Apple’s pitch says you can dump your existing PCs and get an 9.7-inch iPad Pro instead.
— Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing
This is true: up to a point.
There are still things that work best with a traditional computer.
To understand the iPad Pro’s limitations, try downloading a zipped firmware upgrade for your non-Apple router. Now unpack it and install the software from an iPad.
Most people never have to, or never bother to do such geeky things. Which means for a lot of users, the iPad Pro is enough computer. For many it is more than enough.
Then there are games. While there are exceptions, games are still better on traditional computers than on iPads. PC or Mac game software is far better than iOS game software.
For gamers, the iPad Pro is not enough computer.
Schiller made his sale pitch last week during the launch of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. His claim makes more sense when discussing the super-sized 13-inch iPad Pro.
A better iPad Pro camera
Being newer means the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has some neat features. The camera is better than on the 13-inch model, although the newer iPad Pro now has an annoying bump housing the lense.
Taking photos with a tablet is a mixed experience at the best of times. It still looks weird when people do it. It looks even weirder when someone takes photos in public with a 13-inch iPad Pro.
Even if you get past that weirdness, tablet hardware is unwieldy when attempting to compose shots. Keeping the camera still is a challenge.
Apple’s new colour-shifting screen is nice, but hardly a must-have feature. It adjusts the tone of the screen image to ambient lighting.
When something that minor is near the top of the list, it is a struggle to justify buying a new device.
The 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a downgrade from the older 13-inch model when it comes to processor speed and Ram. It has a downgraded lightning port which can’t manage the data transfer speeds of the bigger iPad. To cap it all, Apple hasn’t included fast charging.
Sure, a smaller display means it may not always need as much grunt.
Larger iPad Pro display wins every time
While the smaller iPad Pro screen handles split-view, a larger display makes it practical.
Perhaps the biggest compromise is with the keyboard. Apple’s 13-inch iPad Pro keyboard has shortcomings, but it isn’t cramped. Experience says 10-inch keyboards are rarely comfortable for typing.
All-in-all it’s hard to choose the 9.7-inch iPad Pro as a primary computer over the 13-inch model.
Price may be a factor, the smaller iPad Pro is NZ$350 cheaper. Being realistic, neither model will appeal to cash-strapped computer buyers.
Why choose the smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro?
The only reason to choose the smaller model as your only or main computer is weight and size. There may be cases where a few mm and 280g matter.
While the 9.7-inch iPad Pro isn’t a great only computer, it looks like a great secondary device. Say if you work at a desk all day and need something for occasional use at home. Or maybe if you need something light when travelling.
Few New Zealanders commute long-distance on public transport. Elsewhere in the world the 9.7-inch iPad Pro would be ideal for catching up on work during a long train-ride home.
Perhaps the most important aspect of last week’s announcement is Apple’s continued iPad commitment. It says Apple is in no hurry to abandon the iPad.
Tablets versus PCs
When tablets first appeared there was a clear split between them and laptops or desktops. Apple saw and sold tablets as information consumption devices. Creating information was best left to more traditional computer formats.
Within months it was clear you could use tablets for work. For writing, for collecting information, for crunching numbers, simple design work and so on.
Their simplicity, popularity and portability over-ruled conservative objections. It didn’t take long for great, stripped down apps to appear.
By the time Microsoft introduced the Surface and iOS Office apps, it looked as if tablets would be the future of business computing.
The arrival of hybrids from PC makers such as HP, Lenovo and Toshiba cemented this.
Consumers still tablet focus
Yet even now, most tablets are more geared towards consumer needs than business needs. When hardware companies launch new models they tell us how much fun their new devices are. They emphasise cool over productivity.
This consumer bias extends to software. The blockbusters are there: Microsoft Office and some Adobe apps. These apps drive businesses. But there are thousands of specialist productivity apps that remain Windows or OS X only. Hell, lots of them still have Windows 95 or XP style user interfaces.
These apps are the mainstays of many companies. Small to medium development companies earn a reasonable living focusing on servicing a niche. They maintain code, they keep the wheels of industry turning.
Where are the niche business iOS apps?
Few of these mid-range business apps have made it to tablets. They are only creeping into the cloud.
Even if developers manage to retool business apps for tablets or the cloud, they face two hurdles.
First, getting through the app stores is a challenge. iTunes and Google Play are a challenge for blockbuster apps. They are a nightmare for small, niche developers. App discovery is hard.
Try finding specialist software in a market with over a million products on show.
Get past that hurdle and software developers hit the economic problem. In the past they have been able to charge customers enough to pay for development, support and maintenance leaving a healthy margin. App stores act to drive prices down. It’s brutal.
What’s more, app stores make it hard for maintenance contracts. They don’t allow software companies to charge for major upgrades.
Make it worthwhile for app developers
The upshot of this is specialist software companies choose to stay with the business models that work. You’ll find a lot of this software will work or made to work with Windows 10 on a Microsoft Surface. In the Apple world, developers carry on with OS X product lines.
Many will go to the wall. There’s going to be a shakeout. We’ll see less choice.
Some apps may make it to the cloud. Xero’s model for accounting software works. It’s a one-size fits all product for a mass market. That approach might not be easy for a, say, manufacturing inventory software specialist.
The iPad Pro, big or small, may be all the computer an individual user needs. It will be a long time before it satisfies the needs of business users at all levels.
If Apple is serious about moving everyone from PCs to iPads, it needs to work now on a new app store model. Let’s call it iTunes Pro, a store that caters for professional and business software.