A Status Update on the Toaster-Refrigerator Project

Daniel Rubino wrote a decent piece over at Windows Central about how the new iPad Pro — and, in particular, the Magic Keyboard — steps on Microsoft’s Surface turf. But I do not buy his argument that it represents an about-face for Apple:

Putting aside how wrong Apple was about the 2-in-1 form factor, which it is now ironically fully embracing, this move by Apple is likely to harm sales of the Surface Pro line. Apple’s iPad has long bucked the trend of the failing tablet market because it has the best hardware and an OS that people relish.

I’d argue – and many of you would too – that Windows 10 is still a more “serious” OS built for doing “real” work. But for many, those lines are blurring. For the last few years there have been many attempts by people trying to make do with just an iPad, and today’s announcement will only make that easier.

Tim Cook’s 2012 comments about convergence devices were again unearthed in myriad commentaries as a counterpoint to the company’s announcements yesterday, especially given the growing similarities between iPad and Microsoft’s Surface hardware. I think that’s noteworthy, but not indicative that Apple’s long-term strategy for the iPad has been wrong.

I’m going to irritatingly self-quote here from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago:

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 addition of real mouse and trackpad support to the iPad is not just a slapped-on version of the MacOS cursor, but a clearly considered rethinking of what that should be on a system that is still primarily used by touch. I expect to see plenty more changes like this as Apple continues to add more advanced features to iPadOS — features that will probably be similar to aspects of MacOS, but reconsidered for a touch-based operating system.

Cook’s “toaster and refrigerator” remarks were made around the time that Microsoft released Windows 8, which took the standard version of Windows and slapped a touch-friendly tile interface on top — no matter what device you installed it on. Have a big-ass desktop display? Doesn’t matter; you still got that tile interface by default. That problem existed in the reverse, too: many Windows settings were not able to be changed through the default touch-based interface, no matter which device you were on, so you would often need to muck around in the historic anachronism that is the Control Panel, even on a tablet.

The iPad and its iPadOS is decidedly not this experience. If anything, its biggest drawbacks are in the ways that it is still attached to a small-screen smartphone experience. But those ties are still inherently touch-based, and are slowly loosening as every part of the personal computer experience is rethought for an interface that is expected to be used primarily — though not entirely — by a user’s fingers. Some of those things will be successful; some, like the stubborn effort to go without a file browser, will not.

This strategy is not, from my very outsider perspective, a radical departure from what I expected for the iPad. Since day one, it has supported Bluetooth keyboards for text entry and limited per-app shortcuts. There was even a weird keyboard dock. I am only surprised and, admittedly, disappointed that advancements like these did not happen sooner.

I anticipate that we will see more desktop-grade features brought to the iPad in the coming years, but interpreted with a style all their own. The iPad of a few years from now might increasingly resemble a far nicer version of those two-in-one laptop and tablet hybrids, but it will not behave like any of them. It will not be a desktop operating system with some bigger buttons; it will be fully imagined as a touch-based operating system.

If that wasn’t the strategy all along, what could it possibly have been? Does anyone seriously think that the iPad would have forever remained something on which you could read email while you used the bathroom?

By the way, there’s a funny postscript to Cook’s toaster-refrigerator remark. Todd Bishop, reporting for the Seattle Pi in 2005:

Before this week’s unveiling of the new video-enabled iPod, Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs was renowned in technology circles for his skepticism about video on portable devices.

Just how ridiculous did he consider the concept? Jobs joked in a conference call with reporters last year that if Apple were to add video to the iPod, it might as well turn the device into a toaster, too.

“I want it to brown my bagels when I’m listening to my music,” he said at the time. “And we’re toying with refrigeration, too.”

Two years after Jobs said this, Microsoft released the Zune. It played audio and video, and came in a shade of brown that would look alright on a toasted bagel.