For the past two years or so I’ve been openly contemplating what would happen if Apple evolved the iPad into a true productivity PC. That day hasn’t arrived yet. But the new iPad Pro lineup —and a coming revision to iOS—shows us how Apple can get us there. Someday.
For now, however, Apple has an iPad problem.
When the original tablet was introduced in 2010, then-CEO Steve Jobs said that he had wondered whether there was “room” for a product between a phone and a laptop. But in doing so, he inadvertently revealed Apple’s real goal, which was about selling more hardware, not fulfilling actual customer needs.
Then the firm announced the original iPad Pro in late 2015. And once it again, it did a horrible job of explaining why it was necessary or, in this case, even deserved a Pro moniker.
The result is well-known: Apple has sold fewer iPads, year-over-year, for 12 consecutive quarters. That’s three straight years of falling sales. Not slowing sales. Falling sales.
That fact needs to be put in perspective, of course. iPad sales are still about double those of Mac sales. And these devices are high quality enough that they last for many years. In this age of throw-away consumerism, maybe we should commend Apple for bucking the trend.
But then Apple also has a hubris problem that prevents it from shifting strategies quickly: The original iPad was heralded as the start of a post-PC world that never came. Which is particularly amazing when you consider how badly PC sales have fallen in recent years. Here’s this wounded and struggling animal, the PC, and Apple’s new wonder weapon can’t even deal a decisive death blow. Seems like a missed opportunity.
Not helping matters, Microsoft and it PC maker partners have paved their own path to a future that does include PCs by innovating with 2-in-1 PCs, gaming PCs, and premium PCs, sub-markets in which there has been tremendous growth. So Apple has been forced to veer from its original iPad vision and offer an iPad Pro 2-in-1 of its own.
It hasn’t helped. At least so far.
Part of the reason is that the original iPad Pro was ill-conceived. It had a huge and technically advanced screen, of course, though Apple later admitted that customers prefer a 9.7-inch form factor, introduced in early 2016, over the original 12.9-inch behemoth. But because of the screen size of that smaller device, the on-screen keyboard is not full-sized as it is on the 12.9-inch version.
Those first iPad Pros were more powerful than other iOS devices, thanks to a more powerful processor, graphics, and additional RAM. But they were also held back by the modest software improvements in iOS, which provided basic multitasking features like a side-by-side apps view but little else.
So Apple is finally addressing these and other issues. In part via new and much-improved iPad Pro devices. And in part via iOS 11, which significantly improves the system’s multitasking and productivity capabilities, but will not arrive in final form until September.
Which is an agonizing three months away for those, like me, who wish to see how well Apple’s vision of the future of computing works today.
It does not work well at all. This will please PC fans, I hope. Because while I keep dreading the day that Apple—and for Google, with Chromebook—will wake the f#$k up and just do it already, these companies have both run into major and I assume unexpected roadblocks in delivering on their promises to put the PC out of its misery already.
Witness the new iPad Pro as the latest example of this half-heartedness. I ordered a new 10.5-inch version, which replaces the old 9.7-inch version, an Apple Pencil, and a Smart Keyboard, which also works as a big and heavy cover for the device. For now, this setup will work much like iPad Pros have to date, using a fairly lackluster iOS 10.x version that doesn’t fully take advantage of this hardware and its unique capabilities. But as I’m a registered Apple developer and have access to the pre-release code now, I’ve already moved it to iOS so I can get a more complete idea of where things are going.
And it’s not there yet. Will not be there, in fact, at any time in the next year. So there’s your breathing room, PC fans. Even with the advances in iOS 11, the iPad Pro is no laptop replacement.
The issues with this device are many, but they boil down to two basic ideas, which I’ll tie back to opening comments about Apple having an iPad problem. I just don’t see what the point is here.
First, the iPad Pro is too small to be a productivity device, and it lacks key features—most obviously a touchpad or similar pointer—to ever replace a laptop. A Chromebook is a much better solution for anyone who needs to type at all, and that’s pretty damning all on its own.
