The Tablet Dilemma: Powerful Laptop Replacement or Casual Consumption Device?

Earlier this week Apple announced a new version of the iPad Pro, a £749 tablet that includes pretty much the same internals as the other recent Macs including the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Mini. Once you up the storage to a more acceptable (but still bare minimum) 256GB and add in the optional Magic Keyboard, the cost ends up being £1,178, slightly more than a similar spec’d MacBook Air, which starts at £999.

The iPad and Mac having comparable specifications is nothing new. For many years it has been apparent that Apple’s top end tablets could outperform even some of the higher end laptops on single core tasks. Now, with both products using the same chip, and with Apple giving the iPad Pro the same M1 processor they’ve used in Macs, many people are starting to wonder why the iPad is still so limited by its operating system. Harry McCracken, a longtime proponent of using iPads as a primary computing device wrote “The iPad Pro just got way more pro. Now it needs pro software”.  Over at The Verge, Monica Chin wrote “Put macOS on the iPad, you cowards”, a headline that seems sure to fire up camaraderie on Twitter.  Jason Snell, one of my favourite writers about all things Mac, wrote “The iPad Pro is a killer machine but its software is killing me”. It seems there is a consensus. 

For a long time this has been my view too. I’ve written many times before that what holds back the iPad is its software not its hardware. The touch screen revolution didn’t quite happen as planned. 11 years after the iPad was first introduced, most people still turn to a desktop or laptop with a mouse and keyboard when they really want to get work done. But with tablet hardware so powerful, and with the software that feels ‘almost there’ it’s reasonable to ask why can’t we do more with our expensive iPads. The solution however, is not simple. Allowing users to reboot their iPad into macOS as Chin seems to suggest would be one answer, but it would require either macOS to be redesigned to accommodate touch input, or that Apple require users connect a trackpad and keypad to their iPad when using it in “Mac Mode”. This doesn’t seem very elegant to me – though technically probably not difficult, and Apple is all about elegance. Adding touch to macOS would beg the question of why Mac laptops don’t have touch screens and risk destroying what makes macOS such a great operating system. (Windows 8 anyone?) In 2019 the ability to run iPad apps on the Mac was added to macOS, but with a mouse and keyboard of course. Requiring a mouse and keyboard on the iPad would be more preferable approach and would keep the line between  ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’, but it just doesn’t seem like something the Apple we all know would ever do. It’s too clunky having two versions of the same app.

Another option is to build upon iPad OS and address all the little things that make it difficult to use a full-time computing device. It has come a long way in the past 5 years since I wrote my original article, and many of the features I said were needed are now present in iPad OS. The difficulty now is that many of the things that make PC operating systems so powerful run counter to what makes the iPad so secure and simple to use. As we’ve seen from the iPad’s horrendous attempt to support multitasking, adding complexity to something that wasn’t originally designed for it is also difficult to pull off. Not forgetting, iPad OS also needs to run on the cheapest £329 iPad which has far less compute power than the iPad Air or iPad Pro. Anything that add adds more power for Pro users risks alienating the majority of casual users who just want a large smartphone for watching video browsing social media.  

What really leaves a sour taste in the mouth is the fact that Apple now is now seemly selling the same computer in many different form-factors but is artificially limiting which software can run on them based on imaginary product categories.  There is no law of nature that says what a ‘tablet’ is any more than there one that defines a number of grains of sand required before they can be called a mound. Yet it is in Apple’s best interests to make sure customers have a reason to buy a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. For a company that likes to boast how good it is by making sure we all know how much they support good causes, have they not thought of the environmental impact of millions of people deciding to buy both an iPad and a Mac when there is no reason other than Apple’s business model requiring they do so?

But Apple must have known that by naming the iPad’s processor ‘M1’ parallels would be drawn with the Mac, and questions would be asked. They could quite easily have called the CPU A14X, or A15, it’s just a marketing name after all. The fact they choose to draw a direct parallel with the Mac makes me think that Apple do have something up their sleeves to further bridge the gap between the iPad and Mac, and ensuring all that power does not go go waste. I don’t think the iPad will ever run macOS, but I can see a situation similar to how the Mac can currently run iPad apps, but in reverse. Imagine if when a keyboard and pointing device are plugged into the iPad, iPad apps that have been updated to support the Mac are able to run in full ‘Mac Mode’ on the iPad. Apps would be scaled down to simulate a higher resolution allowing more content to be shown with the assumption that a pointer, not a finger will be used for input. A menu bar would show across the top of the screen. It wouldn’t be “macOS” (it’s not the menu bar), but it would provide a way for Mac-optimised apps to run in in a desktop-like mode. Additionally, if iPad OS could also provide a “Developer Mode” similar to how Macs let users turn off secure boot that allowed software be side-loaded (bypassing the App Store restrictions) and a way to use developer centric tools such as the Terminal and Homebrew, the iPad would suddenly become substantially more powerful. It still wouldn’t be able to run the full version of Photoshop as many have asked for, but it would be a compromise that would offer a more powerful user experience while also seeking to encourage the likes of Adobe to port their ancient applications to Apple’s more modern UIKit frameworks, becoming iPad apps at the same time.

Is it a stretch? Yes. But giving the iPad the same processor as a Mac is a bold move, and that makes me hopeful that we can expect similarly bold moves from the software team over the coming year.

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