Of all of Apple’s major product lines, it seems that none has been the subject of as intense debate and scrutiny over the past decade as the iPad. Can you do “real work” on it? Is it a computer replacement? Will it one day replace the Mac for all our computing needs?
While products like the Mac and iPhone have always had a clear role in our technology lives, the iPad’s place has been more bumpy around the edges. It fits into the gaps in our lives and solves problems that neither iPhone nor Mac are quite equipped for, but without displacing either.
Yet, despite all this, the iPad has continued to live in the shadow of its two forebears. And as it enters its second decade, the future of the iPad is less than clear: its recent developments – especially when it comes to the long-awaited Stage Manager feature – seem to suggest it’s going in one of two directions.
The big iPhone
Although the iPad may have been an idea before the iPhone, it is undeniable that Apple’s smartphone platform has formed the basis of the tablet. Until recently, iPadOS was just a slightly different version of iOS, and it showed. Features that set it apart, like multitasking and external file support, didn’t come until much later, and it’s only in recent years that iPadOS has been spun off to make its own way in life.
But because of these fundamentals, the iPad is at its root still remains largely, for better or worse, a big iPhone — a criticism often leveled at it in its earliest years. It has the same home screen and interface conventions as the smartphone, which makes it even more confusing when new features come to iOS and don’t come to the tablet: for example, home screen widgets debuted in iOS 14 but didn’t appear on the iPad until iPadOS 15, and this year, iOS 16’s customizable lock screen remains sadly absent from iPadOS.
At the same time, iPadOS means that it has been distributed on its own platform, that it has evolved to offer features not found on (and not suitable for) the iPhone, such as multitasking via Split View and now Stage Manager. But this attempt to fill one of the iPad’s biggest missing features is still stuck in the reality of its iOS origins: iPhone apps don’t really have a concept of “windows,” meaning the iPad has to work backwards to create a multitasking system that actually makes sense. The beta has seen its fair share of bugs and pitfalls; it will be interesting to see what the release version looks like (and given how Apple has continued to iterate on its previous multitasking approaches on the iPad, I don’t expect this to be anything more than a first stab).
Perhaps with a little more time and distance from iOS, iPadOS will finally come into its own, but the iPhone is not the only device with which the tablet shares a large part of its DNA.
The Mac danger
In some ways, the Mac is the much older sibling whose presence has overshadowed the iPad’s every move. External file support? A staple of the Mac experience. Full multitasking? The Mac has had it for more than 30 years. Windows? It’s been on the Mac since day one.
What’s fascinating is that the iPad has seemed determined to chart its own course in the implementation of many of these technologies, and it sometimes seems that it’s just for the sake of being various. Instead of adapting a version of the Mac’s proven multitasking system, iPadOS has instead insisted on inventing its own approach: first with Split View and now with Stage Manager.
There’s certainly something to be said for breaking new ground and not assuming that what came before was the best possible solution…but there’s also the argument that when something has worked well for decades, you might try just reinventing the wheel. If anything, the iPad’s avoidance of Mac features—particularly the freedom of the Mac platform, as opposed to the locked-down nature of iOS—has held the iPad back from becoming all it could be.
Granted, just turning the iPad into a Mac isn’t really a solution for the tablet either.
The middle ground
The iPad doesn’t have to be a big iPhone, and it doesn’t just have to be a Mac. So what’s left? The hardest needle to thread of them all: make the iPad its own device. A good start would be to question the assumptions that the tablet has inherited from iOS. Is a simple screen full of application icons the best use of the device’s most valuable real estate? There is no need to depend on decisions made for a completely different entity.
The next step is to steal sensibly. If the Mac has a feature that could benefit iPad users, there should be no shame in finding a way to make it work on the tablet. The company has already shown it can do this with its excellent customization of keyboard and cursor support via the Magic Keyboard. More like this.
When the iPad came out, it felt like a budding third revolution, but after a decade, much of that potential has been wasted. None of this is to say that the iPad hasn’t been a success, but that it hasn’t been all that it could be. The real option is for the iPad to be best of both worlds: taking the modern aspects of iOS and combining what worked well on the Mac and making it into a device that is more than the sum of its parts.