is akin to a traditional computer — keyboard-based inputs, and very rarely using alternatives such as Pencil. In the evening, I remove the keyboard, put on the softcover, and watch some YouTube, baseball, cricket, or an occasional TV series on Amazon Prime or Apple TV+. I do my reading in the morning — with the iPad sitting on the kitchen table and coffee steaming. You get it — I don’t really need another iPad or any other device in any other configuration — that is up until the new version of the big iPad Pro comes to market. 

***

That is why I was quite confused when Apple sent me a review unit of the brand new iPad Mini

Unlike those who review gadgets for a living, I prefer to write about things long after using them. I can’t really offer a decent opinion unless those devices are part of my daily workflow. And if these devices (or services) can’t become part of my daily workflow, that reflects poorly on them as ongoing utility is a key criterion in assessing the true worth of a product. So, consider this post as my short-term impressions of the iPad Mini. For the past few days, I have been using it as my primary iPad. 

It has an 8.3-inch Liquid Retina display, comes in four finishes, and is powered by Apple’s latest mobile chip, the A15 Bionic. It has a new USB-C port (thank god) and has 5G, and supports Apple Pencil (2nd generation). It has two new cameras, but the front-facing 12 Megapixel ultrawide camera is the most useful one — its larger field of view enables Center Stage for better video calls. In short, it has all you need from what is a good modern tablet.  It is a good accompaniment for those of us who carry smaller phones, such as the iPhone Mini. 

The size (7.69 x 5.3 inches) and the weight (297 grams) make it diminutive compared to my mega Pad, which weighs 685 grams. It is effortless to hold it in hand without getting a wrist cramp. It is small enough to be held inside my palm — although I don’t have huge hands. Even holding it at the edge puts no strain on the wrist. Ergonomically it has what the 12.9-inch iPad Pro lacks — the ability to be a “near view” device. 

Let me explain: the screen size and utility should be proportional to the screen’s distance from the eyes. If you are too close to the big screen, you can’t experience the benefits of the size. 

In my case, to enjoy the biggest iPad, I need to keep it at a certain distance from my eyes. I find it comfortable to use when it is 3 to 5 feet from my eyes. When working on an article or responding to emails, I can pull it forward to three feet. When watching the Yankees get their tushy spanked, I push the device back by a foot or more. It makes eyes adjust and appreciate the bigger screen. It is good to put some distance between the device and my face for Zoom calls or FaceTime chats. 

The iPad Mini, on the other hand, is meant to be enjoyed closer to your eyes. Especially when it comes to reading — and I do a lot of that. I use the Apple News app and Feedbin app (for reading RSS and aggregating various newsletters I subscribe to) in addition to apps from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, and The Economist. My daily reading diet also includes Kindle, which is for eBooks. 

The iPad Mini screen is about 18 to 24 inches from the eyes. By keeping the brightness below 50 percent, my eyes don’t get tired despite a long reading session. It is quite pleasant to read on the iPad Mini, thanks to its upgraded screen. I can lounge in my Eames chair, a cup of coffee on the side, and skim through morning reading relaxed and without hunching over. I much prefer this lean-back mode of consuming the words. The screen is on my desk. I can listen to a podcast in the background, but it doesn’t feel like work again. It feels more of a relaxed consumption of information. 

The iPad Mini turns out to be an excellent lightweight device for light work and casual activities. However, when it comes to heavy-duty work such as answering lots of emails and writing longer pieces, the device is hard to use, even with an external keyboard. You simply need a bigger keyboard and extra screen real estate to be more productive.

I tried pairing the Mini with the new magic keyboard. I found the distance from my eyes to the screen is large enough to make the screen’s smaller size pretty obvious. My eyes had to work hard to focus on the smaller screen, and the experience was uncomfortable. I also tried thumb-typing but gave up after a few paragraphs. I don’t intend to damage my hands to get work done. 

The best way to extract the most out of the smallest iPad is to think of it as a device enhanced by non-keyboard input methods — Scribble with Pencil, snapping photos with the cameras, or using Siri/voice input. The improved “Scribble” allows you to make notes, do quick searches, and even find directions. It is a very addictive way to use the iPad, especially in the smaller size.

I enjoy the ability to clip and store relevant bits of information in the new and much-approved Apple Notes app. I am also using the Pencil to make things easier. Pencil is quite handy when it comes to casual editing of photos on Lightroom and Darkroom apps. I also find doodling on Procreate on this tiny screen easier as well. 

And there is the camera — which, when used with LiveText — becomes a tremendous visual input device in itself. With LiveText, you point the camera at a photo or image with text, tap the indicator icon, and quickly act to make a phone call, translate the text, and more. I found LiveText easier to use on this smaller iPad versus the big iPad Pro that I own. 

