With iPadOS 16 and macOS Ventura threatening to arrive later this month, we’re on the verge of the arrival of one of the biggest new features added to iPad and Mac in recent years: Stage Manager .
For Mac users, Stage Manager is an optional feature that may or may not improve productivity and organization. Nothing special! Use it or don’t. Meanwhile, for the iPad, the feature is practically an existential crisis.
Simply put, Stage Manager is a big deal for the iPad because it gives it windows for the first time, while the Mac has been a windowed computing device since Steve Jobs first took it out of his bag in early 1984. And that contrast gets to the heart of why putting Stage Manager on the iPad is a much bigger job than adding it to the Mac.
From the bottom
Anyone who used the Mac in 1984 and was magically transported to a Mac in 2022 would surely be surprised and confused by the advances in technology 38 years from now, but that Mac would still be recognizable: draggable and resizable windows size, a menu bar and even a close box (along with two others) in the top left corner.
Of course, Mac windows have evolved over the years. When I became a Mac user, you couldn’t really use more than one Mac app at once. But soon after, System 7 introduced full multitasking, and our Mac screens filled with windows from all sorts of different apps running at the same time. Apple introduced a series of task switchers, Mac OS X 10.0 added the Dock and the three stop light buttons, and later updates added the ability to manage windows with Exposé, Spaces, and Mission Control.
In other words, Apple took a concept—the original Mac interface—and iterated on it for 38 years. It’s not perfect—notably, the company spent a couple of decades figuring out ways for regular users to find windows lost behind other windows—but it has real infrastructure behind it. It’s a metaphor that’s been expanded and fleshed out with iconography, menu bar commands, keyboard shortcuts, trackpad gestures—it works.
The iPad has been around for more than a decade, but its history with windows is largely non-existent. iPadOS 15 introduced Quick Note and the “floating center window” in apps like Mail – they were sort of windows, but disposable windows that followed their own rules. Still, it was a tentative start. But beyond that, there’s really nothing that defines what a window on an iPad could be, how it should behave, and how a user would manage a bunch of them.
So macOS Ventura will bring Stage Manager to the Mac, where it will mix and manage familiar windows in new ways. It’s nothing, but it can benefit from 38 years of infrastructure and interface grammar.
On the iPad, however, Stage Manager has to literally create a whole new window metaphor, out of whole cloth, on day one. It’s a huge job. Is it any wonder that Apple has apparently struggled with it all summer?
An iPad identity crisis
Let’s work backwards for a moment: What problem on the iPad is Stage Manager supposed to solve? It is allegedly the inability for users to quickly work with multiple windows and multiple apps as they do on the Mac. The bigger your screen—and my iPad Pro’s screen is only smaller than my MacBook Air’s—the more room you have for multiple windows, and the more ridiculous the iPad’s one- or two-apps-at-a-time interface becomes.
The problem with the current approach to iPad multitasking, Split View, is that it starts to break down when you want to use more than two “windows” (they’re really tiles) at once. Although tiled interfaces are incredibly space efficient – no need for window trim! – they are also quite inflexible. I’m trying to imagine creating a four-pane view on my iPad Pro, and I’m imagining a frustrating puzzle. I know tiling has its supporters, but I’m not one of them.
Windows, on the other hand, is time-tested and has a lot of advantages. Although they require a lot of window chrome that takes up space, they have the advantage of overlapping each other. Many Mac users may not even notice they’re doing it, but the beauty of overlapping windows is that you can have multiple documents at the ready while one particular document is front and center. It’s an efficient use of space because it doesn’t require the contents of every open window to be on the screen at once.
The problem with iPadOS 16’s Stage Manager is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. It offers windows, so you’d think it would have decided to lean towards the Mac style of doing things. But one of the best features of windows is that they can be resized arbitrarily and moved around – a feature that Stage Manager resists. iPad windows can only be opened to certain sizes and shapes, and most frustratingly, they can only be dragged to certain places.
When I try to use Stage Manager on my iPad Pro, I almost end up with a single configuration: two windows, more or less the same size, next to each other. I end up getting so frustrated with Stage Manager that I essentially recreate Split View! (In fact, if you place two windows this way and turn off the Stage Manager, it literally turns into a split view.)
I can’t speak to why Apple chose this hybrid approach, but I can’t say it makes sense to me. If the goal is to provide all the power of overlapping windows, why stop users from placing windows however they want? Thus, the improvements compared to Split View are sparse at best.
The missing pieces
I’m concerned about the fact that Apple doesn’t seem to have a real vision for Stage Manager – or, if what we have right now is its vision, it’s decided on some weird halfway point.
If the iPad is to have windows, it must have a clear philosophy behind it. We need to know why the windows are there. They must behave in ways that make sense. The Mac has most of it, but the iPad has very little. Resizing and overlapping windows is a frustration, as is minimizing them, adding them to a scene, and opening new windows from the Dock.
I’d like to like Stage Manager on the iPad. I think it has great potential. But defining how windows works on a new platform is a huge undertaking that will take years to shake out. Apple would do well to take as many cues from macOS as it can. It must come with a clear vision of what an iPad window should be and what benefit it has for a user. And most importantly, it is necessary to keep refining that vision over time. Because whatever version of Stage Manager ships in iPadOS 16.1, it will be a work in progress that will require constant attention over the next few months—and, yes, probably years.