M1 iPads and Versatile Magic Glass

on April 21, 2021

An article posted by Nilay Patel on the Verge over the weekend seemed to get a fair bit of attention. I found it fascinating the industry buzz generated over Netbooks and why so many in the media seemed to be so excited about and fawned over these devices. Perhaps it was simply because they represented a shift away from the normal, boring, clamshell designs of notebooks relatively unchanged for years. But the reality was no one making these devices or participating in the ecosystem wanted this category to happen.

I mention this brief anecdote on Netbooks because there has been an ongoing debate about what Netbooks meant leading up to the iPad launch. If you recall, Steve Jobs mentioned Netbooks during the iPad launch and famously remarked that their problem was “they aren’t good at anything.” Jobs was spot on, but the Netbook brought broad enlightenment to the tech industry that traditional PCs were too complicated, but most consumers did not do much with their laptops and desktops. I was always personally hesitant to side with the debate that consumers didn’t care to do more interesting and computationally complex tasks. This is why I always found the iPad so interesting as a computing device.

iPad vs. Mac
As I watched yesterday’s event from Apple and looked at post-event commentary, it seems a popular angle was noting the line between the iPad and Mac was becoming more blurry now that iPad uses an M1. Adding an M1 to iPad was a big question mark for me, and one I was not convinced Apple would do to be honest. My gut wanted to keep some cleaner lines between Mac and iPad, and the processor was a good way to do that. It is not like the iPad running an Ax processor was underpowered. But upon further reflection, the addition of the M1 in iPad Pro makes me even more bullish on iPad.

When I think about drawing the lines between iPad and Mac, I come back to something I’ve said about the iPad for quite some time. The strength of the iPad is its versatility. A popular framing inside Apple for iPad is that it is a magic piece of glass. That magic allows it to be just about anything. If we refine the way to think about iPad, it is the most versatile portable computer Apple makes. This is the message I think Apple needs to lean into so consumers who value both versatility and portability can clearly gravitate toward iPad if they happen to be on the fence between a Mac and an iPad.

Another interesting element of iPad running an M1 is how it can leverage the growing Mac base of software optimize and created for M1 Macs. I agree with some of the commentaries I saw yesterday where people thought the M1 was overkill for the iPad unless the software ecosystem built up to take advantage of all the performance offered in the M1. But I think that software is filled by the many developers optimizing and creating new software for M1 Macs, which should translate nicely to iPad. If anything, this helps create a much cleaner line of separation between iPad Pro and iPad Air and iPad. At the top of end, Apple’s Pro computing lineup is Macs and iPad Pro.

I led off this note by talking about the Netbook and how some people draw comparisons the Netbook to the iPad and like to argue the iPad can’t replace your PC. That debate has been dead for a long-time, but some still like to remain stubborn. Adding the M1 to iPad should end the debate permanently and is absolutely a viable option if someone is looking to replace a laptop.

The Merging of iOS and macOS?
Another question that keeps coming up is if/when Apple will merge iOS and macOS. Something that each year feels like it’s taking baby steps in that direction. It does seem like this will happen someday as it has a lot of benefits for developers. What may end up happening is Apple develops an entirely new framework around app development that can more adequately adapt to the range of the devices they will make. iOS was built for a mobile world, and macOS was built for a stationary world of computing. Apple has not yet built a unified operating system from the ground up for all the categories they are in, including wearables, and at some point, AR/VR. What Apple seems to be building at the moment with their operating systems feels more like bridges than brand new continents. Perhaps an entirely new, more encompassing operating system is coming.

The more I think about this point, which I will leave for food for thought, is if the future of Apple’s computing devices is the M1, and eventually, they bring that architecture to iPhone and beyond? The M1 has a fundamentally different architecture than their A-series chips and one that is a bit more capable of scaling the clock frequency up or down depending on the device. If a more grand unification of platforms is on the horizon, I think it is logical not to have M and A chips but a highly flexible and scalable architecture capable of incredible computing power. Right now, that seems to be the design of the M1, so M1 iPhones may not be too far off?