The more I use the device, the more I realize that most computing has been defined by a singular idea of work and productivity. Mobile devices have and will continue to redefine our work. In the past, most of the computing involved being in the office. Now, non-office tasks have access to computing resources and thus offer an opportunity to make them more productive. Devices like the iPad are about making non-office work a bit more productive. Whether it is doctors, field engineers, or delivery drivers, devices such as the iPad in general and iPad Mini, in particular, could help change the very notion of productivity.

***

So, after a few days of using the iPad Mini, I have to admit, it is no slouch. It can do whatever its big brothers can do. The lighter weight, lower price, and Pro-matching capabilities make it a worthy purchase for any iPad buyer. But to get the best out of it, one has to reimagine how we interact with computers. I find myself scribbling and talking to this piece of glass. That’s not a bad start.

Nothing is more frustrating to me than YouTube, which decides my front page based on my likes. It seems I can’t have multiple interests — variables — and thus, I must watch certain kinds of videos. In its infinite wisdom, Twitter believes that only the people whose content I like or share are the ones whose content I want to consume. And don’t get me started on online dating services — they could learn a thing or two from Sima Taparia

And that is because the post-social world of today is starting to coalesce around variables that are less humanistic and more biased towards corporate goals. “We live in a world that demands categorization,” I recently read in a newsletter, Tiny Revolutions. “We have to do some self-definition so the world knows what to do with us, and so that we can bond with others who share our interests, values, and concerns.”

While the writer, Sara Campbell, might have been talking about an individual’s desire not to be categorized, her words accurately describe our post-social society’s reality, dilemma, and futility in a handful of lines. 

Categorization is part of the human condition. Our brain uses categories to help us make sense of a lot of facts we experience. It is how we learn. As humans, we need categories to contextualize our world, and that includes each other. What is more important is the intent behind the categories. 

Categories, as such, have bias by intent. The bias allows us to ignore variables we don’t want to deal with and place boundaries around a category. It’s important because by ignoring them, we have to use fewer cognitive resources. The bias itself is not good or bad. It is the intent that leads you in different directions. That intent determines what variables we focus on and the ones we ‘choose’ to ignore. 

And a lot of that intent is determined by the human condition. For example, if you have grown up in a more traditional society, the category that defines you is your lineage for most of your life. The “intent” of that categorization is to find your place in the social hierarchy. Lineage isn’t a primary variable for Americans, but college and money are. That is why in more modern societies, such as America, the college you attend defines your place in society and the workplace.

Ever wondered why most conversations start with a question: what do you do? That question is not only reflective of our fading art of conversation, and it also is a way for us to define the variables and get a quick context on the person. By doing so, we quickly decide to assign a value-metric to the person who is the recipient of our attention. 

At best, in the pre-Internet world, categorization would rear its head in a social context, often giving us cues on how to engage with someone. An attractive single woman gets a different kind of attention from another woman versus a single man. Given the nature of modern consumerist society, it wasn’t a surprise that the emergence of databases allowed marketers to categorize us into “buckets” of those who may or may not buy some products. After all, the early usage of computers had been catalyzed by the demands from governmental agencies and corporations that wanted to use data to create categories. 

However, in our post-social society, these categories have become even more granular and metastasized. Just take Facebook as an example. School, location, gender, relationships, and many more variables have started to create a profile of us that can be bundled no different than the dastardly collateralized debt obligation (CDO.)

And it isn’t just Facebook that is alone in using so many variables. From online dating services to online marketing to banking, most of them feel both antiseptic and plastic. These data variables are what make up an algorithm whose sole job is categorization. At present, the algorithms are relatively simplistic. They lack the rationality and nuance that comes from social science.

The bigger question is, what if all these data variables picked by companies for their own needs don’t define you or your interests. I suspect all of us be trapped in a data prison — forced to live lives that an invisible black box algorithm will decide what is good for us.  


August 24, 2021, San Francisco

SpaceX, a company known for making big splashy announcements — thanks to its media & attention savvy founder — very quietly snapped up a small startup called Swarm Technologies. In case you were wondering, “why?” SpaceX made the acquisition, then let me help you out: it is all about devices — more accurately put, the connected devices that need some connectivity. Some of us who love nerdy things, this category: Internet of Things.

The connected devices, especially in the industrial arena, have been a slow starter, mostly because the incumbents are slow to change, hate to spend money, and frankly, have not quite understood the importance of data. I saw that when “the cloud” was still young. SpaceX is betting that with bigger brand recognition and deeper pockets, they will turn Swarm’s business into a big moneymaker.

