Mobile Tools

if all you have is nails, sometimes you need a hammer…

You never know what you’re going to need…

One of the things that I still find joy in is the simple discovery of understanding of how things work, regardless of what weird road my career has taken me to. These days, it’s rare that my day has me spending time in a debugger or pounding out code like I used to. And while I often joke that Keynote is my new IDE, I still hack away at technology when I have free time because I simply enjoy it.

More importantly — I fundamentally believe that it keeps me sharp. Technology isn’t stagnant; it’s amazing how often people I run across who have decided to just stop learning.

Anyways… One of the biggest things I have had to let go of (and it’s a big one) when I made the leap over to using the iPad Pro as my day to day computing device, are the things that comprise my tool “warchest”. Heck, some of these utilities/scripts/apps I’ve been lugging around with me for years. And while I certainly don’t need them every day, I can often find the right one for the job when the need crops up. Or if something special popped up — just write a new one fairly quickly.


Being able to get things done is an obvious requirement of my new minimal setup, and having to completely rethink how tools play into this was tested this past weekend. We were taking a few days off for the 4th, so I was on the road again with my new setup — something from work popped up (as it always does). During the course of figuring out what the issue is, I had the need to examine a few photos EXIF data. For those that don’t know what EXIF is, the easiest way to explain it is that it’s data on a photo that isn’t the picture. Almost every digital camera, phone, etc., adds additional “metadata” to every photo it takes — information about the camera, the lens, even the location that the photo was taken (think of the lovely privacy issues).

On the Mac, I would typically just open up the photo in pretty much any photo editing application (or even Preview), and just view the information. But this was an interesting challenge on the iPad Pro — Photos didn’t appear to have any way to do this built in.

Often the solution on iOS utilities can be found on the AppStore, where I found 2 quick ways to do what I wanted:

  • ViewEXIF — A very simple .99 application that works as an extension to the Photos app (review). Worked perfectly.
  • Workflow — Workflow is an interesting application that reminds me of old block programming used to automate tasks on iOS. I’ve had the application for awhile, but frankly, really haven’t used it for much. They do support an Image object with the ability to “Get Details of Images” which would have also done the job.

I ended up using ViewEXIF, as it was just a quick and easy solution to my current problem.

The Hammer

Of course, when I had more time to really sit down and think about it, I ended up writing my own tool — on the iPad itself. As I mentioned earlier, I love to understand how things work and to push the boundaries where possible. While most folks wouldn’t go this route, I found it to fit the best for the tinkering way I compute.

While XCode is still non-existent for iOS (and a good topic for another post), I have been spending quite a bit of time over the last few months (on iPhone, now the pad) working in my new favorite tool— Pythonista.

I have no idea how/why Apple has allowed it into the AppStore, but it’s a full-blown Python development environment. It allows you to create standalone apps, application extensions, call into Objective-C, debug, etc. It’s easily the single app which is responsible for completely transforming the way I use my devices.

I can write code directly on the iPad or iPhone. It’s amazing.

With it, I was able to easily create a Python extension, pass in a photo, and by using the Python Image Library (built in to Pythonista), use __getexif() and parse through the EXIF data myself.


While I understand 99% of humans wouldn’t go to this extreme to get the job done, I have found over the last few weeks, having the ability to create my own custom Python tools that allow me to bend/extend the capabilities of my devices has brought me to a whole new level of productivity.

Big win for the iPad here, while my laptop gathers dust at home.


Update: After I posted this, Omar dropped me a recommendation for Exify from the IconFactory. Took a quick look, and as usual, the IconFactory delivers — its a real nice extension. The only thing that dont see it handling is the ability to strip metadata from a picture.

Signing a Letter

O Canada — Who knew you needed a signed document for kids crossing the border…

On the first trip that I was planning to leave the MacBook at home and go “iPad Pro” only was a quick weekend jaunt up across the border to Victoria, Canada. Both my wife and I were participating in the Victoria 70.3 Ironman, so it seemed to be a short and relatively easy way to give the new travel “rig” a workout.

The timing for this trip worked out where we could cross the border by way of the Anacortes to Sydney ferry — but we would need to take 2 different trips. I would head up on Thursday with my parents, and Liz and the kids could head up the following day. It’s quite a stunning boat ride, and really a much better way to get to Canada than hitting the U.S. border crossing by driving.

Need to relax? Take the ferry from Anacortes

While walking around on the ferry, I noticed a document that outlined some of the passport restrictions — specifically the requirements for minors under 18 which apparently recommends a letter of consent if both parents (or legal guardians) aren’t present at the time of crossing the border:

It is strongly recommended that if only one parent is crossing the border with a child under age 18 that they have a Consent Letter from the other parent granting permission to take the child out of the country. It is even more important if the child is traveling with a friend or relative without either parent present… There is no legal requirement that you have a Consent Letter. There is no specific format required for a letter. There is no requirement that a letter be notarized. However, border officials for both countries have complete and absolute discretion to allow, or deny, entry to anyone wanting to enter their country. With, or without, a letter they need to be comfortable that everything is above board or they will start digging to determine if a child abduction is in process.

Hmm… Ok.. I figured this would be a good test of the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil. My plan would be to write up a quick letter of consent, sign it, take a photo of my passport, and then email it all to Liz to print out and bring with her when she got to Sydney the next day.

I wrote the letter in Pages — then quickly discovered when I went to sign it that it doesn’t support inking. What. The. Hell.

In a bit of a panic, I resorted to signing my name in Notes, then exporting it as a picture. After a quick crop, I was then able to insert the image into my Pages document. Grabbing a picture of my passport was simple — Scanbot is my go to for anything that I need to scan. I then just bundled it all up and sent over the mail to Liz.

While I was able to get the job done — the simple fact that the Apple “work” applications dont support the Apple Pencil at this point is somewhat mindblowing to me. I’d assume that in the iOS 10 timeframe, this perhaps will be fixed, but right now, it’s almost embarassing that they haven’t updated their apps yet.

Since this, there are several great alternatives that I have been playing with for this type of situation:

  • Notes — Seems simple enough, I could have just written the letter in the stock Notes app and signed directly in there.
  • PDF Expert — I could have downloaded the “stock” letter as a PDF, or even exported my letter from Pages to PDF Expert, then used the Pencil to sign.
  • Notability — Recently re-installed Notability after a long absence on the iPad (and iPhone) — looks like they have done a really great job with Pencil support, and I may start to use this as my default “note taking” application.

Anyways — this wasn’t, in the end, a catastrophic failure — but certainly a bit of an eye-opening one, which left me with a simple thought:

The iPad Pro is all the hardware you need, but the software hasn’t caught up yet.

The iPad Pro Experiment


Every few years I experiment with a complete change of my day to day workflow; sometimes it involves radical changes to the software I’m using, others it’s a shake up of the hardware and my everyday carry to accomplish more with my personal and work computing. I’ve even gone “all in” on iOS before — using just a phone and an iPad Mini for several weeks, then quickly switching back to the MacBook when the novelty wore off.

Over the last several months, I’ve been curiously watching Ben Brooks, Federico Viticci, Thomas Gamstaetter as well as a few others to see how they have fared with similar experiments. Something about a more focused and simplistic computing experience has really struck a cord with me.

It only took a few weeks to finally take the plunge — went with the 9.7″ iPad Pro (space gray, cellular) along with the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. Also bought a regular Smart Cover for around the house — only need the keyboard at work or travel.

I plan on using this space to document the experiment with failures and wins, as well as keeping a running list of tools, tricks and tips. Or maybe it’ll be a place to just post something interesting, humorous or useful.

Here we go.