Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

iOS and iPadOS 15

Let’s get something out of the way first: I am a dummy, and you should not do what I do every year and install the very first betas of the very newest operating systems on your only devices as soon as those builds are available. From six hours of use, I can assure you that these first builds of iOS and iPadOS 15 are pretty rocky and you should probably avoid them, even if you install betas every year.

So, with that done, I wanted to write a little about the first day of WWDC and, particularly, the iPad.

This year feels lower-key, but perhaps in a good way, like a Mavericks-era MacOS situation. Many of the headlining features feel like things that are “finally” here: better notifications with more granular controls, iPad multitasking that doesn’t require so many spells and incantations, FaceTime screen sharing, and last year’s iOS 14 features making their way to the iPad. I point that out not to diminish their impact. If anything, based on how often I have heard and read requests for these features, I imagine they will be important to many users. I am certainly looking forward to all of those enhancements becoming absorbed by my day-to-day use.

At the same time, the big headlining updates for iPadOS emphasize to me that it still is not a high-priority product for Apple. You can certainly see the usability enhancements in this update as progress; literally any visible onscreen elements for multitasking could be considered an improvement over the past system. But you can also see that the iPhone — and even the Apple Watch — have received meaningful changes every year, while multitasking on the iPad has been screaming for fixes the entire time with only begrudging progress. The changes this year — which involve a “⋯” menu with different windowing options, and being able to create spaces from the App Switcher, home screen, and App Library — are all steps forward, but only partially resolve its least intuitive characteristics. Or look at how widgets could be placed anywhere on the iOS 14 home screen, but it took a full year for that functionality to come to the iPad. Translate is yet another example of an app that was on the iPhone for a full year before the iPad.

Perhaps I am being especially critical because this year’s M1-powered iPad Pro and even last year’s A14-powered iPad Air suggested bigger leaps in capability than we have seen so far. There do not appear to be any features enabled by these more powerful models. Even app development in Swift Playgrounds appears to be available on older devices — I applaud device longevity, but I hope we do not have to wait four or five years for iPadOS to begin taking advantage of the power of the M1.

And perhaps I am the jerk here because, while last year’s WWDC was planned and executed remotely, the software updates that were announced were at an advanced stage of development when Apple’s developers began working from home. Development for this year’s updates was conducted almost entirely from home, so it is reasonable to think that it would be more difficult, particularly given the psychological toll of this pandemic.

I just love the iPad so much — in theory. I am writing this post on one, which is not atypical. Even after today, it continues to have groundbreaking hardware that is constrained by its software. That very same sentence has been applicable after every WWDC for years. I would not like to write it again.