The iPad: Where It Stands And The Need For iPad OS

My Vision For The iPad

The iPad Air 2 has specs that rival a 2012 Macbook Air. It is becoming a serious computer but there is one thing holding it back: iOS. For the basic user the iPad is great but for someone who wants to replace their PC with an iPad there are currently a number of stumbling blocks. Apple has created complicated simplicity with iOS. They have simplified some things to the point where anything but the most basic task is a convoluted mess.

I see the iPad becoming the simple computer that empowers the user. On the surface it remains simple to use, but improvements to the OS get rid of all the frustrations people have with it. iOS 8 was a step in the right direction but I still think the iPad needs an OS optimized for the larger screen. I look at some of the obvious improvements iPad OS would need but also give my hopes for where the iPad goes in the long term. The first post on this site was ”The Need For iPad OS”. It was mostly wrongheaded so I have refined my thoughts into what I think is an OS that empowers the average user.

Where The iPad Stands Right Now

iPad Hardware

The iPad Air 2 is a seriously powerful device. With a 3 core processor and 2 GBs of RAM it offers a significant upgrade even to last years model. I think this is just setting the stage for the next few years. Right now games, photo/video editing will be greatly improved but if Apple really wants the iPad to be the future of computing this is a great first step. The iPads hardware is quickly closing the gap between the Mac and iPad lines. If my theory is right the iPad is about to get some serious love in the software department to make that hardware have a purpose.

The Unloved Childs Falling Sales

Only at Apple could the iPad be a small business. It has sold over 50 million units so far this year which pale in comparison to the iPhones 120 million. It not only sells less units than the iPhone but the profit margin is lower as well. It just doesn’t make as much money as the iPhone so development is focused there. As for how they develop software, they are developing 3 major operating systems concurrently. iOS, OS X and Watch OS are all being developed at breakneck pace to meet the yearly release cycle. (Plus I would bet that they have an ARM version on OS X being developed internally as well.)

So why are iPad sales falling? There has been a lot of speculation from the optimistic, “People like them they just upgrade slower.” To the pessimistic, “The iPad has no point and customers are figuring that out.” I believe both reasons hold merit but I have a third reason that is a hybrid of the two. The iPad is great for some things but iOS has ingrained that the iPad is a limited device in the minds of a lot of users.

The iPad is great for a lot of things that don’t really suffer from old hardware, reading, watching video, social media, etc. These people are satisfied with the iPads they have.

Then there are those who want to use their iPads for more. It is a complete fallacy the iPad can’t be used for productivity but I think that customers found it missing some key things for them to use it to replace their PC’s and Macs. So if it can’t do everything their traditional computer can it isn’t a necessary device to own. It’s nice but money doesn’t grow on trees.

I also think that the iPad software development is an issue. Apple just hasn’t done enough here, but I’ll get to that in a second.

Where Is The iPads Place In Computing?

Your phone is more portable and your laptop more capable so what is the point of the iPad? It was pitched as a product that fits between the Mac and the iPhone but I don't think Apple had done a very good job with that vision. Don’t get me wrong the iPad isn’t bad, I just think Apple has failed to carve out the niche it could. It’d great for reading, watching video, and creating some amazing things but all those benefits are derived from the larger screen. It still runs iOS and there is not a lot of software differentiation between it and the iPhone. I think Apple should make the iPad more capable but keep the simplicity of iOS. I truly think it should be a device that fits in between the iPhone and Mac. Simpler to use than a traditional computer but more capable than an iPhone.

Why not just make all iOS devices more capable? That will happen but I think if Apple gave its developers more freedom with iPad OS they could innovate without having to worry about messing up their golden goose, the iPhone.

iOS 8 Fixes Things Right?

Apple likes to position it as a tool for doing amazing things. Th problem is that while individual apps can do awesome things the OS itself is really what's holding the platform back. Will iCloud Drive, easier data sharing and extensions help? For some things yes but I am not quite satisfied they are the right solutions yet.

  1. Data sharing between apps is much improved with iOS 8 but still doesn’t offer the same ease of moving files on the desktop.
  2. iCloud Drive lets you access your files from apps that have built in support and that’s the problem. Developers have to program in support. It also means we have to access our files through a series of menus where as syncing files with Dropbox just shows your documents.
  3. Extensions are awesome but are they obvious to the average user? Some have likened Extensions as the spiritual successor to “Services” on a Mac, a feature that the common user never uses. I agree they do share similarities but the problem is that they add functionality that will greatly increase the experience for the average user. Pressing the “Share” button scrolling over and activating an extension just might be too hidden for the average user to even know about. I’m not saying Extensions are bad, just obfuscated.

