The Chicken or the iPad Pro

iPad-Pro-Pencil

The iPad Pro went on sale this week. I picked one up at my local store, though my Pencil and keyboard case won’t ship for another few weeks.

I haven’t been this fascinated by a new device since the original iPad was released back in 2010. That is the device that got me re-energized to build my own iOS products after frustrations with the original incarnations of the iPhone App Store. My mind has been racing for weeks about ideas for this thing. There’s just one problem: I don’t understand why the device exists.

I use my iPad mini 4 every single day in the morning and evening as my primary method for reading, watching TV in bed, and sniping at people on Twitter. I keep no work-related apps on it. It is my personal device that is designed to let me focus on things that don’t involve my day-to-day duties as a software developer.

According to interviews with Tim Cook over the last few days, Apple is positing the iPad Pro as a full-on replacement for a PC or Mac for “many, many people.”

“I think if you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one?”

“Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones.”

Apple wants to cast the larger iPad as where the puck is going when it comes to knowledge workers. The days of carrying around a laptop or having an iMac or Dell on your desk to do your job are a thing of the past with the powerful iPad Pro.

No doubt if you are someone at the executive level who spends most of his or her time in email or browsing the web, the iPad Pro will likely be a great product. With anyone outside of that email and browser bubble, I struggle with seeing how the device fits without a tanker ship of compromises.

The Legacy Problem

I went home a few weeks ago, and my brother showed me his new MacBook he purchased for his online classes. His day job is managing a retail store, so his computing needs aren’t that heavy. An iPad sounds like it could be a great fit for him, right? Sadly, it was a nonstarter when he found out that the course required Silverlight in the browser.

I’ve looked at this software. All of it could be rebuilt on iOS and likely offer a better experience for students. Apple has provided all the APIs you need. What’s the financial incentive, however? iPad sales have been sluggish the last few quarters, and the iPad Pro has a giant question mark over it as to whether or not the general public will embrace it.

This isn’t a new problem. Apple faced something similar with the transition from MacOS to OS X in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The biggest difference between then and now is that OS X isn’t going anywhere. Convincing someone who is getting by building web apps in Silverlight they should scrap all their existing code and build something natively on the iPad is a much harder sell than telling Adobe they need to embrace Carbon to get Photoshop running on Mac OS X.

The Ecosystem Problem

The majority of productivity apps that I have on my iPad Pro fall into three camps: first-party tools from Apple, a productivity suite from Microsoft, or $5 apps from hobbyist developers.

This is likely where you expect to read the same excuses about app sustainability and the lack of trials and upgrade pricing on the App Store. I’ll spare you rehashing those arguments for the millionth time.

The overarching reality is that, like any business, selling software is hard. The mythical App Store — where just building something means you will be swimming in a pool of money — still hasn’t surfaced after seven years of people promising it was coming.

What has shown up, however, is a world where the top grossing apps on the store are free-to-play games from two or three major game publishers. Game of War and Candy Crush have dominated the top grossing chart of the App Store for years at this point. They are likely raking in six figures (or more) a day just from the App Store. Add Google Play on to that, and now you know who actually has the swimming pool of money.

Compare that to the podcast app market, which is now switching to the tip cup model — used by panhandlers around the world for decades. These are “premium” apps that used to sell for the outrageous price of $4.99 and now have now switched to the “pay if you can be bothered” model because getting people to pay for software today is an even more difficult proposition than it was a decade ago.

Trials and upgrades aren’t going to solve the problem of developers shooting themselves in the foot or continuing to refuse to understand fundamental business concepts like marketing.

As a thought exercise recommend your favorite paid app to someone that is not a nerd. I have friends who are allergic to exercise that will run for the first time ever to avoid paying even $.99 for something on their phone. You’re telling me those folks are going to spend $39.99, even if the app can make them more organized and likely help them do their job better?

Omni makes it work, though. They have dozens of employees and don’t sell their software at bargain basement prices. The sad reality is there aren’t enough Omnis in the ecosystem right now to make the iPad Pro a viable productivity platform for anyone but those executives, retired folks, and masochist bloggers who jump through more hoops than a circus elephant to use an iPad instead of a Mac.

The app ecosystem isn’t the only problem. As I mentioned previously, iOS looks somewhat out of place on the iPad Pro. Visual oddities like the amount of spacing between app icons on a 13” screen seem like something that has to be resolved in iOS 10 with a re-imagined home screen of some sort.

Split-screen support doesn’t solve any of the interconnectivity problems apps still have where it’s not a trivial task to move a chart or spreadsheet from one document and insert it in another. These are problems that a mouse and drag-and-drop solved decades ago but are still a chore to do on iOS.

New features like extensions, app groups, and enhanced URL scheme support have helped make iOS a better overall platform. Having links from Twitter open directly in the Twitter app versus Safari is a great experience.

A lot of those improvements to iOS are related to helping individual apps be more extensible versus enabling Vendor A’s app to talk to Vendor B’s in a sane way.

To improve this sharing, iOS 8 added the concept of document providers. The feature has been available for nearly a year, and I can count on my left hand the number of apps I’ve used that have implemented it in a meaningful way. Even my favorite Omni apps consider document providers “beta” in favor of their own OmniPresence sync solution.

The apps that I have used a document picker with haven’t exactly been easy to use either. Most have copied the file from the document picker into their own app sandbox, which now gives me two different versions of a document in two different places. The future!
Smart people have worked out ways around a lot of these issues using apps like Workflow or writing scripts in apps like Editorial. To argue that writing scripts is a viable solution for anyone but the hairiest of neckbeards is insane.

I have no doubt Apple is aware of iOS’s limitations, and presumably working on solutions for it. As of today, however, I can’t imagine doing more than the most basic things on iOS without feeling like I am paddling upstream.

Why Does the iPad Pro Exist?

Like the Apple Watch, I’m having a hard time understanding why the iPad Pro exists right now. In a lot of ways, it feels like they threw this out as a reactionary tactic to slumping sales to see what happens.

Each new platform or device Apple releases is met with the same “We can’t wait to see what you develop for this” message to developers. With the iPad Pro, that invitation is feeling more hollow than ever, given the state of everything I’ve outlined above.

It’s possible that I’m overanalyzing all of this and the target is really schools or enterprise deployments. Selling 50,000 iPad Pro tablets to someone like IBM so they can load their own in-house software on the device makes a lot of sense.

I’m fine with the fact that I will always be a “Mac person.” I build software for a living, so I am someone who will likely always need all that OS X affords me to do my job. It’s for people like my brother, who just dropped nearly $2,000 on that new MacBook just for his online coursework, that I want to see something like an iPad Pro succeed — and become what technology is for the majority of people.
With all the legacy software out there, the lack of financial incentive to rebuild it for a new platform, and iOS’s current limitations, I am hesitant to say that is going to happen anytime soon.

P.S. I wrote and published this on my 27” iMac with 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and a 4GB GPU.