Most Apple fans have expected this year’s iPad Pro to be a powerhouse for a while now. Last year’s model only got the tiniest of spec bumps and processing upgrades, so it made sense that Apple would include its latest and greatest in this new tablet. However, when they chose to call the new processor M1 rather than A14X, the conversation around the iPad Pro took a turn.
This year certainly isn’t the first time that people have talked about the iPad Pro’s pure horsepower exceeding its flexibility and capability to use it. That’s been a running theme for a couple of years now. While I love the iPad Pro and iPadOS, I can’t really deny it, either. This software and ecosystem still has room to grow to meet this powerful hardware.
While features have been added to iPadOS much faster over the last 2 1/2 years, there are still bits and pieces missing that hold the experience back a bit. Those of us who are power users see how close it’s getting and how far the platform has come. But it’s not all the way there yet.
While complaints about the iPad Pro’s limitations are nothing new, Apple changing the name of the processor to match the latest Macs has just turned up the volume a bit. Predictably, I’m seeing a lot of Mac users calling for the iPad Pro to run macOS in the near future to take better advantage of the hardware. I have to say that I couldn’t be more opposed to this possibility.
While I’m sure this seems like a reasonable solution to the problem of power features and software availability to many, it’s really more of an over-simplified cop-out to avoid dealing with the more complex problems of developing and evolving an OS without the burden of legacy support. A move like this would turn the iPad Pro into an Apple Surface Pro- a device that serves a vocal niche of Mac users that runs an OS that isn’t designed to take full advantage of the hardware’s polish and features.
For any Microsoft fanboys who may be gearing up to come at me right now, I am a lifetime Windows user and I own a Surface Pro, so don’t bother. It’s got great hardware design and build quality and it’s a nice hybrid laptop. That aside, it absolutely sucks as a tablet because Windows 10 is unsuccessful at fully integrating and elevating touch and pen input. The touch experience is ridiculously bad and that’s a big reason why I still rely on an iPad Pro for tasks at work. I do think macOS would be better optimized for touch and pen than Win 10, but still not good enough.
An alternate path advocated by many Apple fans is merging macOS and iPadOS. Mark Gurman wrote a newsletter piece for Bloomberg on this earlier today saying this was basically inevitable and that Apple should just get on with it. Obviously I disagree, but I will grant that this path forward would likely take a while and give Apple’s engineers time to consider how to bring the best of both OSs together.
Because of that, I think this development track is more realistic and has a better chance of success. However, one big downside is that we would still likely end up with a lot of legacy code weighing down the eventual final product. One of the attractive aspects of iPadOS is that it doesn’t have that burden. That makes it lighter, more flexible and more modular. Those strengths would likely be lost as the result of a merger.
Based on what I’ve been reading on Twitter and in articles, adding macOS to the iPad Pro is primarily appealing to certain groups of Apple tablet users who also happen to be fans of the Mac. There are others segments of iPad owners who may not see things the same way, though. For instance, some other writers/podcasters/YouTube personalities I follow online, such as Federico Viticci, Tim Chatten and Matt Birchler, are using iPad Pros as primary computing devices. I’ve read and heard all of the above talking about how they prefer different aspects of the iPadOS interface to either macOS or Windows. As such, I don’t think you will see most of this group lining up in favor of a move to macOS, and possibly not even a merger of the two OSs.
I fall into what a believe is a sizeable block of cross-platform iPad users. I’m not sure how many of us who use Windows as their primary desktop platform are carrying iPad Pros and using them as more than just media consumption devices. That’s not a stat that Apple is handing out to anyone. However, just looking at OS market share and iPad device sales numbers are enough for me to believe I’m far from alone. We just don’t tend to hear from them as often because they aren’t a big part of the Apple blogosphere. Most Apple writers and hardcore fans are Mac users, or at least have a Mac background. I am definitely a rarity as a writer for an Apple site who uses Windows.
