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The Future of the iPad

It’s been an eventful decade for the iPad. But what’s next?

This week’s iPad at 10 celebration has centered primarily on the past. We’ve explored the device’s influence in accessibility and education, heard developers’ stories, outlined some of the most impactful apps from the decade, considered one of the most overlooked iPad models, and more. But as the week closes out, we turn our attention from the past and present to what lies ahead.

For the longest time, the iPhone’s shadow loomed large over the iPad. The iPad Pro began to change that, iPadOS solidified that shift, and now the device is forging its own path as a modular computer.

There’s never been a more exciting time to use the iPad. Yet as far as the device has come, we remain optimistic that its best days are still ahead.

Before wrapping up this anniversary week, we have to consider the future of the iPad.

Modularity and Even Larger iPad Pros

Federico: As I shared yesterday in my Modular Computer piece, I strongly believe the iPad hardware story should continue over the next decade with a focus on modularity. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the iPad Pro line since its debut five years ago – and particularly over the last couple years – it’s that Apple is increasingly leaning into modularity as a differentiating factor from the Mac. The company started moving its first steps into this field with the original Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil; they continued to extend the iPad’s flexibility with the adoption of USB-C in 2018; and just a few weeks ago, they brought deep, extensive integration with mice and trackpads to iPadOS. While a Mac will always be a Mac – the type of computer you buy is what it’s always going to be – an iPad can be continuously transformed by the extra hardware paired with it. This, I believe, is the most interesting hardware angle to consider right now for the future of the device.

I see a handful of different ways Apple may go about this strategy over the next few years. Aside from the upcoming Magic Keyboard (yet another accessory that is set to fundamentally transform interactions with the iPad Pro), I see proper integration with external displays as the next big item to tick on Apple’s checklist. Right now, the iPad Pro can mirror its UI to external displays via USB-C, HDMI, or AirPlay; the default UI mirroring mode is limited, however, by pillarboxing, which prevents apps from fully taking advantage of an external display. Some apps can output full-screen UI to a monitor via an old API originally designed for games, but that secondary UI cannot be interacted with using the new system pointer.

Here’s what I think Apple should do: the company should introduce a new API that supports iPadOS’ UIScene technology for multiwindowing and allow users to choose which windows (window in the sense of an iPad app window – more details here) should be placed on an external display; unlike the current UI mirroring mode, those windows should be able to fill the entire display and users should be able to control them using the new native pointer. The fact that Apple added pointer support in iPadOS 13.4 rather than waiting for 14 later this year makes me somewhat optimistic about getting a new integration with external displays in the near future.

USB is the other angle to keep an eye on for the future of the iPad as a modular computer. It was great to see Apple add support for connecting USB drives to the device in iPadOS 13, but more can be done in this regard to further open the iPad to different use cases. Put simply, I believe you should be able to use any peripheral you plug into a Mac with an iPad as well. Whether it’s an external audio interface, a scanner, or an optical drive, you shouldn’t be forced to “get a Mac” just to use a USB accessory that currently doesn’t work with the iPad. As I also suggested yesterday, Apple has the opportunity here to rethink how the necessary drivers for these accessories are distributed for iPadOS.

By focusing on modularity, Apple can continue making the iPad a more versatile and extensible platform without fundamentally changing its nature as a tablet. Adding support for external displays, pointing devices, and USB accessories doesn’t change the fact you can still pick up an iPad and hold it in your hands – and I don’t ever want that basic aspect of the experience to change. Otherwise I would, in fact, just get a Mac.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but wish for an even bigger iPad Pro (somewhere between 14” and 16”) that could be advertised as a “desk and couch” tablet, specifically optimized for drawing and productivity apps. With an even bigger display, such an iPad Pro could comfortably support up to three apps in Split View, for example, and allow professional applications such as LumaFusion and Photoshop (and maybe even Logic and Xcode by Apple?) to offer desktop-class interfaces on a device that supports both touch and external input.

Then, of course, there’s the idea of a “drafting table iPad” that would essentially be Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface Studio. I would buy that product in a heartbeat, but I understand if Apple may want to start “small” and release a 15” iPad Pro first. Regardless, as soon as a larger iPad Pro comes out, I know I’m going to be very interested in one.

The Cascading Benefits of the iPad Pro

John: The iPad Pro’s importance to the entire iPad line can’t be overstated. Whether you use Apple’s largest, most powerful tablet or not, if you have any iPad, the Pro has likely affected the way you use it.

It has been over four years since the first iPad Pro was delivered to customers. In that time, the Pro’s accessories, which felt like high-end exclusives when they were released, have trickled down to other models of iPad. Their expansion across the lineup isn’t something that is written about very often, but when you look at Apple’s entire iPad lineup, it’s remarkable just how impactful those accessories have become. The Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard have become part of what an iPad is.

The Apple Pencil is probably the most important accessory available for any Apple product today, because it’s what sets Apple’s tablets apart from their competition. Other companies make styluses, but even now, the first-generation Apple Pencil’s tight integration of hardware and software has no peer.

iPads like the mini and 10.2-inch iPad don’t support the Pro’s second-generation Pencil, but even so, it’s an accessory that allows users to greatly expand the way they use the iPad through activities like drawing and note-taking. I find myself using the Apple Pencil that I bought for my 2015 iPad Pro with my iPad mini all the time for note-taking and navigating its UI. The first-generation Pencil is less convenient to charge than the current model, but it still works like a champ almost five years later.

