There has been a lot of talk about what Apple is doing with the iPad Pro and how they should proceed with the development of both the hardware and software since the latest models were announced last week. Whether they did it intentionally or not, Apple stoked this fire when they chose to use the M1 branding for the new iPad Pro’s processor. This move naturally linked the new Pro with their successful M1 Macs released late last year and got people talking about the limitations that still hold the iPad Pro back in various ways.
Yes, even as a big fan of iPadOS and Apple’s tablets, I can admit that there are still a number of limitations, especially when contrasted with the power of recent iPad Pro models.
I have been following discussions on Twitter and in other articles on this topic over the last week and I’ve been surprised at the number of people who see the development of the iPad and its software as a continuous 11-year arc since the launch of the original device. This is an idea I heartily disagree with for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.
Before I do, it’s worth asking why the progression of the iPad platform over time is important. In my opinion, defining the development arc sets expectations for where various iPad models should be in their lifecycles and what they should be capable of at this point. I think some people, especially those who may not be fans of Apple’s tablets or have much experience with them, may look at that 11-year lifespan and see nothing but missed opportunity and failure.
Apple fans aren’t usually that pessimistic, but they can be fairly critical, as well. I can’t help but think back to an episode of The Talk Show last year with John Gruber and Ben Thompson where it was proposed that iPadOS was a mistake and should be completely rolled back and rebuilt from the ground up. I know my biases, but I do see the situation a lot differently than they do and part of that is because of how I look at the development of the iPad.
The “3rd Device” Period
I think back to the introductory event for the original iPad, where Steve Jobs was very specific in how he positioned this new tablet as a “3rd device” to sit between a smartphone and a traditional computer. It was the perfect product for its time, handling basic computing tasks with a much larger screen than a smartphone and more speed than a laptop of the day. It also did it all at a pretty reasonable starting price point.
I enjoyed using the original iPad, but it was the iPad 2 in 2011 that really hooked me. I remember using it in place of my Windows laptop whenever I could because it was far more efficient for quick tasks. That old Windows XP computer wasn’t a slow, low-end machine by any means, but in the days before SSDs were widely available, even a relatively well speced PC took a while to boot up to a fully usable state. The iPad couple be turned on out of sleep mode in an instant and running at top speed. That was a game changer for me back then.
Hitting the wall
But times change and the tech landscape changes even faster. Within a few years of the iPad’s release, we had iPhones with larger screens and laptops that were getting progressively thinner and faster. By 2015, I had both a plus-sized iPhone and a thin laptop with a touchscreen and an SSD. That 3rd Device territory got squeezed down in a big way and iPad sales went from record-setting to flat to bottomed out in fairly short span of time. The original positioning of the iPad as a secondary, consumption-first device was no longer going to work.
At this point, Apple was kind of treading water and didn’t seem to have a long-term plan to pivot the iPad in a new direction. Sales and revenues were slumping, and the iPad platform as a whole came to a crossroads. New models with simple spec bumps weren’t cutting it, in spite of Apple’s typically adept marketing.
The foundation for a new direction
Eventually Apple started trying new things, but it felt a bit haphazard and experimental at times. The iPad Pro did bring us a larger screen, the Apple Pencil, a first-party keyboard, and the beginnings of split-screen multitasking. I loved that 2015 iPad Pro.
Like many, I had fallen away from the iPad in favor of a larger smartphone and a faster laptop with an SSD. Even though I still liked the iPad hardware, it just didn’t feel like a device I needed anymore, and I didn’t believe Apple was going anywhere with it. That first iPad Pro changed my perception and got me thinking about what Apple’s tablets could still become and made me believe they hadn’t given up on them.
This hardware was a step forward at the time, but it still lacked a lot of features for a device with “Pro” in the name. The multitasking was clunky and very limited, and the file system was still behind a locked door. The Pro was new, but it was more of a prelude to a new direction than a true new beginning.
Considering that the introduction of the iPad Pro didn’t fix Apple’s lackluster tablet sales, it ended up being overshadowed a bit by the re-introduction of the iPad as a value-priced option in 2016. For all of the Pro’s bells and whistles, it was this more modest product that finally got Apple’s tablet biz back in the black.
This can’t be overlooked because Apple couldn’t absorb iPad losses indefinitely. For them to pivot the top end of the line in a new direction, there had to be some way to service existing customers who remained interested in the iPad as it was, and to bring in new users with an attractive starting price. The new iPad worked perfectly and set the stage for a full line of tablets to eventually emerge.
