Last week was the iPad’s tenth birthday. An elite group of Apple fans celebrated the date with a barrage of criticisms centred on the iPadOS operating system.
For many people and some tasks Apple’s tablet is the best computer ever made. It is more mobile than any laptop and, despite the high-powered whinging, for the most part is easy to use.
Yet a surprising number of high-profile Apple fans took to their blogs and news outlets to criticise the iPad.
In The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10 at Daring Fireball, John Gruber writes of his disappointment:
“…Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential.”
Gruber has a lot to say on the subject. His blog post runs to 1100 words.
He isn’t the only high profile Apple commentator to criticise the iPad. His piece is here because it was the trigger for others to join the pile-on. If anything Ben Thompson’s Stratechery post is more critical.
Apple geeks dislike iPadOS
The nub of Gruber’s point is the iPad’s operating system. He explains here:
“Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s multitasking model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.”
The words, especially the last two sentences, are damning. Gruber may have focused on multitasking because his blog’s audience tends towards geeks and computing professional. For them multitasking is a big deal.
Of course iPads are not computers for the geek elite.
Until the last couple of years they were simple, lightweight, handy devices best suited to media consumption and basic tasks like dealing with email or writing.
That’s changed with the iPad Pro, they are now far better tools for media creation. In many cases they are now the best tool for media creation.
Multitasking is a nice thing to have on an iPad. It is not essential. It’s unlikely even half the people who own iPads ever use multitasking.
Moreover, iPads enjoyed their best sales in their early days long before anyone gave much thought to multitasking. It is something Apple has bolted on in recent times.
And that brings us to an oddity. It was the geeky, elite iPad users who constantly complained the iPad couldn’t do multitasking. When Apple delivered, they decided this was not the multitasking they had been calling for.
Few everyday users would choose or not choose an iPad because of multitasking. For that matter, few everyday users go for full multitasking on their laptops and desktops. It’ i a subject that matters most to a small segment of users who might be better off with other devices anyway.
Doing more than one thing at a time
That said, iPad multitasking is handy.
iPad multitasking is still relatively new. Apple added a basic form of multitasking in 2017. Then last year multitasking was bumped up to become more powerful and usable. This 2019 multitasking is what upset Gruber and the other Apple commentators.
That was in September. We’ve barely had time to come to terms with the new features.
If, like many iPad users, you often switch between a more conventional computer and Apple’s tablet, four months is not a lot of time to learn all the nuances of a major operating system update. It’s only a couple of days since I found a hitherto undiscovered multitasking feature. That is already paying off in terms of increased productivity.
There are some complexities to the multitasking user interface in some circumstances. But there are simpler ways to work with the functionality.
Where iPadOS scores
Some computing tasks still work better on a laptop or desktop computer. Few of them affect me in my daily work as a journalist. Many, many other iPad users have similar usage patterns. In my experience, I get through most of my work faster and with fewer roadblocks on an iPad compared to any laptop or desktop computer.
There is a clear productivity advantage.
The list of tasks iPad does not do well has now dwindled to the point where I could keep my MacBook in the cupboard and do most of my writing, website managing and other tasks with my iPad Pro.
For my needs, the iPad Pro is the productive choice.
Where there are shortfalls, it is often because of poorly designed apps that have yet to adapt to the hardware. This is also true for touch-screen Microsoft Windows. There are iPadOS apps that are not as complete as their desktop equivalents, but a lot of desktop applications are bloated, over-featured and unnecessarily complex.
Gruber’s criticism is damning, but it’s not all negative. He finishes writing:
“I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.
“The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one.
“To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognise they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.”
In simple terms Gruber’s criticism boils down to the iPad not being a Mac. He takes us back to the computers versus tablet debate that went underground for a few years before coming back. In the Windows world this is answered by laptops that are also tablets.
Apple’s iPad is great. It is not perfect. There are questions to ask. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, sales have dropped away. Something needs fixing for sales to recover. It is unlikely that something is the “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface”. After all, that update only happened four months ago, long after the sales decline started.