The Smart Keyboard has had a similar impact. It’s not available for the mini, and I doubt it ever will be given the device’s size, but it transforms the 10.2-inch iPad into an ultraportable device that quickly switches personalities. Without a USB-C port, the modularity of the device isn’t as flexible as the Pro, but the core of the experience that Federico described in his story yesterday is just as true for these iPads.

When I look at what the future might hold for the iPad, I expect this accessory trickle-down trend to continue. When Apple announced the 2020 iPad Pro last month, it showed off the new cantilevered Magic Keyboard. The keyboard is expensive at $349 for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but I expect that like the Apple Pencil, that price will come down over time and we’ll see a version of it available for other iPads too.

I also expect we will eventually see USB-C trickle down to the entire iPad line as a way to enhance its modularity. The Lightning connector has served Apple well, but USB-C is playing a larger and larger role in the adaptability of the iPad Pro. Based on what we’ve seen with Apple’s own accessories, I expect it’s only a matter of time before USB-C plays a similar role across the entire iPad line.

A USB-C port alone isn’t exciting, but its implications are. There will always be differences between Apple’s least and most expensive iPads, but by bringing the core experience of accessories like the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard to all iPads, Apple is setting up a future where the primary differentiator between devices will be their screen size, not their capabilities. The Pro models will continue being the place where new features are introduced first, and there will be differences at the margins like there are now between the screen technologies used in each model, but the prospect of every iPad gaining the flexibility of the Pro is within reach and exciting.

Becoming the Best Computer for the Most People

Ryan: Earlier this week, in a story about developing apps for iPad, I stated that “the device’s very nature – a slab of glass that becomes its software – evokes countless possibilities.” As I think about the future of the iPad, I can’t help but go back to pulling that same thread. While advancements in hardware are important, they’re ultimately just a means to the end of enabling new experiences, new ways of that slab of glass transforming into something unique. In other words, the hardware’s evolution is all about serving the software.

Often when a device is 10 years into its life, the time for innovation and experimentation has passed. But for the iPad, it’s been less than a year since Apple set it on a fresh path with the advent of iPadOS. The new OS indicates a new sense of independence and identity for the device, and iPadOS 13.4 proves that Apple is just getting started with evolving the iPad’s software. While I don’t expect this fall’s version 14 to offer too much new or revolutionary, since the past year has brought so much change already, I’m more confident than ever that the future of iPadOS is bright.

As the iPad enters this next decade, it carries tremendous opportunity to become the computer of the future. This is where I believe Apple’s focus for the device, and especially its OS, will lie moving forward: making it the best computer for most people.

What will that require?

Rethinking multitasking. This subject has been covered a lot, by plenty of different people in recent months. I even outlined my own concept for how Apple could evolve multitasking to make it more accessible. I think my context menu-centric approach could work just as well, if not better even, now that we have proper mouse and trackpad support on iPad. I won’t rehash the details of my idea – you can read the article for all the specifics – but instead simply reiterate that something does need to change  before the iPad can become the best computer for the most people. Multitasking operations like Split View and Slide Over need to be easier to learn, but without losing any of their current capabilities. While I think iPadOS 14 is likely too soon to see these changes, I expect them no later than version 15 next year.

More consistent app experiences. Besides rethinking multitasking, I think the next best thing Apple can do for the iPad’s future is to create more system APIs and tools to help developers offer consistent experiences across their apps. This was a major point emphasized by the developers I recently spoke with: too many app features have to be built from scratch by developers with entirely custom implementations. Things like modal sheets, advanced keyboard controls, file system integration, drag and drop, and multiwindow are all functions that developers in the last decade have had to build custom versions of because Apple didn’t offer native solutions. A lot of positive change has taken place in this regard, but there’s plenty more to be done. The more that Apple invests in designing key functionality that can then be given to developers through new APIs, the better experience will be had by iPad users who find that the apps they use share a common ethos in design. I’m not saying every app should be identical, or shouldn’t innovate in their own ways, only that common functions should be done the Apple-prescribed “iPad way,” via the help of APIs from the mothership.

Continued expansion of sales models. This is again a continuation of something Apple’s already doing, but developers could use more ways of structuring their businesses than what’s currently available today. Things have gotten better ever since Phil Schiller took responsibility for the App Store, with changes like the expansion of subscription options to more apps. However, not every app is a good fit for a subscription, so Apple should offer more avenues for apps to build sustainable businesses in alternative ways.

Apple leading the way with its apps. I use a lot of Apple apps because I think the company, for the most part, does a great job with its first-party offerings. I’m not in the camp that believes the company can’t make good apps anymore. That said, though, I do think Apple could do more to inspire developers toward greater creativity on the platform. The early days of the iPad were marked by remarkable experiences like GarageBand and full-fledged versions of iWork. While there have been some great app redesigns of late, such as the revamped App Store and Books apps, it’s been a very long time since Apple created brand new iPad apps that served to inspire. I hope that changes soon.

There’s more that could be said about the iPad’s software, including how its OS and apps could evolve, but these few things listed would, I believe, go a long way toward making iPad the primary computer for a lot more people.

You can also follow all of our iPad at 10 coverage through our iPad at 10 hub, or subscribe to the dedicated iPad at 10 RSS feed.

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