Let Tablets Be Tablets

Thoughts about the current state of the iPad and speculation about Apple’s plans for the platform

It’s kind of funny that with all the talk about “walled gardens” and Apple’s closed ecosystem, it extends to the people talking about Apple. All of the tech journalists feel like this incestuous group who are always going on each other’s podcasts and referencing each other’s videos. That means that once anybody states an opinion with enough force, it becomes A Truth Universally Acknowledged.

One of those is that the iPad is at best languishing, at worst completely failing to live up to its obvious potential. It’s got as much power as a laptop Mac, and the latest M4 models have even more power than Macs, so why does Apple insist on hobbling it by keeping it from being able to do all the things a Mac can do?

With any new iPad release, the first stunt any tech journalist tries to do is use it as a replacement for their laptop. They dutifully report back after a week, or a month, letting us know that it’s not quite there yet. And the limitations are more often than not related to the kinds of things that tech journalists want to do: it’s not good for recording podcasts, or it’s not the best at editing videos for YouTube.

I’ve been guilty of the same thing, repeatedly. I just took it as a given that the iPad was Apple’s vision of the future of computing, the device that would become a successor to the Mac. My biggest complaint is that you can’t do any software development on it1I found out just recently that Swift Playgrounds, which I’d always assumed was just a tutorial environment aimed at first-time programmers, got a lot more powerful in version 4, and you can now develop apps and publish them to the App Store, all from the iPad.. It’s been a massive bummer, since it’d be perfect for a WYSIWYG HyperCard-like development environment, and/or for making games for the Playdate.

After using the M4 iPad Pro for a while, along with the most recent iPad mini, I believe I’ve been thinking about the iPad all wrong. It finally hit me when I was listening to one of the aforementioned podcasts, and a tech journalist lamented that the iPad-centric announcements at WWDC were such a disappointment. Why does Apple still keep you from being able to do things with your $2000 iPad?

My immediate reaction was: Why would anyone need to be spending $2000 on an iPad?! Sure, Apple will happily sell you a fully-maxed-out iPad for thousands of dollars, but they’re not positioning the iPad as a Mac replacement. So were did everybody get the idea that it was?

Okay, the $300-and-up “Magic Keyboard” might have something to do with it. My previous iPad2According to Wikipedia, the “fourth generation” iPad Pro, before the release of the M1 models had a “folio” case that included a keyboard, and it was perfect: it added minimal bulk, and it was a solid enough keyboard for doing stuff like writing email or blog posts. I’m baffled as to why they don’t offer this for the newer models, instead pushing a more laptop-style keyboard and trackpad, which by all accounts is excellent, but which doubles the size and weight of the thing. At that point, I’m better off taking my laptop with me. The Magic Keyboard feels as if it’s forcing the iPad to be something it clearly doesn’t want to be.

For the record: when I “upgraded” my iPad, I got the ESR “Rebound” case, which is not only much cheaper than Apple’s equivalent, but includes a flap to keep from losing your Apple Pencil.

Apple has also been muddying the water by adding more Mac-like features to the iPad: the stage manager for multiple-window multitasking (which I have never used, personally); support for external monitors and other devices; and adding Final Cut and Logic, which have been traditionally thought of as “desktop” apps. With the new processors, it’s easy to see why people were expecting to see even more desktop-like features added to iPad OS.

Another complaint about the WWDC announcements was that Apple didn’t add many features that were unique to the iPad. It was basically just adding a calculator app, which is something Apple themselves made fun of. But then they showed off Math Notes using the Apple Pencil, which to me at least, seemed like pure magic. And they showed some AI-assisted editing tools for handwritten text, which seemed like pure magic that I’d actually use!

That’s the part that seemed the most like Apple delivering a mission statement for the iPad: it’s not intended to be a Mac with a touch screen, but a platform entirely designed around touch- and pencil-based interaction.

I’ll admit I’m showing my bias here, since that’s the main way I interact with everything I do on the iPad. My main iPad is used primarily for making “art” for games, and I’ve got a mostly-gratuitous “hey check out Mr. Gottrocks here” iPad mini that I use for taking notes or reading books.3And just because I like holding it. I think it’s neat. And it’s with apps like Procreate, GoodNotes, Nomad Sculpt, and Kindle and Marvel Unlimited that the iPad really seems to come into its own as a distinct platform.

