Exploring the multiverse of the new iPad Pro

Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010 as a consumption device, a tablet to browse the web, watch a movie, read a book, you get the idea. Certain productivity tasks, like writing documents, painting or composing music, also adapted well to the touch-only interface and over time, the iPad became a versatile tech product.

For years, Apple has defended the idea that a single customer can benefit from owning both an iPad and a MacBook, using them in different scenarios but bound by the same ecosystem. On one hand, an iPad was more suitable for light-weight scenarios, for those who did not want to be tied to any heavy peripherals to get things done. On the other hand, a MacBook was more convenient for sit-down scenarios with a need for processing power, the comfort of a bigger screen, the precision of a keyboard and mouse, etc.

This product distinction started blurring with the introduction of bigger iPads, accessories like the Apple Pencil or the Magic Keyboard, and more desktop-like features on iPadOS. An example of this was adding mouse or trackpad support in iPadOS 13. Taking into account all of these changes, there seems to be a secret plan from Apple to transform the iPad into something new, with features that were previously reserved for a laptop/desktop experience.

One more nail in the coffin was Apple’s recent Spring 2021 event, when it was announced that the new iPad Pro will house the new M1 chip. This new desktop-class processor allows Apple to compete with the likes of Intel or AMD. More importantly, Apple now owns the entire hardware manufacturing pipeline, reducing costs and eliminating dependencies on vendors. M1 already provides significant performance improvements to the latest line-up of Macs, and now iPads too. The new iPad Pro will also include up to 16GB of RAM, which is surprising given that these are the same tech specs of the newest MacBook Pro.

Many have started wondering, what is Apple planning to do with an iPad Pro that contains the same hardware as a MacBook Pro? Rumors and leaks have not provided much insight into what’s being cooked in Cupertino, so let’s explore the iPad’s intriguing future.

Thumbnail from YouTube channel: ‘A Better Computer’

Imagine that each of the following possible scenarios takes place in a different universe, that they are mutually exclusive futures. Let’s travel through the iPad’s multiverse and see what can happen.

1. iPad will support dual-booting into iPadOS or macOS (Spoiler: terrible idea!)

Macs have plenty of history with dual-boot solutions, as Boot Camp lovers will point out. Providing a way to natively boot an iPad into macOS would delight a lot of power users and would likely be the easiest solution from Apple’s engineering perspective. Apple has the dual-boot expertise and now the required hardware too, so this solution would have a low cost. iPad fans out there have been asking for this dual-boot option since iPadOS was introduced, but they talk about it as if a restart of the iPad was not required to switch between the two operating systems. Unfortunately a device restart is required, making it too disruptive from a user experience perspective.

A way to mitigate these negative side effects would be to ensure that both iPadOS and macOS shared the same installed iOS/iPadOS apps (now that these apps can run on macOS), the same background image, the same file system, etc. But it doesn’t fix the flow-breaking impact of a required reboot. This means that if you are browsing or shopping on iPadOS, and suddenly you want to open a native macOS app, you are forced to close/save your progress and restart the whole device just to get to macOS. Yuck.

Even if that doesn’t bother you, don’t get your hopes up, since this is probably the most unlikely future among all the possibilities. The macOS interface on the iPad, at least as we know it today, would be highly frustrating for the average user (imagine trying to accurately tap with your finger the tiny red button that closes a window). 

If those weren’t enough reasons why this future is a terrible idea, consider how it would contradict the design principles that Steve Jobs championed since the introduction of the touch-first iOS. Asking customers to use their fingers to interact with a graphical interface that was designed for use with a mouse/trackpad would be the most anti-Apple future I can think of.

2. iPadOS will support macOS apps (Spoiler: it gets ugly)

iOS apps are now available on the macOS App Store on Macs with the M1 chip. These apps don’t require any modification from the developer side, so there is no porting process at all. The introduction of Rosetta 2 as a component of macOS Big Sur also allows Intel applications to run on Apple Silicon-based Macs. This ensures that Macs shipped with an M1 chip have access to the myriad of both native macOS and iOS apps available in the world.

What if Apple launched a similar Rosetta component on iPadOS? Sure, Apple would have to solve how to beautifully render these classic apps on an iPad, but I can imagine a solution where macOS apps launched on iPadOS with the exact same frame-less behavior of any other native iOS app, including the restrictive app-docking options available today for multitasking. 

This future doesn’t provide a very promising solution from a UI design perspective either. Many—if not most— classic macOS apps are not touch-friendly, so even if they could run on an iPad, the user experience would be subpar. If this ever was implemented, the first user study would probably shut it down before it was released. How would grandma understand why some apps on her iPad are so difficult to use and ugly compared to others? Forget about it.

3. Apple Silicon will usher a new ‘Universal Apple Platform’ plan (Spoiler: it’s complicated)

Apple taking a page from Microsoft’s runbook would be a fun and interesting future. Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) enabled developers to code apps that would work seamlessly on Windows Phone, Windows, Xbox and Surface Hubs. Apple had this synergy between iPhone and iPad from the beginning, but a Universal Apple Platform (UAP) could truly allow developers to create one single app that runs on all products with Apple Silicon.

This model could also make it easy for developers to migrate their classic desktop Mac apps to UAP apps. One shared app implementation would give developers effortless availability on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and even Apple Watch. And what better way of showcasing this plan than making a UAP version of Xcode and enabling developers to create apps using an iPad. This would make for a great presentation at the next WWDC, no doubt.