Second, the iPad Pro is simply too big to be enjoyable as a consumption device. The screen is amazing, and the speakers sound incredible, but holding this thing to read is like carting around a hardcover bible or coffee table book: It’s big, heavy, and awkward. It’s like a large print edition of the iPad.
As always, I should qualify these statements. It’s a well-made, high-quality device. (Which it should be at these prices.) And I can see how the 10.5-inch iPad Pro improves over its predecessor, which contrary to claims does not share the same basic form factor as the iPad Air and Air 2. (Those tablets were, in fact, smaller, by about half an inch.)
I haven’t owned a full-sized iPad since the original iPad Air, though I did own all previous full-sized iPads, including the original, the iPad 2, the iPad 3, and the iPad 4 (which was at first just called the new iPad). Since then, I’ve stuck largely with the iPad mini, which works well as a reading and video watching device, with its small form factor and light weight. So this will be a bit of an adjustment. OK, more than a bit.
But the screen, paradoxically, is perhaps the iPad Pro’s biggest asset. Pardon the pun. It offers a resolution of 2224 x 1668 resolution, which works out to be 264 PPI, the same pixel density that Apple provides on the bigger 12.9-inch version. This bigger screen sort of fixes the on-screen keyboard issue, too: On this device, the on-screen keyboard is full-sized, just as it is on the 12.9-inch version.
That screen can’t help with the Smart Keyboard, however. Here we see a less-than-full-sized keyboard, with that weird fabric covering, and no touchpad or other pointing device. I would have preferred a 12.9-inch model, if only for a more comfortable typing experience. But I can’t afford such a thing, and for now, what I really want to do is just experiment with the new productivity capabilities. So the 10.5-inch model will have to do. Maybe iOS 12 will include a mouse pointer in 2018.
The device is elegant in the way that all Apple hardware is elegant, and if you’ve owned any iPad in the past, this will look and feel familiar. Maybe too familiar.
So what’s the point?
In a perfect world, I would just return this thing. It’s borderline pointless, and when you add up the costs—$650 for the tablet, $130 for the Smart Keyboard, and $100 for the Apple Pencil—you’re edging nicely into premium laptop territory. But I have slightly different requirements than most consumers.
Looked at from a purely Microsoft-focused perspective—an admitted niche—the iPad Pro is the most sophisticated mobile platform on which to run the software giant’s productivity apps and services. In particular Office 365, which is expanding so quickly these days I can barely keep up. So there’s some testing to be done there.
But I also have a long-running—and by “long running,” I mean 20+ years—history of keeping competitive devices on hand for testing purposes. I’ve always had one or more Macs, for example, and my now-aging MacBook Air will need to be replaced at some point. With an eye towards this post-PC future that never seems to arrive, I will need to keep this thing around for testing purposes. I won’t call it in investment. But it’s a bit of a necessity.
(On that note, I skipped the first-gen iPad Pro devices on purpose, knowing that gen-2 would be much improved. When Apple announced the MacBook Pro with Touch bar, I figured I’d jump in at gen-2 there, as well. But they released gen-2 so quickly after the first models, that I will keep waiting. Not made of money, etc.)
There’s also that Apple Pencil I’ve barely mentioned. I’ve been spending a lot more time in recent weeks experimenting with various smartpens on various platforms and will be writing more about this going forward. I’m decades away from my years as an artist, and many years away from the last time I took notes by hand, with real pens and pencils. But maybe it’s like riding a bike. I at least do have those experiences to fall back on.
In any event, there is much to test, much to think about, and much to write. But what you need to know right now is that the iPad Pro (2017) is almost certainly the best full-sized iPad that Apple has ever made. And while it is a step towards the post-PC future, it’s only a step, and a belated one at that. And it doesn’t go far enough to warrant any worries that doom is upon us.
So thanks for moving so slowly, Apple. Now I can turn my attention to more pressing matters.
Tagged with iPad Pro