How long do you think it takes to redesign an iPad? Specifically, how long do you think Apple’s designers were working on the redesign of the iPad Pro that was unveiled in October 2018, three years after the first generation of iPad Pros?
I’d go for about two years. Probably not more, but probably not much less. Back in late 2016, the team doing the initial design specs for the 2018 hardware would have had a few targets in mind – particularly, USB-C for its connector port, an interface introduced on the Mac line in 2015. They’d have known it was going to be on more and more Macs by the time this hardware came out. They’d know that the iPhone wasn’t intended to have USB-C, but that was OK: the iPad they were working on was for the Pro line, and something big was coming up for that. Faster GPUs! Faster CPUs! And – get this – up to a terabyte of storage. That’s desktop-class – except this is SSD storage, so dramatically faster than most 1TB desktops. This was going to be a lean, mean, professional machine with minimal bezels, and a new generation of Face ID. The hardware trajectory was mapped out. (There was already a parallel effort on the summer 2017 update to the Pro line, but that didn’t change much apart from shaving a little weight and improving the screen characteristics.)
The software roadmap said the iPad OS would get a big feature upgrade befitting the new “Pro” devices. So iOS 12 would be shown off in mid-2018, and then in the autumn (“fall” to you Americans, “spring” to you lovely antipodeans) the software itself would arrive, and soon afterwards the devices – which would really flex their Pro muscles, because the designers knew that the CPU and GPU performance was going to blow standard PCs away.
It would all be so easy.
But then something happened. While the designers were working through 2017, it transpired that iOS 11 wasn’t quite as solid as had been thought. (As evidence: even in July 2018, websites could still run “11 most common iOS 11 problems and how to fix them” and expect serious traffic.)
Apple’s software teams must have seen very early after iOS 11’s release (that’s late 2017) that there were serious problems which needed deep attention. And so in January 2018 software vice-president Craig Federighi held an internal meeting where he said that plans for the big updates that had been scheduled for iOS 12 were being put off for a year. Instead, iOS 12 would be a “solidify and speed up” release – as happened with MacOS X with the “Snow Leopard” update in 2009.
Ah. So now the new iPad Pro design is steaming down the tracks – everything long ago locked in, factories booked, release dates figured out – but, the iPad Pro team mouths in silent frustration, you’re going to hang us out to dry with just these little tweaks rather than the full-fat thing that we were promised? That’s not the ‘Pro’ iPad we wanted to release.
This, I think, is the scenario that played out inside Apple. Ina Fried (author of the Axios story about Federighi breaking the news to the team) and Mark Gurman have filled in some detail; Gurman in particular tweeted in May that iOS 13
“will have a big iPad-focused feature upgrade as well, including an updated Files app. some other things in the works are tabs in apps like in MacOS, same app side by side”
“An updated Files app”, huh? I wonder if that, hmmmmm, might have been able to show the files on, oh, let’s hazard a guess, USB-attached drives? And the “same app side by side” feature (ie, you want to look at two copies of the same document, or two documents at once, in an app such as Pages) is something whose absence a lot of people have commented on lately. It’s faintly possible that these leaks about features reached Gurman from people who were on or near the iPad Pro team, and who were trying to send a signal – however faint – to the future about what the iPad Pros that were also yet to come would be able to do.
Delays: part of life
This sort of thing has happened before, most recently with the Apple TV release of 2015, when Tim Cook stood on a stage and declared “we believe the future of TV is apps”, and showed off a device that had been delayed so long that some of its team had left up the company to a year earlier. Everyone’s reaction was “huh? What apps? Why apps?” The reason for the delay was that Apple had spent ages – literal years – trying to get US TV content producers to agree to turn their offerings into apps, but the producers wouldn’t budge, and wouldn’t budge, and finally Apple just decided to see if it could make the market happen by putting the hardware out there. (It’s happening, perhaps, but incredibly slowly. Meanwhile Netflix and Amazon are gathering all the cord cutters who are watching TV… through apps.)
In other words, the reason why the new iPad Pros aren’t “replacing your laptop” just yet is that iOS 11 fell short of what was planned. Rather than ignore that, Apple chose to sacrifice some peoples’ short-term satisfaction with the iPad Pro release in favour of pleasing the much larger population that would be using iOS 12. So iOS 12 is faster on old hardware than iOS 11, and it’s more stable. Both are boons for all iOS 12 users.
