iPad’s Evolving Vision and Unintended Consequences

The iPad has been a hot topic lately. 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of the iPad launch and the beginning of its rapid rise to fame in the years following. Looking back at the last ten years of iPad, it becomes clear the original vision for the product has not yet been reached, nor has its full potential.

The challenge, however, is the iPad’s true vision may have been too forward-thinking and perhaps require too much behavioral change than the market was willing to embrace. I still believe the iPad represents a much broader vision of personal larger screen computing. Still, the sad truth is most consumers are just happy to do the vast majority of their day-to-day computing on their smartphones.

There is nothing wrong with smartphones, they are just limited in capabilities. This is why, to this day, I think Steve Jobs’s framing of the iPad that it is more intimate than a notebook and more capable of a smartphone remains one of the most brilliant positioning statements of a device I’ve ever heard.

I personally bought into the vision, believing the iPad would make large-screen computing more accessible for the masses, by making it simpler and more enriching for more people who are less computer literate and tech-savvy. But, iPhone sales peaked and for Apple to reach that vision, a pivot may be on the horizon.

The potential pivot comes in the way of a mouse. Even as I write this, it pains me to even think about mouse/trackpad support on iPad. But if a recent leak/rumor is to be believed, Apple is ready to launch a brand new keyboard for iPad that includes trackpad support.

iOS 13 brought with it accessibility support for a lightweight cursor experience. And if Apple is building full support for mouse/trackpad, then I do feel it is a pivot away from the iPad’s original vision. Good or bad, that is my conviction. And if that is the direction Apple is going, I fear the unintended consequences.

Merging Operating Systems
Apple has long fought to merge macOS and iPad in the way Microsoft has with Windows where the same operating system runs across all Windows hardware. iPad has always been more iPhone like, just more capable, and tried to focus on reinventing the concept of work/productivity by hoping new classification of app experiences would be developed. Touch and pen-based computing bring more to the table than just mouse and keyboard, but those experiences have not become mainstream in everyone’s daily workflows. Perhaps they never will.

Ultimately, my thesis on behavioral debt may be at play again. Most people don’t seem willing to change or learn new habits, and thus, the demand for PCs remains strong, despite some initial fears iPad would impact PC sales.

I don’t believe Apple ever wanted to bring macOS and iPadOS closer together, if not merge them entirely, but this may now be the inevitable path. I wrote last week, that I have been living in a Windows world and using both a 15′ Surface Laptop and a Surface Pro X and the more I become comfortable with my new workflows on Windows the more I like the Surface Pro X tablet functions as a companion to the laptop. Being able to seamlessly move from one device to the next and keep my workflow intact is efficient. This is counter the experience I have using Mac and iPad together as they both have two very different workflows for most of my main tasks.

This is why I’m not as down on the idea of Mac and iPad merging as I once was. I still believe it would be a pivot from the original vision. Still, I do recognize the value of having a notebook and tablet working together and having consistent workflows and software across the two.

I received some questions on this from readers last week about whether this would lead to a touchscreen-based Mac. It is a good question, and my hunch would be the Mac does not necessarily need a touch-screen even in a world where macOS and iPadOS are merged. We know from our research, the vast majority of people using a touch-screen based Windows notebook rarely, if ever, touch their screens. The mouse or trackpad is still the primary and most used input. However, when people use a Windows 2-1 form factor, the usage of touch screen and pen input goes up significantly over the traditional notebook form-factor.

This suggests that when a device looks and feels like a traditional notebook, people use their traditional tools, and I’d bet that stays the same for Mac users even if they had a touch-screen, Mac. This would suggest a unified OS could live in harmony on Mac and iPad, and the software to support a range of inputs could potentially thrive.

I alluded to this point in my piece last week as well, but merging macOS and iPadOS could help iPhone development if/when the iPhone gets a foldable screen that turns it into a small iPad. Interestingly, this sequence of moves could ultimately end up benefitting iPhone the most. if a folding screen is in the cards. This would enable the iPhone to become even more of a productivity device than it is today and encourage developers to embrace entirely new software paradigms for iPhone apps, which in turn would also help iPad and Mac if all operating systems are essentially unified.

Unintended Consequences
There could, however, be unintended consequences for merging operating systems. The main consequence of being a sub-par experience with software that hurts both iPad and Mac software more than it helps. But, what sticks out to me is something like this has never worked before if we consider the unification of OS, development tools, UI, etc., impacts Macs, iPads, and iPhones from a software standpoint.

My personal main concern is the potential negative impact on software/apps, something like this could bring. I also worry developers aren’t willing to put the extra work in and that consumers are simply not willing to embrace change.

Of course, this is all just game theory at the moment and just one of many potential scenarios facing Apple as they think about their software platforms. But, the common truth remains, developers are key to the success of any platform, and Apple has historically been blessed by its developers. I just hope that continues as their software platform evolves, and continues to move into a post-mature computing world.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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