The real turning point
In my opinion, the real turning point for the iPad came the next year. At WWDC in 2017, Apple revealed two new iPad Pro models and a bevy of new features in iOS 11 that were a significant step forward for iPad users. The iPad was the star of the show that year and it got people looking at Apple’s tablets, especially the iPad Pro, in a different light. The re-designed Dock and revamped multitasking features combined with the new Files app brought the iPad Pro closer to being able to stand toe-to-toe with a computer.
Looking back, I will always see this event as the beginning of the current trajectory of the iPad, especially the top end of the line. Apple played around with the Pro moniker, but still seemed to struggle with a long-term vision for what they wanted their tablets to become. In contrast, if you look from 2017 to the present, you see a more consistent approach to adding new capabilities and plugging feature gaps. They’ve even gone as far as splitting of the OS from the iPhone in 2019. There has been a constant progression toward something more than the iPad was before. I don’t know what Apple’s eventual goals for their tablets are, but unlike five years ago, it looks like the company is executing on a plan with some real thought behind it right now. I wouldn’t have said that in 2014.
In just under four years, Apple has remade the iPad and its operating system from looking like an upscaled iPhone with a few extras tacked on to something far more unique and interesting. If you consider last year as either a limited or maybe even lost year in terms of development due to COVID, the amount of progress made in a relatively short period of time is pretty impressive.
I think it’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t start down this road with the iPad sooner. Who knows where iPadOS could already be today if they had. I think there were definitely some missed opportunities along the way and a lack of vision that allowed Apple’s tablet business to stagnate. Maybe the huge sales those first three years blinded the company’s execs to the brick wall they were headed for. No matter what progress is being made today, Apple shouldn’t get a free pass for this. I think this period is the reason a segment of the tech press is still skeptical of Apple’s plans for the iPad line today.
At least Apple did turn that corner a few years ago and begin a new chapter for a class of devices that still has a lot of untapped potential. It is important to look back at how it all went down, but it’s also critical not to dwell in the past. Apple moved on and it’s time the way we look at their iPad biz does, as well.
Have a little patience
I bring all of this up as we wait for iPad Pro preorders to open later this week and as many tech pundits wonder aloud what the point of this supercharged hardware is. I think any iPad fan who is honest with themselves knows full well that, while the iPad Pro still has a tremendous amount of untapped potential, it also has several remaining limitations. However we choose to look at things, there is some merit to the criticism. Yes, iPadOS does hold the power of the hardware back in some ways. Looking back, I’m sure that Windows 95, Microsoft’s first step toward a new design language for desktop computing, did as well.
What is my point? I don’t think the current state of iPadOS is all that unreasonable given that the direction we currently see only goes back a few years. It takes time for any OS in transition to grow and evolve. Let’s give iPadOS a little time to go through this same maturation process, as well. I don’t completely disregard the seven years that came before, but I believe the company has shown us enough in the last four to earn some benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, Apple has proven that it’s listening pretty closely to what Pro tablet users want in an operating system.
What does the future hold
Assuming Apple bounces back from a pedestrian update in iPadOS 14 (understandably so due to COVID constraints on in-person work) and delivers the goods at this year’s WWDC, we will have five straight years of steady progress. This has moved the iPad from a sidekick device for all but a small number of die-hard fans to something very close to being able to replace desktop and laptop computers for a large number of people. In the absence of some revolutionary technology that changes everything in the coming years, I really do believe that the iPad Pro and iPadOS have that kind of potential if Apple continues to push them forward with the same urgency we have seen over the last four years. It’s still a big if, but I think there’s reason for optimism when looking at the progress hat’s been made.
I know it’s human nature to want to hit fast forward and see how this all plays out, but the world, even the tech work, just doesn’t work that way. Realistically, it’s going to take at least another three or four years for iPadOS to really get where many of us want it to go and turn the iPad Pro into a legitimate primary computing device for a more mainstream audience. I know that’s an eternity in tech nerd years and that I’m making some assumptions of what Apple has in mind for the iPad line in the near future.
However, I’ve seen enough progress since 2017 to believe that Apple still has big plans for tablets and to have a little patience while it all unfolds. If they drop the ball and start to lose their way with the iPad platform in the near future, believe me when I say I’ll be the first one in line to call them out on it. However, based on the last four years and early indications of what we will get at WWDC, I think Apple really does have an answer to the question of why the new iPad Pro feels so overpowered today. I think a day is coming soon when that will no longer be the case.