As somebody who diligently learned Graffiti for the Palm Pilot, and then more or less ignored handwriting recognition developments for a couple of decades, I was astounded by how good the Scribble feature is on the iPad. I do wonder whether the “Eat Up Martha” jokes stung so bad that Apple has been reluctant to go too public with how good it’s gotten at handwriting recognition, because I hadn’t heard anything about it until it was right there waiting in every text field.

And the more recent developments that let you keep your handwriting as handwriting, but still edit it as if it were text, are even more impressive. It’s still often useful to have a keyboard, and I’d never write something like this long-hand4Even though it might keep me from rambling, come to think of it, but I’ve been running into fewer and fewer times when the keyboard was absolutely essential. All the marketing aside, it really does feel like entering a “post-PC world.”

That’s reinforced by the promised improvements to Siri and the system-wide integration of generative AI. I still have a ton of issues with how the language models are trained, how OpenAI seems like an ethical nightmare, and how the Midjourney-style art everywhere is an abomination. But being able to operate the iPad using primarily natural language — whether it’s voice, handwriting, or typing — goes even farther towards making the keyboard and mouse/trackpad seem irrelevant.

The most cynical take — which is, I believe, also a correct take — is that Apple’s never going to sell you a device to replace your Mac when it’s more profitable to sell you an iPad in addition to a Mac. Any theory about what Apple’s trying to do becomes immediately suspect the second you forget that they’re a computer hardware company eager to sell you more devices.

But their success also gives them the luxury to stay at least a little bit idealistic. I think with stuff like the Vision Pro, the iPad, and even the Watch, there is a genuine desire to push out the boundaries of what computers can do, and how people can use them. Their marketing has been explicit about it, especially with the “what’s a computer” ad. When the iPad was first announced, it was explicitly pitched as a rejection of the hybrid Pen Computing approach that Microsoft was pushing, trying (and mostly failing) to make desktop Windows work with a stylus as well as a mouse with no compromises. I still believe that it’s a worthy goal to stubbornly insist on a platform that has no intention of converging with MacOS, but instead takes full advantage of being a tablet.

Most of the time I wish that the iPad could do something that I can only do on the Mac, what I’m really wishing for is an even thinner and lighter MacBook. It often seems like it’d be ideal (and frankly, more consumer-friendly) to have a hybrid iPad that could boot into “Mac mode” to get the best of both worlds, but that also feels short-sighted. Like taking a platform in the middle of redefining what the personal computer is, and weighing it down with 40 years of legacy.

And I don’t think Apple has found the right balance yet. A lot of the limitations of the iPad don’t feel so much like “holding true to a vision of Future Computing” as they feel arbitrary, or motivated by wanting to keep the platform locked down5Which, again, I don’t think is inherently bad, even though it’s often frustrating.. And it does often feel like they’re slow to innovate — a lot of people were hoping for improvements to file management in iPadOS 18, but I’d be much happier to see them come up with some kind of paradigm that makes file management an unnecessary anachronism.

The one Universally Acknowledged Truth that I agree with is that the M4 iPad Pro has a ton of power but seemingly no software to make full use of it.6The only reason I “upgraded” from my perfectly serviceable 5-year-old iPad was because I wanted to get as much trade-in value as I could out of it. What I’m hoping comes out of that is more apps like Nomad Sculpt — I never would’ve thought that 3D modeling would be practical on a mobile device, but after using it for a while, going back to desktop 3D apps feels like banging rocks together. It’s likely that I’m still too much of an amateur to take full advantage of what a desktop app can do, so the simpler iPad interface feels so much more natural and accessible.

Maybe that’s the key to the iPad’s future? The “pro” apps will always have a home on desktop and laptop machines, for the actual professionals who can use them to their fullest. Meanwhile, the iPad will take over the mantle of being the computer for the rest of us.

  • 1
    I found out just recently that Swift Playgrounds, which I’d always assumed was just a tutorial environment aimed at first-time programmers, got a lot more powerful in version 4, and you can now develop apps and publish them to the App Store, all from the iPad.
  • 2
    According to Wikipedia, the “fourth generation” iPad Pro, before the release of the M1 models
  • 3
    And just because I like holding it. I think it’s neat.
  • 4
    Even though it might keep me from rambling, come to think of it
  • 5
    Which, again, I don’t think is inherently bad, even though it’s often frustrating.
  • 6
    The only reason I “upgraded” from my perfectly serviceable 5-year-old iPad was because I wanted to get as much trade-in value as I could out of it.

