The iPad Awkwardly Turns Ten

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day that Steve Jobs took the stage at Yerba Buena and introduced the world to the iPad. It went on sale in April 2010 and ended up being Apple’s fastest selling new product ever.

Plenty of writers have been acknowledging this anniversary today — Tom Warren at the Verge and John Voorhees at MacStories both wrote articles worth your time; Ryan Houlihan of Input interviewed Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, both of whom worked on the original iPad.

But no article has hit the mark for me quite like John Gruber’s:

The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.

I agree with Gruber’s criticism of the iPad’s multitasking model in design terms, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by the myriad ways using an iPad makes simple tasks needlessly difficult — difficulties that should not remain ten years on.

There are small elements of friction, like how the iPad does not have paged memory, so the system tends to boot applications from memory when it runs out. There are developer limitations that make it difficult for apps to interact with each other. There are still system features that occupy the entire display. Put all of these issues together and it makes a chore of something as ostensibly simple as writing.

Writing this post, for example, involved tapping a bookmarklet and saving the title and link URL as a draft. I rewrote the title, selected it — with some difficulty, as text selection on the iPad remains a mysterious combination of swipes and taps — then tapped the “Share” option and passed the selection to the Text Case app. The title case-converted text was placed on my clipboard with a tap, as there’s no way for the app to simply replace the selected text inline, and then another incantation was performed to select the title again and replace it with the text on the clipboard. As I typed out the body text, words were inexplicably selected and the cursor was moved around. Sometimes, after holding the delete key to remove a few words, the keyboard would be in uppercase mode. To get all of the links for the second paragraph, I had to open a few Safari tabs. I received a message notification midway through this and needed to open Notification Centre to read it, which took over the whole display for a handful of balloons half its width. I tapped to reply, then switched back to Safari. It had apparently been dumped from memory in the background, perhaps because I opened the photo picker in Messages, so the tabs I opened before had to reload.

Each of these problems is tiny but irksome. Combined, it makes the iPad a simplistic multitasking environment presented with inexplicable complexity.

No device or product I own has inspired such a maddening blend of adoration and frustration for me as the iPad, and certainly not for as long in so many of the same ways.