Feeling Good About the iPad

Neil Cybart, writing on his site Beyond Avalon a few months ago.

Apple unveiled the iPad on January 27th, 2010. To mark the tenth anniversary of the unveiling, a few publications had articles recapping the iPad’s first decade. Some of the reactions were complicated, to put it gently.
— Read on www.aboveavalon.com/notes/2020/2/27/dont-feel-bad-for-the-ipad

I’m not one of those people who feels that the iPad was a failure – or that it failed to live up to its potential.

In fact, how anyone can describe a platform that sells 45 million units each year, 20 million of which are to new iPad users, as anything less than a rousing success is somewhat baffling to me.

From what I can tell, there are a few common themes:

  1. The iPad wasn’t/isn’t the revolutionary device that the Mac and the iPhone were.
  2. The iPad hasn’t spawned the app ecosystem it needed to be revolutionary.
  3. The iPad suffers from software that isn’t good enough.

There’s a lot to unpack there and a previous draft of this post racked up 2600+ words which I then realized was me rambling. There’s a more cohesive MacStories-like article somewhere in the depths here, but I feel like I want to address this general sense of disappointment about the iPad with a rebuttal.

1. The iPad wasn’t/isn’t the revolutionary device that the Mac and the iPhone were.

I feel like the word “yet” belongs at the end of this sentence, but sure, let’s concede the point at this specific moment in time.

Here’s John Gruber:

Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential. By the time the Mac turned 10, it had redefined multiple industries. In 1984 almost no graphic designers or illustrators were using computers for work. By 1994 almost all graphic designers and illustrators were using computers for work. The Mac was a revolution. The iPhone was a revolution. The iPad has been a spectacular success, and to tens of millions it is a beloved part of their daily lives, but it has, to date, fallen short of revolutionary…

Gruber says that “Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential.”

Here’s my question: Which tablet has?

Tablet computing in general languished in the bag of hurt that was Windows Tablet PC for years before iPad came out and actually gave us a usable tablet. With the introduction of the iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, we now had a stylus and tablet that was – and still is, in my opinion – superior to anything out there. It has spawned some excellent competitors – the Surface series from Microsoft just keeps getting better – and some really crappy ones, like the Pixel Slate from Google. But none of these tablets have really been revolutions. In point of fact, all of them are still trying to to sort out just how a tablet interface should work.

And this is where I think the iPad is on the right track and why I think it’s too early to write the iPad off. The iPad isn’t, I think, trying to revolutionize computing. It’s trying to evolutionize it.

That’s not a word. I know.

The iPad’s true worth is in the form of a test bed for the next generation of what a primary computing device will be. I’m thinking that the Mac will eventually become a specialized device used only for specific tasks that require what only a desktop operating system and computer can provide. In the meantime, the vast majority of everyday computing will move off to the iPad or to an iteration of the Mac that will look an awful lot like the iPad does now.

That’s the revolutionary nature of the iPad: it’s the roadmap, warts and all, for the future of large-format (that is to say, larger than a phone) computing.

2. The iPad hasn’t spawned the app ecosystem it needed to be revolutionary.

Ben Thomson raised this point on his site, Stratechery:

There are, needless to say, no companies built on the iPad that are worth anything approaching $1 billion in 2020 dollars, much less in 1994 dollars, even as the total addressable market has exploded, and one big reason is that $4.99 price point. Apple set the standard that highly complex, innovative software that was only possible on the iPad could only ever earn 5 bucks from a customer forever (updates, of course, were free).

Not sure I agree with the implications of this argument – though the facts are clearly true. I don’t know of any company that’s built a billion-dollar business on iPad. But maybe that’s not the measure of success for software on iPad – or a measure of success for the iPad itself.

Which brings me back to gauging the success of the iPad as a platform. Here’s Neil Cybart again.

The iPad is currently shaping industries far more than some people are giving the product credit for. There are at least 350 million people using an iPad in some capacity. The iPad has indirectly added billions of dollars of market cap to companies ranging from Slack and Microsoft to Square when considering the product’s widespread adoption and influence in enterprise settings.

Um, yeah.

Microsoft is going to be updating its apps for cursor support on the iPad. They already support split-view with the latest updates. Adobe has “proper” Photoshop running on the iPad, as well as Lightroom and Premiere Rush. Affinity has two very successful apps – Designer and Photo – on the iPad, and Luma Fusion is also catching on as a video editor.

Mocking up a logo in Affinity Designer, an Adobe Illustrator alternative for iPad

True, there hasn’t been a company that became a unicorn on the strength of this device. But why is that the measure of success for software on the iPad? Why can’t the measure of success be that so many established companies are seeing the worth of the iPad as a platform and are developing fantastic apps for it – far more than are being developed for, say, Chrome OS’ tablet ambitions or, for that matter, for Android tablets.

3. The iPad suffers from software that isn’t good enough.

John Gruber offers the most damning critique of iPad software and iPadOS.

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.

Okay, fair point. But I’d argue that not only is iPadOS getting better with every release, it’s outpacing macOS in many ways. Witness Gruber’s own appreciation for the new iPadOS cursor:

I suspect what Apple has done with the mouse pointer on iPadOS is going to get ripped off far and wide. It’s too natural, too obviously correct.

I’m typing this on an iPad right now. It’s the new 2020 iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard and along with iOS 13.4 (which added that magical cursor support), this is to me perhaps the biggest leap forward in Apple’s vision for a new class of computing device. In many ways, it is to the Mac what the 1984 Mac was to its computing contemporaries.

Cursor support in iOS 13.4 is magical.

The iPad is now the first device I reach for unless I know I’m going to need to do something Mac-centric, like building and uploading new patches or packages for the Macs I manage at my company, or writing shells scripts to do something management-related. If I don’t need to reach for my Mac, the honest truth is, I won’t. I’ll grab my iPad instead.

A few days ago, I wrote about my experiences on learning with the iPad.

There’s something utterly magical about this combo. Being able to watch the class, take notes, look up reference material, all without losing the tactility of the single pane of glass under my fingertips, it’s satisfying in a way doing this on a laptop just isn’t. For part of this evening’s class, I actually went outside and enjoyed the sun in my front yard as I learned.

Since getting this iPad, which replaced my older 2nd-gen iPad Pro 12.9, I’ve also used it to throw a quick video edit together in Luma Fusion, mock up a logo using Affinity Designer, straighten out my iCloud Drive directory structure using the Files app, write more than 2000 words in my umpteenth attempt to write a novel using Pages, resolve more than a dozen tickets in the Zendesk app, edit Confluence docs, sort out my joint Amex card with the wife using Google Sheets, and take about eight pages of notes in GoodNotes. Most of these are tasks I’d have immediately reached for my Mac to complete; now, I enjoy doing them more on my iPad than I do on my Mac.

Numbers on iPad, courtesy/copyright Apple, Inc.

Some of these tasks would, no doubt, have been quicker on my Mac, but there really is something that sparks joy about using the iPad to complete them. Part of it certainly is that using a device I’d traditionally used so much for entertainment for productivity as well is just delightful.

Like I said, there’s a longer post in here somewhere, but this sums about how I feel about the iPad lately.

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