Swarm makes tiny satellites, which are even smaller than microsats. Think about the size of a stack of iPad Minis. Their satellites operate in VHF, different from Starlink. Swarm’s idea was to deploy up to 150 of these satellites and help connect devices from boring old industries such as agriculture, logistics, and energy. If they can get data from that connectivity, they can get smarter about their operations.

Swarm’s Satellites

The idea helped Swarm get about $35 million in venture funding. It also helped that the founders had some solid tech-chops. The company was the brainchild of Dr. Sara Spangelo & Dr. Ben Longmier: Spangelo worked on small satellites and autonomous aircraft at the University of Michigan and was a lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Google X. Longmier sold his company to Apple. And that is why their technology was interesting enough for SpaceX to snap up the company.

Picosats are inexpensive to make and deploy, so Swarm can afford to sell its data service — it starts at $5 a month quite cheaply. To be clear, this is no Starlink network. You get a mere 750 data packets per device per month, and that’s up to 192 Bytes per packet. Of course, you need Swarm’s special modules and other gear, but thankfully they are cheaper than any other Satellite gear.

In case you were wondering — that’s not a lot of data (or revenue,) but sensor reading data demands go up fast, especially when sensors start to spread everywhere. And as someone who thinks that connected sensors are an inevitability, this seems that it could eventually become a big opportunity for a large company like SpaceX. After all, there are (and soon will be more) machines than people. (Hey, I already said, I am in the connected everything camp.)

And if that big opportunity doesn’t work out — aka the worst-case scenario, SpaceX, can use Swarm technology to monitor their own sprawling network around the globe. Plus, they got two kick-ass brains to work at the company. It’s not as if they broke the bank for Swarm.

August 10, 2021. San Francisco

As you know, I am a big advocate of writing on paper with a pen. Many studies have shown that we learn and retain more information when we write with our hands. Sure typing can let us capture more information, but writing gives more cognitive context. Today, we mostly type on our keyboards. Some of us have started to use Apple iPad and the Apple Pencil. Jon Callaghan, my partner at True Ventures, is an unabashed fan of Remarkable.

The challenge with these digital writing devices is that they are a “one size fits all” solution. In the analog world, writing instruments are highly personal, and each one fits our unique writing styles, and where we fall in the demographic spectrum — age, gender, and geographic locations define what we use to write. Writing surfaces, aka the paper we like, too are highly personal.

I personally prefer fountain pens and good Japanese paper — and despite using the iPad for pretty much everything, I don’t much care for writing with the Apple Pencil. I like my pens, big and thick, like Sailor King of Pen and a vintage Montblanc 149. The Pencil is too thin and too slippery, and as a result, it is nothing more than an appendage used for photo editing. Navigation with touch and gestures is better on iPad, which was built for touch, not for pencils.

“You have to get ’em, put ’em away, you lose ’em. Yuck! Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.”

Steve Jobs, co-founder, Apple.

It is not just Apple’s Pencil — I have never linked any of the digital handwriting devices, including the not-so-great digital writing devices made by luxury pen brand, Montblanc. Personal distaste aside, there is something else that ails the digital writing domain. Ben Brooks’ in his member newsletter, explains this problem with digital devices.

Digital note taking tools all lack universality of pen and paper. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go with pen and paper, you can write on many surfaces, and you can pass off the paper to anyone no matter what tech access they have. It’s truly universal. And this is what bothers me about digital notes: they are proprietary. The Apple Pencil only works with Apple iPads, and other Styli only work with their gear. And none of them work with paper. But they are all needed to make those tools work well.

The Brooks Review
white pen on white table

Beyond that lack of interoperability, another elephant in the room is the very future of the Apple Pencil and the keyboard as an input device. Lately, I have been using Otter.ai as a transcription service. I dictate my ideas, notes, and what I believe could be longer pieces to the service using its app. I get a transcript. I cobble together many such transcripts into a longer piece and eventually go to the “keyboard” to give it a final spit-and-polish.

Admittedly, I have struggled with these voice interfaces for many years — I have an accent and don’t have perfect diction. As a result, I experience frustration when using Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and other services. However, it would be unfair of me to say that they are standing still. For instance, I use Otter for my transcriptions, and it does a decent enough job of transcribing my notes. The interview audio files get better results.

I am inreasingly bullish about the voice-to-computer interface, mostly because of the rapid increase in the capabilities of chips focused on machine learning. Both, desktop and mobile devices are seeing a sharp increase in the capabilities of graphic processing units and neural engines. The chips are only one part of the equation. Software too is getting better.

But more importantly, we have a whole generation of kids growing up talking to their machines — and I wonder if in the future keyboards will become relegated into the background. If you saw the movie, Her1 , then you know it is not outside the realm of possiblity.