But this lack of key improvements to iOS 12 in turn meant that the new iPad Pros – introduced in October as “an uncompromising vision of computing for the modern world” – received what we could call a crouching ovation from reviewers.
Nilay Patel, at The Verge, wrote a review which is not so much excoriating as exhausted, saying that no matter how fast the hardware is, “it’s still an iPad”.
This is true, but I think we now have a clearer idea why it’s “still an iPad”: because the software got delayed.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re running a big corporation. You have a product roadmap, but then some part of it – hardware, software, chip design – gets waylaid and you have to change your plans. Apple is fortunate in having an established product so that it could pretend that the software miss didn’t happen and could Carry On Regardless. (Such delays used to have much bigger effects. When Apple misread the market in 2000, and offered Macs with DVD-ROM drives instead of CD-burning drives, at a time when everyone was much more interested in burning MP3s to CD than watching films on their PCs, it crashed to a quarterly loss. But it wasn’t all bad: it forced the acquisition of SoundJam, later iTunes, and the program to create the iPod. You know the rest.)
Probably there are some people down there in the iPad team dreaming about What Might Have Been. But Apple’s in this for the long term. A delay of nine or 12 months isn’t relevant here. What’s the concern? PCs will make a comeback? Windows detachables or ChromeOS detachables will take over the world? Nope.
Down to work
Even so, I think people are still too down on the iPad Pro as a device on which to do lots of work. The most common argument is “I can’t throw away my laptop and just use an iPad because I have to do [task X] on my laptop.”
I think this slightly misses the point. Apple isn’t saying “never use your laptop again”. It’s saying “your old laptop’s fine. But when it comes time to buy some new equipment, why not get an iPad Pro instead?” It supplants and extends, not replaces, but the distinction can be hard to perceive. Matt Gemmell, who has shifted entirely to using an iPad, apart from when he needs to see what his site looks like on a different browser, makes this point pretty well in a piece about his new big iPad:
Also, be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes a judgement about switching to an iPad when they haven’t actually done it themselves (this goes for most judgements about most things throughout life). This group includes the apparent majority of tech journalists, most of whom seem to have an annual ritual of spending one week with the newest iPad, and then saying it’s not a laptop replacement yet in some general sense. How would you even know? I certainly didn’t until six months or so in.
I agree with this; I didn’t adjust to using an iPad fully until I had to, but then found the switch pretty comfortable, to the extent that I now pick up the iPad in preference to my (much heavier) MacBook Pro when going out because I know I can do all the things I need to do with it: between Scrivener for writing, and Pythonista and Workflow/Shortcuts for knocking together ad-hoc scripts, I can get done what I need on the hoof. Update: if you’re looking for more ways to Get Things Done on an iPad, I recommend Federico Viticci’s archive of Shortcuts over at MacStories, which have downloadable ways to do all sorts of things – 89 at present – which includes zipping and unzipping files, scheduling, reminders, etc.
OK, but. There have been some reasonable criticisms of the hardware. Patel points to the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack – “a curious omission, since so many iPads are used essentially as televisions, and so many pro media workflows demand low-latency audio monitoring”. This is a good point, though I think the “used as a TV” one is slightly stronger than the latter.
Clearly, Apple is trying to drive people towards AirPods on the consumer side. For professionals, though, you can get a USB-C hub from places like Hypershop which will offer you a 7-port dongle for $80 which includes a 3.5mm headphone jack, USB-A and Thunderbolt. You’d hope that somewhere in there you’d be able to find a port you can hook into for professional production.
Patel also points out the files thing (you plug in a hard drive via USB, it doesn’t show up). Could it be this got pulled from iOS 12 in that January software reset? Does that mean the hard drive will show up in iOS 13? Well, never say “definitely”, but I’d think the chances were good.
So the reviews which are saying “well, it’s not there yet” have merit. It’s worth reading Craig Mod’s piece about feeling conflicted by his iPad Pro: he likes the fact that it’s lighter and more robust, but getting some things done feels like a struggle instead of a process. (John Gruber describes using the iPad to get stuff done as “like typing with mittens on – when I get to the Mac, it’s like taking them off.”)
