On the iPad Pro and the Constraints of iOS

In their current incarnations, I believe that Windows 10 is better suited to the Surface than iOS is to the iPad Pro.

Now, with that quotable hot take out of the way, let me explain. I have every intention of dropping some serious coin on the highest end iPad Pro, keyboard, and a don’t-call-it-a-stylus Pencil this November. I use my iPad Air 2 every single day for reading my Pocket queue, Kindle books, and watching video from a variety of different source apps. Occasionally I will even do some “real” work on it too.

During the Apple event this week, the company brought on stage various partners to showcase apps they had built to take advantage of the hardware and accessories of the new iPad Pro. They showed someone annotating an email attachment and then sending it back (something I believe has never happened in the history of mankind outside of a technology demo). Microsoft came on stage to show how you can get business done with an iPad Pro and Office. Adobe showcased a few different apps for touching up photos.

What was not highlighted nearly enough, however, is how awkward iOS looks on such a seemingly large device.

This is a 13″ screen using the same grid of icons as its other iPad counterparts. On the Pro, however, there is so much space in between each icon that you could rush for a touchdown on every play.

Compare this with the Surface 3 and Windows 10. You can organize your apps on a full screen view that has its icons closer together and in grouped with a far better visual metaphor than a folder. Your most frequently used apps are surfaced (sorry) along the left edge of the screen as well. Is it more complex than iOS? Yeah, but I wouldn’t say it’s too complex to understand. Windows still has the same concept of press and hold to move icons around and swiping left and right to page between different parts of the screens.

And we haven’t even started talking about the third-party ecosystem for the iPad. I can count the number of apps on my left hand that are thoughtfully designed for the iPad screen size. Most are, for lack of a better phrase, blown-up iPhone apps. Just this week, Twitter updated their iPad app to be exactly like the iPhone version but with a bit more padding on the edges to make up for the larger screen size. That’s fine for the iPad mini and mostly tolerable for the Air. On the iPad Pro? That’s approaching clown shoes territory.

A lot of this thinking is thanks to Apple and the invention of size classes in iOS 8. With size classes, you are able to more easily adapt your interface to work with a variety of different screen sizes and orientations. This is a great thing. I’m currently in the middle of converting a rather large legacy project from having two different interfaces (iPhone and iPad) to using a single storyboard and size classes.

Most developers for whatever reason (time and/or money I presume) don’t bother thinking of the iPad beyond throwing their iPhone views into a split view and calling it a day. The majority of users are on the iPhone after all. The iPad has always been somewhat of an afterthought as a destination. Size classes help alleviate that since it’s so easy to now build universal apps, but that doesn’t mean you’re building an app that is going to feel at home on a 13″ tablet. It’ll feel bigger at least?

You will not see any defense by me of Windows software, especially modern Windows apps designed for 8 and 10. It’s also mostly hot garbage, and likely for all the same time and financial constraint reasons as the iPad. Software in this new app era is even harder than it used to be.

Side-by-side apps, a new feature of iOS 9 can help with some of the multitasking issues that have always plagued the iPad. For instance, try writing a paper on an iPad using Pages while looking up research in Safari. There is a lot of double-tapping of the Home button to jump between apps. Now you can at least pin both of them side-by-side, which helps. It’s still fairly rudimentary, especially compared to the types of Window management you can achieve on OS X or Windows. On the iPhone this sort of limitation makes sense. You don’t need to run multiple apps side-by-side on a phone. On the iPad though, the window management story is not that simple. There has to be something better between the bare minimum features of iOS and the window management hell you can theoretically get into on a desktop.

All of this so far and we aren’t even touching on the problems Apple and the iPad have as a software ecosystem. There’s been more than enough pixels spilt over how difficult it is to build a sustainable software business in today’s app economy where $4.99 is considered premium, trials are a thing of the past, and Apple keeps printing money off the back of Smurf Berries and other in-app purchases. The iPad Pro is a device that is begging for great third-party software from both large companies like Adobe and Apple, as well as the smaller guys like Gus at Flying Meat. A larger screen, keyboard case, and a Pencil aren’t going to solve those problems. You can’t have a Pro tablet without pro apps to go with it. There are a few great iPad apps out there, but most of them feel like minimum viable products at best.

And for the record, I don’t think OS X on these devices is the answer. I want a forward-thinking, touch-powered device this size. The iPad Pro is close, but iOS is going to hold it back. iOS could be a great operating system for professional computing, but right now the iPad remains to me a great device that is being held back by its OS being primarily for phones.

But, man. Imagine how fast the Kindle app is going to fly with 4GB of RAM!