There’s a lot to discuss following today’s Apple event in New York, but one thing, in particular, that I’d like to highlight is how they promoted external display capabilities as one reason for the change on the new iPad Pro to a USB-C connector from Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector. It’s something John Ternus mentioned a few times onstage but, oddly, this capability is only shown in the video on the iPad Pro’s marketing webpages and it has barely been given a passing mention in the company’s press release.
Even with the limited information available, I think this speaks to Apple’s greater ambitions for the iPad as much — or even more than — the power and software improvements they’ve made over the past few years. The future of the computer probably looks a lot like plugging a display into an iPad and using a connected keyboard and perhaps a trackpad with a different UI.
This isn’t entirely revolutionary; Microsoft has been pursuing a similar strategy with their Surface line for years. The critical difference, I think, is that the Surface was borne of a desktop-and-laptop world, while the iPad was derived from a smartphone. In 2012, I wrote a piece where I proposed — poorly — that that the reason the iPad was selling well where Microsoft’s tablet efforts, at the time, were not was because the common criticism of the iPad as a bigger iPhone was actually an advantage.
If there is a smartphone-to-desktop continuum, with the tablet somewhere in the middle, Microsoft has long approached it as skinning Windows with touch drivers and bigger buttons, while Apple chose to start by making a touchscreen phone and build up from there.
The vestiges of these differing approaches are clearly evident today. There are still plenty of examples of Windows feeling like a desktop operating system even when running on a tablet; and there are lots of places throughout iOS that feel like upscaled smartphone interfaces.
Looking beyond that, though, at what is plausibly within reach in the next few years is a culmination of efforts to overhaul the way we think about computers. Apple has, for years, been touting the iPad as the computer of the future — the pioneer in the post-PC era. But the product has not necessarily matched the company’s rhetoric, largely because it’s still trying to grow out of the smartphone-based constraints that are primarily exposed in software; that’s the root of where most of its limitations still lie.
If the scenario I outlined above is, indeed, the way Apple sees the future of this product line, there’s still a long way to go: multitasking isn’t there yet, the keyboard remains an afterthought, an iPad isn’t as information-dense because its controls still need to be touch-friendly, and so on. But there are clues that Apple is very serious about the iPad as a replacement computer. USB-C and the singling-out of external display support is one such indicator, I feel; iOS 11 brought the Dock to the iPad, which makes it feel much faster for switching between apps; and there are some iPad-specific Springboard improvements destined for iOS 13 that ought to shake things up.
Taking a step back, I think it’s worth addressing how far the iPad’s software has felt compared to the hardware, as far as telling a complete and elegant story about using it as a full Mac replacement. The new iPad Pro models look wildly impressive — like pure slabs of magic internet-connected glass. But the software has evolved far slower. A big reason for this is, I believe, that using iOS as the basis for the future of personal computers has required a rethink of every system paradigm taken for granted on the Mac. I don’t think it has been universally successful. But I do truly believe that by building iOS up as opposed to breaking MacOS down — that is, adding functionality within a made-for-touch framework rather than glomming touch onto MacOS — will prove to be a wise choice in the coming years.