It Really Is iOS That Is Holding Back The iPad

Edit a video? Create a blog? Browse all your pictures anywhere? Take notes in class? The iPad is good for all of these tasks but where using your iPad for productivity falls apart is moving data between apps. iCloud Drive and extensions will help but I'm just not convinced they have the correct solution yet. It's not that you can't do something, it's that the process is clunky compared to a Mac. I strongly believe Apple has to figure out this problem if they want a device that can truly replace a laptop. It all comes back to the complex simplicity of iOS. Some things are so simple that they are complicated, just try sending some files to a friend without an app like Dropbox. It’s not that it’s not possible, it’s that it’s a convoluted process. I’ll highlight a few of these “complicated simplicity” issues here:

File Management

File management is probably the biggest issue iOS has right now. We went from no file system, to apps could store files in cloud silos, to iCloud Drive. I really think Apple tainted a lot of peoples perception of what an iOS device could do by not allowing users greater control over their files before iOS 8. People have long derided iOS for not having a file system and I never gave them much credence but as iOS matures file management has to as well. iCloud drive is a step in the right direction but file management is still a big issue on iOS. Apple wanted to get rid of the file as we knew it but in the process made the process convoluted. I don’t know if a file system like what Dropbox has is right but I do know that almost everything Apple has done with file storage on iOS has been wrong. iOS 8 had some positive changes, let’s hope they continue in that direction.

Printing

Printing is another prime example.

Well I guess it's cool I can print...

Well I guess it's cool I can print...

This is what a user sees when they try to print something. There are no options to change between black and white or colour, no way to choose if it will print double sided or not, no way to choose the page orientation and no way to choose paper size. So what does a user do? I’d assume most would just give up and do it on their “real” computer. There are ways to print with these options from iOS but it requires downloading a third party app, setting up what they want to print and then printing. Maybe some of them have an iOS 8 extension that allows a user to print from the share sheet which is better but it still requires a user to download a 3rd party app. In my experience an average user wouldn’t even think of finding a 3rd party app just to print something, they would just assume it couldn’t do what they wanted to. Apple has created a needlessly complex system to do a task that is simple from a traditional computer.

The Average User Shouldn’t Have To Find Workarounds For Common Tasks

Over (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend I had two members of my family tell me they liked their iPad but it wasn't a real computer. They couldn't get the stuff they wanted done on it. My answer to both was, "I can show you how to do both of the things you’re complaining about but it would involve workarounds and signing up for Dropbox." For me the question isn't can I, but do I really want to? I think that average users tried to do something on their iOS devices over the years and found they couldn’t which tainted their view of what iOS could do. Apple might be fighting this preconception for a long time.

What Should iPad OS Be?

So What Do I Think Should Apple Do With The iPads OS?

  1. The most obvious answer is optimize the OS for the larger screen. iOS on an iPad feels like an iPhone port far too often. Many of Apples own apps and UI don’t take advantage of the iPads screen real estate.
  2. Multitasking on an iPad isn’t a great experience. I’m not asking for two apps onscreen at once but some serious improvements are needed. (Extensions and the new ability for apps to talk to each other helps.)
  3. The iPad needs a file system. I realize this is an old argument but I truly think the iPad needs a centralized file browser. I’m not asking for a clone of Finder but the lack of file system is a frustrating experience for all but the most basic user. Apples current solution, iCloud Drive, just doesn’t meet everyones needs yet. Besides having a file browser it needs to be able to move files easily from one app to the next as you work. I outlined some ideas on that here.
  4. It needs to provide all the computing needs of the average user. There are still too many things that the iPad can do but requires workarounds or clunky experiences. Things like: data management, printing and downloading files all come to mind.
  5. It needs to actually create a middle device. Not a bigger blown up iPhone or a paired down Mac.
  6. Make Siri a comprehensive tool for interacting with your device. I have written about my wishes for Siri: here,here,hereand here.
  7. Create a system wide “Alfred” with 3rd party support. My absolute favourite thing about using my Mac is Alfred. I double tap the command button and I am greeted with a text box. I can search the web, add reminders, open documents, launch apps, and much more. While this would duplicate some of Siri’s functionality I don’t think voice should be our only option. Maybe when you launch Siri you are presented with a text box as well. I love having all that functionality from anywhere.

Creating A New Computing Paradigm

iOS was the first truly empowering mobile operating system. It enabled mobile devices to take over the world and made Apple the worlds biggest company. I think iOS is great for the iPhone but I think the next step is needed for the iPad. I’m not just talking about optimizing iOS for the bigger screen or adding a file system I think this requires a new way of computing. Right now an iPad is optimized for a touch screen but it's not that different from a traditional computer. From what I have seen from Apple it looks like they are missing a huge opportunity. iPad OS could completely reimagine what computing is by making the computer do more work. It would seem magical to the user when they open Messages and a virtual assistant helps them find the right words to convey their feelings to a friend. That could eschew the traditional idea of storing data and store everything a user does in a brain so they can always find the data they need just by asking. That can change the process of how we use applications to make it both user friendly and powerful. The iPad could be as powerful as a Mac but in a completely new way. Apple wants a device simple enough for anyone to use but able to accomplish amazing things. This system would do that by making the computer do all the work while we just instruct it. I’m not talking about artificial intelligence yet but built in tools that help the average user accomplish whatever they need.

Final Words

The iPad is my favourite computer but falling sales and an OS that doesn’t even take advantage of the screen real estate make me wonder where its place is. My vision is for an OS that creates a new category between the iPhone and Mac. One that is simple for the user but with tools that aid the user like never before. That is my vision for iPad OS.