3 thoughts on “Let Tablets Be Tablets”

  1. I’ve had the folio keyboard for my iPad, and have had to replace it because the soft-touch coating on the non-key sections of this thing just starts to disintegrate after a year. Twice. So I think maybe part of not offering it is that they couldn’t figure out how to make it durable enough to survive being used.

    That said, I still have and use my folio case because it’s an excellent keyboard for the iPad, and it turns the iPad more from a pure consumption device to something I can write a bit on. It’s surprising to me how much of a difference it makes. It’s not like I couldn’t grab my MacBook, or use a soft keyboard, but those hurdles are enough for me to often just stay in “consumption” mode.

    I’m very surprised that Ableton hasn’t made a version of Live for the iPad – at this point, you can’t say it’s a power issue, and a touch-sensitive version of Live would essentially be Live + Push in one device, and would immediately be the most portable, most powerful music app around, and a critical part of any traveling musician’s toolbox. Even if they kept the pricing exactly the same as it currently is, but for iPad. People would happily pay $500 for it. Ableton Note is a nice compromise, but Live on the iPad would be totally killer, and I haven’t seen any real obstacles to doing it. Maybe there are some behind the scenes, I dunno.

    1. For Ableton I would’ve assumed it’s a combination of them wanting to sell their own hardware (do they make a portable DAW?) and maybe the lack of connectivity. I’m not experienced enough with musical equipment to know whether you’d need more than 1 USB-C port to connect everything.

      But the idea of a tablet-based DAW makes even more sense than running it on a laptop! Garage Band is another one of those apps that’s fine on a Mac, but really comes into its own on the iPad.

      That’s the quality that I was trying to get at towards the end of this post, with mention of Nomad Sculpt: designing apps so that they don’t feel like the desktop version ported to pencil and touch input, but rethought to take full advantage of being on a tablet. How do you take the workflows that people are familiar with, simplify and abstract away all the tedious stuff that’s more a result of tradition than any actual hardware limitation, and keep it powerful enough to do (almost) anything that a “prosumer” level user would want to do?

  2. This is one of the better iPad posts I’ve seen in a very long time! Everything from your opening lines about the tiny clique of tech journalists that repeat one another to the final paragraphs.

    The repetition of the same narrative, especially as it pertains to the iPad, is unfortunate as it leaves so much unsaid and unexplored about how the iPad is being used outside of the tech pundit bubble. To this day I marvel at the fact that the iPad can be that safe, simple computer for so many non-technical people. In the last 8 years of her life my granny was able to reconnect to so many people thanks to the iPad. It’s that safe computer right now for at least 4 of my family members.

    And yet it has also evolved into this a computer that is quite capable of so much more. You’ve captured it well with your title. For me it has become the modular computer that can be everything. I evolved into it unintentionally over time rather than pulling some switch-to-iPad stunt for public display. As a result my transition was not stressed. I just gradually and happily used the iPad as needed. But it was primarily as a tablet supplemented with a keyboard sometimes. Until, at some point, it was my computer of choice. Still very much a fun-to-use touch-first computer but also so much more.

    I’m still using the M1 13″ and make full use of it with apps like Affinity Publisher (Also Affinity Designer and Photo though to a lesser degree) for the graphic design half of my business. Though they’ve gotten some attention I don’t think they are fully appreciated as the full “desktop class” apps that they are.

    The other half of my work is based on the Textastic app and that’s coding, updating and managing 8 or so client websites. Then Numbers for admin tasks.

    On any given day I use the iPad in in a stand clamped to a shelf near my futon, in my hands, in a stand resting on my lap, or docked in the Magic Keyboard. I hope Apple stays the course as they seem to be, trusting in iPadOS rather than messing about with dual booting. Frankly, I love not just the iPad form factor but iPadOS.

    Tech folk are always impatient for the new shiny and then when something does come along that they wanted, say Final Cut Pro for the iPad, the underplay the achievement with a brush-off. It strikes me that much of the tone of the pundits and even much of the larger “enthusiast” community has become rather joyless and cynical.

    Anyhoo, apologies for the run on comment! I new before I started that this would become a mini blog post. Will link to your post in the next day or so with a proper post on my own blog.

    Thanks for the great read!

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