Initial Thoughts on iPad Pro

"The iPad is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing." - Tim Cook

The above statement by Apple's CEO is - by far - the most important thing that happened for iPad at Apple's event last Wednesday. We have been through more than three years of the iPad playing a distant second to the iPhone and, to some extent, even the Mac at Apple events. It's been three long years of "Here's the new thinner, faster iPad. We can't wait to see what you do with it. Bye!"

On Wednesday, Tim Cook came out and put the iPad front and center. It led and, arguably, dominated the substantive announcements at the event. He called it the future of personal computing and that means more than any specifics of any current version of the iPad.

Still, the iPad Pro opens a new chapter in the life of the iPad. It's bigger, faster, more capable and, yes, more expensive. Where does iPad Pro fit in?

I'll repeat my standard line here about iPad hardware: iPad hardware is only interesting insofar as it enables a great experience of iPad software.

More than almost any other device, the iPad becomes the software it runs. The watch is always a watch. The phone is always pocket-sized (sort of). The iPad uniquely morphs between being a sheet music stand, an artist's easel, a book, a game, a cinema screen, a cash register, a typewriter, a notepad, a map, a project plan and a video editing suite all with a quick launch of an app. That's what makes it a special device. It's not just a "tablet computer".

iOS 9 Holds the Key

Since starting to test the iOS 9 betas, the iPad Pro has been the most obvious next product in Apple's history. The keynote majored heavily on the iPad Pro's suitability for iOS 9's split-screen multitasking feature. I've been using this on my iPad Air 2 and, while very usable, is clearly limited due to screen space.

When you use two apps in 50-50 split screen on an Air 2, each app is commanded to present its iPhone-class interface. Admittedly they're bigger than an iPhone, but iOS describes the device's capabilites in terms of "size classes" and apps conform their UI to that instruction.

The result is that using two apps at 50-50 split on the Air 2, you're using two really big iPhone apps. Safari shows its toolbar top and bottom, for example. On the iPad Pro, you're using two iPad-class apps side by side and that will make a substantial difference to the ease of navigation and use.

Personally, I feel that my use of iOS has become a little stuck in the past. Not the very far past, but the well documented reliability problems with iOS 7 and 8 have somewhat put me off trying to develop new workflows in iOS.

iOS 8, however, delivered some incredibly important new APIs that have taken time to mature. Document Provider extensions brought the ability to reach into various cloud storage silos from within an app and pull out a file for use.

For example, a colleague asked me how to insert a video he had stored in his Google Drive account into a Keynote slide on his iPad. I started delivering the standard iOS explanation: download it to Photos, then pick it from your Camera Roll inside Keynote. That was iOS 7 thinking. The way you do that in iOS 8 is: Tap the + button in Keynote, tap "Insert From...", pick Google Drive as the location and then pick the file. You don't have to leave Keynote and you don't have to clutter your Photos app or eat up double the device storage.

These APIs, along with the general action extensions and photo editing extensions, have matured quietly but steadily over the life of iOS 8. There are now many extremely smooth workflows available in iOS that I confess I don't readily think of when faced with a computing task to complete.

I think these workflows, plus split-screen multitasking and keyboard support, are going to be the key features that make the iPad Pro fly.

The Microsoft Angle

For five years now, the iPad has been the only computer I've actually wanted to use. I've certainly used Macs and Chromebooks in the meantime but the iPad has always been the one I actively loved. Over the past few years, I've been looking for some leadership from Apple that said "iPad is the future" in the way that Steve Jobs clearly thought it was.

In the intervening time, I've often said that I basically want "a Microsoft Surface just not made by Microsoft or running any Microsoft software".

What I wanted was Apple to adopt something like the Surface strategy. In saying that, I don't mean I want Apple to take Mac OS X and jam it into a tablet. What I want is for Apple to make an iPad that can be my only computer.

A few commentators have been complaining that the iPad Pro with its fabric-covered keyboard case is just the Apple Surface. If so, great! Kind of amusing, though, that the best Office-for-touch experience will probably be Office for iOS running on an iPad.

The Thousand Dollar Question

The elephant in the room with iPad Pro, however, is the price. This isn't a cheap iPad. Starting at $799 and running up to $1049, this is starting to edge overlap with low-end MacBook Air models. Let's ignore the $799 32GB WiFi model for now. The true iPad Pro is the 128GB model which is $949 in WiFi and $1049 in LTE configurations.

The portable Macs that play around the iPad Pro price point are:

  • 11" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/128GB) - $899
  • 11" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/256GB) - $1,099
  • 13" MacBook Air (1.6GHz/4GB/128GB) - $999

The 13" Retina MacBook Pro and the 12" MacBook both start at $1,299.

Apple didn't quite come out and say that the iPad Pro can replace your laptop. Microsoft, by comparison, certainly has used that line for the Surface (because it basically is a laptop). I think Apple knows that iOS is not quite there yet, even with iOS 9.

It seems to me that for most regular people the iPad Pro and a Mac laptop will be either-or purchases. Does iOS offer enough to let people make that move?

I think that the answer is yes - for some people. People whose workflows are not particularly complex or whose software needs are already met by a handful of iOS apps will find that they might not need much more.

My true litmus test for going iOS-only, however, is the extent to which the user has completely embraced cloud storage for files. If your entire life is in Dropbox, Box or Google Drive, you are in a much better place with iOS than if you have a big cache of local files on a laptop somewhere.

Who is the iPad Pro for?

Many people my age (I'm 37) and older scoff at the idea of an iPad replacing a laptop. They're the same people who scoffed at virtual keyboards competing with physical keyboards and smartphone cameras competing with DSLRs.

The iPad Pro will immediately suit people who need its unique physical characteristics: large screen for sharing content with others side-by-side. Artists looking for a better pen experience will be attracted to it right away. Is the iPad Pro the iPad that schools will roll out 1:1 all over the world? Absolutely not. Would it make a great single machine for the average teacher? It could, if the surrounding network and cloud infrastructure is in place (which it rarely is, sadly).

I see the iPad Pro not so much as a laptop replacement for anyone who has invested 20+ years in being a laptop user. No, the iPad Pro is the "laptop" for people who, today, are 12-16 years old who will graduate from High School in the next few years and look for the next-level iOS device to take them to college and beyond into a career.

The iPad Pro isn't so much about the iPad Pro today as it is about what it and iOS will become by 2020: Apple's vision for the future of personal computing.