I think the majority of this cross-platform block of users would be opposed to a move to macOS. Speaking for myself, I use the iPad Pro when I can because I prefer the user experience to both Windows and macOS. I use Windows because I don’t have a choice at work. I don’t hate it, but I definitely don’t love it. I use iPadOS by choice because I enjoy both the hardware and software and how they work together. As such, the last thing I want to see is an interface that I know and enjoy using get pushed aside or watered down in favor of a legacy desktop OS and its baggage.
There are legitimate alternatives to beefing up the capability of the iPad Pro without making it a purely macOS device. One compromise measure would be to make the iPad Pro a dual-boot machine between both iPadOS and macOS. I can’t say I would be in favor of this, either. It feels like a potentially messy solution that could waste a lot of memory and storage space unnecessarily.
Maybe a more realistic option would be a virtualization mode that runs seamlessly within iPadOS. This would be a lot less of a memory and storage hog and would allow some macOS software to run on the iPad. While this sounds better, one concern I have is that Apple wouldn’t treat this as a stopgap while they continue to develop iPadOS, but just leave the two OSs side by side and stop pushing their tablet OS forward. This sounds a little like the old desktop mode that was built into the ill-fated Window RT just to run Microsoft Office. Could Apple avoid it becoming a franken-computer like the Surface with Win RT was?
Personally, I hope Apple chooses door number 3 and begins to push iPadOS development more aggressively. According to a report from Mark Gurman earlier today, it does sound like we are getting several new features in the iPadOS 15 update that will revealed at WWDC. Hopefully we get even more than what he mentioned in the article, but I will leave covering that for another day.
As long as Apple keeps adding power user and pro features and capabilities to iPadOS and sales of iPad Pro hardware continue to rise, more developers will port their software over to App’s tablets. The good news here is that the iPad doesn’t have to run macOS for this to work.
Thanks to the success of last year’s first M1 Macs, developers have already been hard at work optimizing and re-compiling their software to run natively on Apple Silicon. Apple’s virtualization mode for macOS works better than expected, but nothing beats native. That’s what customers, especially pro customers, want, so that’s what devs are delivering at an impressive rate. Compare this to how migration to Windows on ARM is going and, yeah..Apple is winning here.
This means a lot of software for Macs is ready to run on M1 today. If that application is written in Swift, then it’s a step closer to being ready to port to iPadOS. Add in Apple’s Catalyst as another bridge between platforms and you can see that it doesn’t take an iPad Pro running macOS for it to be attractive to developers moving forward. Beyond touch interface considerations. Apple could remove a LOT of the friction from this development and porting process. The easier Apple can make it, the more devs will use it.
It will be very interesting to hear what Apple has to say about this at WWDC. I have a feeling they already have a well-developed plan for software migration to encourage devs to make their pro apps available on iPadOS with less effort than ever before. I would be shocked if this isn’t a tentpole topic of the WWDC Keynote.
One bit of good news today (in my opinion) comes from an interview that Apple execs Greg Jozwiak and John Ternus gave to The Independent. They make it clear, at least for now and the immediate future, that macOS and iPadOS aren’t on any kind of collision course and that neither is set to take over for the other. The company still sees both as being on separate development tracks, again, at least for now. It sounds like anyone who thinks running macOS on an iPad seems a bit crazy doesn’t have anything to worry about today.
All that said, I know I’m advocating the harder path here. Apple does have an interesting and challenging road ahead if they choose to stay the course of developing macOS and iPadOS independently, it will be a difficult balancing act to continue to bring more power and features to their tablet OS without introducing too much complexity and turning off the larger market of casual iPad users. That is a tough one, because there are MANY more casual iPad users than power users today. The Average Price per Unit for the iPad lineup makes this very clear.
This road may be harder and longer, but it’s also where the true potential of the iPad could actually be realized. We’ve seen a lot of flashes and glimpses of it over the last 11 years and there are niches where the iPad outshines all comers. However, its full potential has yet to be reached. Here’s hoping that Apple continues to aggressively develop iPadOS to reach that goal over the next few years.