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Hands on with OmniGraffle for iPad

Long a Mac desktop staple, OmniGraffle for OS X offers an interactive editor for laying out charts and diagrams. It's a useful tool for planners, managers, and designers. I have not been a serious user of the product, nor do I own the latest OS X version, but I have used the software enough to recognize that it has made its own niche in the Mac ecosystem. The desktop versions I've used have been solid, robust and, most importantly, they've gotten the job done when the job is to lay out and edit organizational wiring diagrams.

Hearing that OmniGraffle was coming to the iPad surprised me. It wasn't the kind of application that I'd expect to move smoothly to a touch based interface, given its reliance on a vast number of menus, palettes, and other tweaking elements that let you manipulate your creations just so.

The Omni Group developers thought otherwise. They envisioned a "back of the napkin" style application that would let you create diagrams on the go, whether at a business meeting or sitting on an Airport shuttle. They created an iPad application that depended on fingers rather than mice or styluses, to allow users to create high-quality editable and manipulatable presentations.



Could Omni pack in all that functionality and still keep the application usable in the iPod's touch interface? For the most part, yes. It has done so. Although flawed in parts, and perhaps overly featured in others, OmniGraffle for iPad delivers a tool that transforms the desktop experience into a mobile solution.

Don't expect to jump into the tool and do things quickly. You must first pick up the gesture language and start training yourself to use it. There are modes that you must adapt to. For example, there's a layout mode and also a drawing/connection mode. Drags in one mode do not translate to the same results in the other. So you must always be aware which mode you are in, otherwise you might end up connecting a pair of shapes instead of moving one around the screen.

What's more, most application palette interaction (such as setting object properties or pulling a pre-drawn shape from a library) requires you to pop up a modal dialog, a dialog that demands immediate attention. You interact with it, and then tap away into the main drawing screen to return to the drawing mode you were previously in. That's a lot of modality for a touch-based system and nearly all the work done by those popover elements could have been presented using a split view, with a menu palette open on one side of the screen and the workspace occupying the rest.

It's this recurrent modality that demonstrates the application's greatest weakness. You're not going to get anything done fast. You can get it done well, but to get it done quickly requires an enormous amount of recall. You must keep track of the application mode and its applicable gestures as well as where to find each of the options in which of the various popover menus. It's a big cognitive burden.

What's more, OmniGraffle for iPad is feature-laden. It brings all the basic elements including grid layouts and adjustable canvas units over from the desktop. You can adjust each element's fill, stroke, shape, shadow, font, and more. A great deal of control has been made available to each user, to be able to tweak each diagram to perfection. So expect to take time to make each visual element match your mental vision.

To make things easier for you, OmniGraffle has provided a basic tutorial document that appears as soon as you open the application. I was greatly impressed by the thoughtfulness behind this gesture. Omni developers realized that a big application like OmniGraffle needed a big introduction, and they provided it in a simple and concise way that was a pleasure to interact with. Whoever developed that introductory material really deserves a raise.

Over the days that I tested the software, I put together a number of charts. They all came out better than I had any right to expect, even if I spent a little more time creating them that I really wanted to put in. OmniGraffle for iPad really delivers a usable business-quality tool, which is something that's not very common on this platform yet.

I was able to share my layouts in both the proprietary .graffle format as well as in a distribution-worthy PDF style. I could also save pictures directly to my on-board photo album. OmniGraffle supports document sharing, so all graffle layouts are available through the iTunes Apps document browser. You can drag documents into or out of iTunes, to share them with the desktop application.

At $49.99, OmniGraffle for iPad represents a serious financial investment. It retails for five times the cost of Apple's individual iWork titles like Pages and Numbers. Does it stand out and justify that desktop-style cost? I'm going to say yes. The application is targeted at the business or technical user rather than the casual user, and it delivers a quality layout experience for a mobile environment. While the app can definitely be enhanced to streamline the user experience, as it stands it can deliver a solution that's highly in demand for certain customers.

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iPad

Long a Mac desktop staple, OmniGraffle for OS X offers an interactive editor for laying out charts and diagrams. It's a useful tool for...