My hopes for the future of the iPad

I hope that this year, Apple completely revamps the springboard and app/window management on iPad.

The whole “icons and windows and cursor” based UI the Mac first popularized is a really solid foundation. The fact that most computer OS interfaces today use the same paradigm shows that we finally nailed the overall GUI for desktop computers. We had been experimenting with a handful of concepts prior, but after the Mac, most computers started following suit.

The iPhone’s UI paradigm similarly nailed it. Cell phones had a lot of UIs before iPhone came along, but after iPhone, everything started to act and behave a lot like it. It’s a very good model for phone UIs and is unlikely to change much because it doesn’t need to.

Apple gave iPad a head start by having its OS work basically the same as an iPhone. Apps could be more useful because they’d be bigger but Apple kept with the single-app-at-a-time simplicity of iPhone with the first iPad. The first iPad had no app multitasking. It didn’t even have fast app switching! That didn’t come till iOS 4 later that year.

And iPad wasn’t a lousy product with these limitations; I loved my very first iPad even if I could see that it had a lot of potential it didn’t yet live up to. But 11 years later and iPad is in a weird and awkward place.

Apple has tried to make multitasking on iPad a thing. It sucks. It’s super limited and clumsy. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s based on the iPhone’s UI paradigm, and iPhone wasn’t made for multiple apps on screen at once (and why should it?).

iPad is capable of being a full general-purpose computer, but it’s held back because of the awkwardness of doing tasks that involve more than one application.

Once Apple added trackpad/mouse support to iPad, it’s become clearer than ever that what iPad needs to do is switch to an app windowing interface built for touch first.

We have the pieces! Apple’s been pushing iPad app developers to make their apps work in a variety of sizes. Most iPad apps can probably already handle arbitrary window resizing without any changes.

And we don’t have to lose things like split view or full screen or PiP if you like having your apps arranged like that. App windows can have really easy, consistent and discoverable controls for putting apps into a split or a grid or whatever.

In fact, I especially want full-screen apps to remain a strong suit for iPad because that’s how iPad can really shine as a unique device. iPad is a really special device specifically because you can pick it up and put it anywhere and it can transform based on context. You can stick it in a magic keyboard and it’s a laptop. Hold it in your hands and it’s a great thing for reading articles. On a plane it’s great to watch some movies. Propped up on a table with some controllers it’s a solid casual gaming device.

When Microsoft got really into tablets for a hot minute in the mid–2000s they made the mistake of trying to repurpose desktop Windows for tablet and they failed. Apple feels like they were scared to follow Microsoft’s footsteps so they went the whole opposite approach and put iOS on iPad. Seeing mouse and trackpad support get added to iPad last year leads me to believe Apple is letting go of that fear of iPad being a crappier touch version of desktop macOS and they’re ready to make iPadOS a whole new thing that it is its own, taking the best of iOS and macOS and creating a whole new platform that is radically simple compared to macOS.

And that’s a massive growth opportunity for Apple. Why buy a Chromebook or a cheap laptop when you could get an iPad that is as feature complete as a computer but is versatile like a tablet, and has the quality and long life iPads are known for?

When Apple announced that iPadOS would become a distinct OS from iOS in 2019, it felt mostly like a statement of intent, since there wasn’t much difference in functionality in that initial release. I suspect Apple’s been doing some more fundamental work on iPadOS since then, and we saw the first taste of that with iPadOS 13.4 last year which added trackpad and Magic Keyboard support. I just hope Apple’s bold enough to erase years of missteps with multitasking.

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