After years of little attention paid to the user interface and features of iOS for iPad, Apple wants to correct its course with iOS 9. A combination of the OS' maturity and willingness to reignite interest in the platform amid declining sales, Apple's initiative encompasses app interaction, multitasking, text input, and external keyboard integration.
The result is the most important iOS release for iPad to date, as well as a stepping stone for the future of the device as an everyday computer.
When the iPad launched in 2010, few in the tech press knew what to make of it. If it's a tablet, why does it run iPhone OS instead of a desktop OS? Is it a big iPod touch or a small Mac?
As it turned out, the preoccupations of tech bloggers were the very factors that contributed to the record-breaking first years of iPad. It was a bigger iOS device that ran familiar software specifically designed to make you feel like you were holding and using a physical object. The iPad could be a book and a newspaper. A calculator on your desk and a portable typewriter. An agenda. A diary. By design, the full-screen nature of apps on the iPad had been engineered to convince you of one simple truth: This device can be anything. And because millions already knew how to use it thanks to iPhone OS, it did offer something for everyone.
The biggest problem that has affected the iPad in the past three years stems from Apple itself. After the launch of iOS 6, the company began a long and tortuous journey towards a new identity for iOS. During this period, iPad got the short end of the redesign stick: while Apple was busy rethinking the core structure and visual appareance of the iPhone, the iPad got unimaginative adaptations and other UI leftovers.
Three years after the iPad's launch, Apple didn't seize the opportunity to make iPad features and apps unique and tailored to the platform. They just scaled them up. The same consistency that was a smart move in 2010 didn't make much sense in 2013 after iOS 7 and the chance of a fresh start.
iOS 7 wasn't just a visual disappointment for iPad users who were craving for attention. From a functional standpoint, the iPad had evolved to an appealing computer replacement for many, albeit with too many compromises. Tasks that were trivial on a PC were too difficult, if not downright impossible, on an iPad. iOS apps were unable to communicate with each other. Apple had ushered users in the post-PC era with the original iPad and then left them halfway there.
On the iPad, iOS 7 felt like a rushed conversion that had forgotten about the promise of a revolution.
Big changes, however, often come in small doses. With last year's iOS 8, we caught a glimpse of what Apple's thought process might have been: if iOS 7 laid a new visual foundation, iOS 8 was going to spread a stronger technical layer on top of it. We witnessed how Apple was willing to modularize the concept of app – the long-sacred silo – into multiple functionalities and screen sizes connected by a common, secure thread. iOS 8 came out as the yin to iOS 7's yang: free of their (sometimes forced, frequently derided) photorealistic appearance, apps were granted an out-of-sandbox permission, too.
It's not uncommon to rely on hindsight to understand the iterative changes behind Apple's products. iOS 7 brought a new, subdued look. iOS 8 introduced a framework to extends apps. These are not features designed in a vacuum.
Extensions make more sense with a design language that focuses on color rather than heavy textures and 3D graphics. Imagine if all your apps still looked like distinct objects and you had to interact with panels of leather on top of wooden backgrounds, metal slates, and paper sheets. Similarly, consider the new iPhones and iPads: without a design that eschews pixel-perfect object recreations, many developers would have to target new screen sizes with bitmap graphics that take time away from actual app development.
iOS 7 and iOS 8 were deeply intertwined, two sides of the same coin that Apple revealed in the span of a year. In the iPad's case, they still weren't enough to complete the vision of what Apple had in store for the future of the device.
But as they say: third time's the charm.
The Importance of Being iPad
Apple's big bet on the iPad with iOS 9 involves deep changes in multitasking and productivity enhancements that are both obvious and unexpected. To understand the gravity and consequential paradigm shift of these new features, it's important to observe the iPad's role today and reflect on why Apple is turning its attention to the device now.
The iPad in 2015 is an incredible computer at the top of the line, powered by a more flexible OS that still struggles to accommodate some basic use cases and workflows. This is key to understand the changes Apple is bringing to the iPad this year. Everything new in iOS 9 for iPad ultimately comes down to this idea:
The iPad is a computer in search of its own OS.
As I noted in my review, the iPad Air 2 is a dramatically faster and more capable iPad than older generations, to the point where it's fair to wonder why such power is needed at all.
In the same product line, though, lies the ever-surviving iPad 2, a second-generation device released in 2011 and that can still run the latest version of iOS. The longevity of iPad hardware and Apple's policy to support old devices with software updates has created a curious dichotomy for the company: the latest iPad, more powerful than traditional computers in some instances; and the iPad 2, still receiving updates but far from the user experience of the Air 2.
The tension between new and old, modern and traditional is also quite apparent in iOS itself. With iOS 8, Apple debuted user features and developer frameworks that allowed an iPad to handle tasks that wouldn't be possible on a Mac. For some people, an iPad running iOS 8 is preferable to a Mac with OS X. This is exactly why I elected the iPad Air 2 as my primary computer: besides form factor advantages, I like iOS and its app ecosystem better.
At the same time, iOS 8 is still behind OS X when it comes to performing tasks that involve switching between apps, working with files, and editing text. These are the tentpoles of any personal computing experience from the past two decades and the functionalities added in iOS 8 have done little – if nothing – to address the concerns expressed by iPad users about them. Action and share extensions have helped in exchanging data between apps, but they're not the solution to look at two things at the same time; custom keyboards have provided a novel way of input and data extraction from apps, but what the iPad needs is a faster way to select and edit text.
The problem that Apple needs to solve with iOS 9 for iPad is complex. How can Apple make good of the post-PC promise with features that are drastically different from what came before – without the overhead and inherent complexity of forty years of desktop computers – but also capable of addressing modern user needs and workflows?
Apple's answer comes as a cornucopia of changes, with new Slide Over, Split View, and Picture-in-Picture features for multitasking, better support for external keyboard shortcuts, enhancements to the software keyboard, and even a gesture to navigate and select text using multitouch.
The recurring theme of contrast finds its zenith in the multitasking and productivity additions to the iPad in iOS 9: some of them are brand new ideas previously unseen on OS X; others borrow heavily from the company's desktop OS. Some of them are exclusive to the powerful Air 2; others have made their way to older iPads as well.
Prior to inspection, such peculiar mix begs the question: does Apple know new ways to think about old problems, or is this too much for an iPad to handle?
One thing's for sure: Apple is finally making what the iPad was looking for.