The Work Thing
Except I have to say – I like working on the iPad Pro. I’ve been using it since the first generation. I tend to feel that these days if you have tasks which require putting physical plugs with hard drives into a computer, then they’re either quite antiquated tasks, or very specialised ones.
The hard drive non-appearance is clearly an obstacle to Getting Stuff Done. Although can I say.. I don’t miss external hard drives? There’s a gajillion places you can store stuff for free in the cloud (iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, I’ve barely begun) and you don’t have to wonder if today is the day the drive is going to die. From time to time I back up my Mac using SuperDuper!, and nowadays doing so feels like a strange chore transplanted from the past, like sweeping a chimney or shoeing a horse. My iPad’s files just back themselves up while I sleep.
So if you need a hard drive – really need it – then either your workflow hasn’t adapted to the fact that we’re in a multi-screen world, or you need the extra heft that desktop/laptop processors can offer. And that’s fine! Nobody is going to look down on you for having a job like that. Quite the opposite.
But equally, I’m going to discount the “use case” of watching a film or listening to music that’s stored on an external hard drive for pleasure (rather than work, ie video processing or other functions), because these days that’s a smaller and smaller use case, in the west at least. We have streaming video services and streaming audio services streaming out of our whatevers, and we can download those files to our devices when online to view while offline. Also, what sort of monster watches a film on their PC rather than on a TV?
As for plugging stuff in – printers? as Steve Sinofsky pointed out, “printers have been wireless for a decade”. It’s almost perverse to physically plug a computer in to a printer. I just don’t.
What Patel’s examples say to me is that the interface between the old world (PC form factor, saves to external hard drives) and the new world (phone and tablet form factor, saves to cloud) isn’t sorted out. It’s still too hard to get stuff from the old world to the new, like some interdimensional portal plot device in a sci-fi film.
Dog food afternoon
What’s needed to get the iPad taken seriously as a contender to replace the laptop? Sure, people need to adjust their workflows. But there are a couple of things Apple could do which would make it attractive to developers – because this thing is really fast. (How fast? I’m not exactly sure. But I timed the Python script which generates the 14 graphs in this post on my 2012 retina MacBook Pro, this 12.9in iPad, and the iPhone X. Results: MBP (core i7, Ivy Bridge): 23.6 seconds. iPad (A9X chip): 10.3 seconds. IPhone X (A11 chip): 3.3 seconds. If the new iPads have improved as one might expect, that’s going to take around 1.5 seconds, which is a huge improvement even over four years.)
So here’s what Apple could do to stop those “well, it’s an iPad, isn’t it?” reviews.
• First, the hard drive thing. But that might be coming anyway.
• Second, implement second screens – properly. At the moment, though you can plug in a second screen, it only mirrors the first rather than extending the desktop.
Update: of course as soon as I hit “publish” and walked away to do something more important, I realised what I’d overlooked: that second-screen support implies some way to control the cursor on the second screen, and that you can’t assume touch on that screen. So either you need some sort of trackpad, or you need a window on the iPad which acts as a cursor control for both screens. Not an insuperable problem, but a tricky one to do satisfactorily. However a second screen is an important part of the next, key step, which is…
• Xcode on iPad. If you want developers to adopt this thing wholesale, you need to enable them to write apps on and for it. The iPad Pro is definitely fast enough. I’d love to know what’s holding Apple back from doing this; rather as in the early 2000s it had MacOS X on PowerPC and also Intel, it’s sure to have versions of Xcode running on iOS and/or the ARM architecture. If there’s one thing developers keep asking for, it’s Xcode on iPad. But you need the other parts too: proper hard drive access, proper second screening.
The simple way to make this happen would be for Apple to dogfood it: force the iOS team to work on iPads. This however is a chicken-and-egg situation, with the added problem that you start with a chicken which can’t even lay an egg.
I think we have an inkling that Apple was going to have done this by now; except, for reasons we don’t know about, it didn’t. And though this is something we hear each year, perhaps Xcode is coming to the iPad – or the A-series chip – with the next release of iOS.
But even if it doesn’t, you know what? The iPad Pro is a pretty remarkable platform for a lot of work.