Nonetheless, some heavy apps like Final Cut Pro, Photoshop or AutoCAD are good examples of a challenge that is difficult to address with this “universal dream”. If the functionality set of an app was drastically different depending on the device where it ran, it could cause too much friction for developers to code it as a UAP app. Developers would need a clear incentive to use UAP versus keeping separate implementations.

This can be mitigated with a clear developer story and an easy-to-use SDK, a set of developer tools that simplifies APIs, and makes it easy to tailor an app according to the available hardware (e.g. screen size, LiDAR or accelerometer availability, etc.). There is some prior art here, as iPhone/iPad screen sizes have changed over time, leading to a versatile iOS SDK that today powers multiple generations of devices. Existing solutions like Mac Catalyst, which help developers build a native Mac app from the same codebase as their iPadOS app, are proof that Apple knows how to do this. They just need to pack it all together in a single developer platform focused on Apple Silicon interoperability.

Of course, the introduction of the ever-rumored Apple Glass—Apple’s unannounced augmented reality glasses— could make this plan more plausible than ever. The UAP plan would be of great help for quickly getting developer traction on a product that would need to solve a broad range of use cases in order to succeed.

I consider this future actually possible, but given the success of Apple’s current developer story, I’m not convinced this is what Tim Cook is actually planning. As opposed to Microsoft, Apple doesn’t need UAP to get developers interested in developing apps for their products; their ecosystem is already thriving, so the return of investment for Apple is not clear in this possible but costly future.

4. iPadOS will continue getting more desktop-like features (Spoiler: too boring)

This possible future is the most probable, and unfortunately the most boring as well. It simply requires Apple to continue doing the same as the past few years, beefing up iPadOS with features that help improve performance and productivity, transforming the iPad into an easy-to-use and powerful machine.

Recent leaks on iPadOS 15 confirm that much. The next iPadOS update is expected to be announced on June 7; it will include a revamped notification system with more customization options, a redesigned Home Screen that allows users to place widgets anywhere on the app grid, and further privacy-related improvements. Nothing revolutionary, and yet an exciting set of new features for those of us who look at Android’s customization capabilities with envy.

If this future indeed becomes a reality, it would confirm that Apple’s intention behind the impressive tech specs on the new iPad Pro is to further differentiate it from the iPad Air through high-end performance—especially because the design is the same on both products. Video rendering, photo editing, video games, 3D modeling, all those tasks are typically done on a desktop computer, not a tablet, but the new iPad Pro can change that perception.

As boring and potentially plausible this option may sound, it’s worth highlighting that the decision to further push the iPad Pro’s capabilities to be closer to the Macbook brings some stress to the future customer who is simply trying to determine what Apple device is better for their use case. They may find themselves debating the razor-thin differences between the multiple devices available in a highly diversified and compressed portfolio.

5. iPadOS and macOS will merge into a new touch-friendly OS (Spoiler: it’s magical!)

Marvel Studios built its Marvel Cinematic Universe by making individual movies for each superhero first, letting the audience get familiarized with each character, and finally putting them together in an epic event like ‘The Avengers’.

It’s exciting to think of an improbable future where Apple has been playing the Marvel card for the last 10 years. First introducing the iPad with a zoomed-in version of iOS in 2010, letting it share updates with iPhone for 9 years, cohabitating with macOS all along. Then in 2019, Apple announced a slightly more independent fork as iPadOS, and started incorporating desktop-like features. Meanwhile macOS started getting more tablet-like features. What a glorious culmination to the saga would be if Apple introduced a new OS that merged these two beloved characters.

If this mythical appleOS ever happened, Apple would be following Microsoft’s troubled steps in trying to produce an operating system that dynamically adapts its interface depending on whether or not an external mouse and keyboard are detected. Fortunately, macOS Big Sur took one more step towards a touch-friendly interface.

An out-of-the-box iPad Pro would have the touch-first interface that we know and love. When connected to a keyboard and mouse, the interface would adapt automatically, perhaps allowing apps to have floating windows that could overlap, pretty much like macOS does today. Certain UI paradigms, like invoking the Notification Center or Control Center, would have a cohesive experience across devices.

This futuristic appleOS would include all the features that macOS has today, including support for multiple screens, user accounts and other useful settings that iPadOS desperately needs. The interface would simply be a hybrid between iPadOS and macOS, adapted to be touch-friendly.

To prevent a similar issue to Microsoft’s mishap with Windows 8 and its lack of support for classic Win32 apps, Apple could limit classic Mac apps to work in “desktop mode” only. A standalone iPad Pro would only allow users to launch apps from the App Store, but when connecting it to a Magic Keyboard, the full power of classic desktop apps would be unleashed.

MacBooks would still exist, in a thinner form factor, for those who need a more robust keyboard, extra ports, longer battery life, etc. In fact, MacBooks with touch screens would finally be a possibility, eager to ignite the anger of any Microsoft Surface fan out there.

The cherry on the cake for this alternate future is that an iPhone 15—which of course would use an M2 chip— would be a top-notch mobile smartphone or gaming console while on the go, but when docked to an appleOS adapter, it would become a desktop powerhouse.

Conclusion

The 2021 WWDC will start with a keynote on June 7, and I’m sure it will provide new clues for this mysterious puzzle. Until then, which possible future is your favorite? Feel free to share your own predictions in the comments.


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