August 9, 2021, San Francisco

  1. KK Barrett interview[]
Death Valley, CA. Photo By Om. Made with Leica SL2.

Sitting inside my concrete cocoon, mid-way between the soaring blue sky and the shaded San Francisco side street, I can see the blue waters of the San Francisco bay. It all looks and feels quite normal. The temperate morning with the occasional waft of chilly air reminds me of my good fortune to live in this beautiful city. I don’t like to think about the eventual big one.  

I have just showered. For some, success means being rich, famous, owning fancy cars, or big mansions. As long as I have lived, I have considered long, lazy showers the ultimate luxury. For me, the shower is an allegory of ambition and success. And soon, it might become a reminder of what we might be losing as a society. 

***

I grew up in Delhi before making America my home. My parents were neither rich nor poor. They were somewhere in the vast middle, which had its spectrum of success and ambition, where you sat on that spectrum defined what you had as part of your daily life. 

For most of my early life, my family didn’t have things that most take for granted — television, telephone, and even a refrigerator. Eventually, those luxuries would come into our household, some slowly, some very slowly. One of the things we couldn’t take for granted was water. Our family’s water came from a tap — and the water availability was as much an act of divine intervention as it was a heroic act in waking up at odd hours to fill containers of all shapes and sizes. 

Whether it was my grandparents, parents, or aunts, it would be someone’s job to either wake up early in the morning or stay up late and make sure we had water. No water collected meant no water to drink, cook, bathe or clean the house. Eventually, I suppose our family would save money to sink a well and draw water from an underground reservoir. Tapping that well changed our life. It didn’t afford me a shower, but it allowed me more than a bucket for a bath. 

It was nearly four-and-a-half decades ago, and since then, most of our neighbors have sunk similar wells. And many of those wells are nearly running on empty. My dad wakes up early to fill buckets from the municipal taps to have enough for the family. We have to pump up the weak stream to the water tank on top of the house.  

It is as if nothing had changed.

***

It was earlier today; I was reminded of my childhood and our struggle with acquiring the necessities like water. I read a story about Mendocino, one of my favorite towns in Northern California, running out of water. The town, which depends on underground water, is one of the more picturesque victims of the drought, with California in its grip. Fort Bragg, which used to sell water to Mendocino, a tourism hotspot, won’t sell any more water to their neighbors — they have their water crisis looming. No water means no more tourism, which may eventually lead to diminished prospects for the local economy.

And this only portends a much more grim future, not just for California residents but for the world at large. Some reports estimate that “72% of the global land area is likely to become drier.” Lake Mead at Hoover Dam is at historic lows. That impacts the water needs of various states, but it also starts to impact electricity generation, which impacts the Las Vegas economy. 

Most of the conversation around climate change often revolved around melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and significant weather events — but in reality, climate change’s impact is more insidious, silent, and deadly. Mendocino’s water shortage is a rude reminder that climate change is all-pervasive, and that is how communities crumble and whither. 

The climate crisis has been a long time coming — building up sight unseen even as we have seen unfettered development across the country (and the planet.) 

***

“The tradeoff between efficiency and resilience can thus be viewed as a tradeoff between short-term and long-term optimization,” Rice University Professor Moshe Vardi wrote in a recent essay. “Nature seems to prefer long-term to short-term optimization, focusing on the survival of species. Indeed, Darwin supposedly said: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

How adaptable are we to change as a country and as a society? Whenever I think about climate change and its impact, I often think about what it entails in terms of sacrifice as humans. In the rest of the world, especially in poorer parts of the planet, migration has been a constant reality due to climate events and lack of opportunity. In the US, we are only just starting to wake up to this nightmare. 

In a recent article, USA Today pointed to a survey of 2000 Americans: “49% respondents were planning on moving in the next year, blaming extreme temperatures, and the increasing frequency or intensity of natural disasters for a role in their decision to relocate.” Redfin, starting tomorrow, will now add local climate risk data to its site. 

Even as a firm believer in technology and science — they are our best hope for coexisting with a changing planet — the thing that often worries me about society is the resiliency of our social fabric. If the pandemic has shown anything, hyper-capitalism has made us even more resistant to change. We are no longer a society capable of doing more with less — after all, what is the reason that buy-now-play-later companies are exploding in popularity. I hope not, but all signs show that we are in for a brutal reality check about things we take for granted, including water.

I read somewhere that a person living in the US per capita household consumes between 80-100 gallons of water per day on average. That is a lot of water. That translates into roughly 40 buckets — a lot more than what we used when I was growing up in Delhi. How long before I have to deal with a future that looks remarkably like my past. 

August 3, 2021. San Francisco