The Case for padOS

on December 3, 2015
Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s been an interesting year for Apple – they’ve announced one completely new hardware product (the Apple Watch) and two major updates to existing product lines (the 4th generation Apple TV and the iPad Pro). In the process, they’ve also launched two new operating systems: watchOS and tvOS, for the Apple Watch and the new Apple TV respectively. However, the one really new product that didn’t get a new operating system was the iPad Pro, which runs iOS, the same operating system that runs on all iPads as well as iPhones and the iPod Touch. There’s a logic to this, but there’s a case to be made Apple should have launched a new OS – call it padOS – with the iPad Pro.

What watchOS and tvOS represent

The two new operating systems Apple has launched recently are, in reality, versions of iOS optimized for two new form factors – the Watch and the Apple TV. Each of them has customizations which make them work best on, respectively, 1.5 inch screens worn on the wrist and 40+ inch screens several feet from the user, which they interact with through a remote. Even though both operating systems are based on iOS, each is markedly different. The Watch adopted a black background with circular app icons arranged in a tightly-packed mosaic rather than a grid. The Apple TV adopted a light background with landscape-orientated rectangular app icons arranged in a scrolling grid. Within apps, too, the interaction models are very different, reflecting once again the significant differences in how users will interact with them. Both tvOS and watchOS represent versions of iOS fundamentally re-thought for new form factors while retaining many of the benefits of their iOS heritage, including ease of porting apps, and concepts such as apps and the App Store.

The case for padOS

Let’s turn to the iPad Pro, and the case for an equivalent operating system optimized for that device. Like watchOS and tvOS, this operating system wouldn’t be completely new but would instead be largely based on iOS while making adjustments and optimizations for the new form factor and interaction models. In reading through the many reviews of the iPad Pro over the last few weeks, a recurring theme has been the way the iPad Pro both succeeds and fails in breaking the traditional iOS model. Though optimized in some ways for use with a keyboard and the Pencil, there are some glaring shortcomings in this approach, many of them covered very well by John Gruber. It’s hard to avoid the sense, as you read these reviews, that Apple was somewhat hamstrung in its approach to the iPad Pro by not wanting to break any of the iOS conventions, most strikingly that it should always be a touch-first operating system. That makes perfect sense on iOS devices that were never sold with official accessories like the Smart Keyboard or Pencil, but far less so on a device where one of the main selling points is the ability to work in an optimized fashion with an official keyboard.

What a separate padOS would allow Apple to do is break the set of expectations that come with iOS and to start to allow this new operating system to flourish in a way it can’t when it’s strapped so tightly to the rest of the iOS portfolio. UI changes, new interaction models, and more would make perfect sense on the iPad Pro that would be nonsensical on the iPhone and vice versa. Separating the two would allow the best features that make universal sense to exist on both platforms, while also allowing each flavor to be optimized for the devices that run it. Split-screen multitasking, picture-in-picture and other new features Apple introduced in iOS 9 suggest at least some of this can be done within a single universal operating system. But the grid of icons that characterizes iOS feels like the wrong model for the iPad Pro, where the massive amount of real estate on the home screen could be put to more efficient use. The problem is, both users and Apple engineers working on software for the iPad may well feel like the iOS badge comes with certain expectations that can’t be broken, even on a new form factor.

The clearest expression of the future of computing

I think back to Tim Cook’s comment in introducing the iPad Pro, that it represented, “the clearest expression of [Apple’s] vision of the future of personal computing”. If that’s truly the case, and all Tim Cook and Phil Schiller’s comments since then seem to bear this out, then the iPad Pro can’t just borrow iOS from the iPhone. It needs to have a dedicated operating system designed first and foremost for this device and not primarily for the installed base of 500 million or so iPhones in the world. As long as the iPad Pro is a tiny fraction of the installed base for the operating system it runs, it’s going to be very tough for it to grow into the vision of Apple’s senior management. But put a dedicated team on creating padOS, with the freedom to depart from conventions and patterns that have become inextricably tied with iOS, and you could see much more rapid development toward the device Cook, Schiller, and others are imagining. Just as it was right to launch the new Apple TV and the Apple Watch with tvOS and watchOS rather than simply versions of iOS, so to the iPad Pro’s operating system needs its own distinct identity to be able to truly flourish.

If you buy into all this, the next big question becomes which iPads should run this new operating system. Does the iPad Pro truly stand alone, or do the same accessories and interaction models eventually extend back down the line to the iPad Air and even the iPad Mini? Should those devices also run padOS? Or should the new OS instead be called iOS Pro or something else that makes clear it’s optimized for this specific device and not iPads in general? These and other questions certainly need to be answered before Apple can move forward with such a strategy but I absolutely believe Apple should be moving down this road if the iPad Pro is to achieve its full potential.