Thinking About An iPad Pro

iPad Pro

iPad Pro

I’ve been thinking about a rumor that I’ve seen showing up in tech headlines lately – that Apple is working on a larger version of the iPad (dubbed “iPad Pro”) that is allegedly on track to be released in Fall 2014. While I haven’t been paying particular attention to rumors (with the exception of Mark Gurman’s original reporting), the idea of a larger iPad reported by the tech press thus far strikes me as an odd proposition. As someone who uses the iPad as his primary computer, I wanted to recollect past instances of this rumor and reflect upon the consequences that such device (and way of thinking) could have on the iPad line, iOS, and consumers.

Though I’m sure that older versions of the larger iPad rumor could be found by spending more time on Google, the first report I found dates back to May 2013 and originated from ETNews. Here’s how MacRumors reported it as “sketchy”:

Apple is working on a new, larger iPad with a display measuring 12.9 inches diagonally, compared to the 9.7-inch display on the current full-size iPad. The larger iPad, which the site apparently in all seriousness says would be called “iPad Maxi”, would launch in the first half of 2014 and be intended to target the ultrabook market as well as increase utility for digital textbooks.

12.9 inches, somewhat aimed at the educational market, shipping in the first half of 2014. In July 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple had asked its suppliers for display prototypes measuring “slightly less” than 13 inches, which would be in line with the 12.9 inches previously claimed by ETNews:

People at Apple’s suppliers said it asked for prototype smartphone screens larger than its current iPhone in recent months, and has asked for screen designs for a new tablet measuring slightly less than 13 inches. Whether the designs will make their way to market is unclear, but they could lead to Apple phones and tablets that are larger than the current 4-inch iPhone 5 and 9.7-inch iPad.

In December 2013, everyone’s favorite rumor source, Digitimes, reported that Apple was working on a “large-size tablet”, possibly replacing the 11-inch MacBook Air with a device aimed at the educational market:

Apple’s large-size tablet will be manufactured by Quanta Computer, and was originally expected to adopt either 12.9- or 13.3-inch panels, with recent rumors indicating that 12.9-inch has a better chance to be picked, the sources noted.

Which brings us to two weeks ago, when analyst Patrick Wang issued a widely-reported research note in which he claimed that Apple is working on a larger iPad focused on the enteprise market with a “hybrid” design that could merge a laptop and a tablet, powering apps with a new A8 CPU. According to Wang, such device will be released in late 2014.

But Wang predicts that Apple wouldn’t just simply release a larger iPad — he sees the company using the additional screen real estate to create a hybrid-style device that could serve as both a tablet and a notebook, and would make the iPad lineup more appealing to business customers.

Speculation about a large tablet functioning as a hybrid device isn’t new to tech blogs and isn’t certainly new to Apple. According to Jobs’ official biographer Walter Isaacson, Apple had tablet prototypes with a keyboard attached to the screen before settling on multitouch and what ended up being the original iPad design:

The tablet project got a boost in 2007 when Jobs was considering ideas for a low-cost netbook computer. At an executive team brainstorming session one Monday, Ive asked why it needed a keyboard hinged to the screen; that was expensive and bulky. Put the keyboard on the screen using a multi-touch interface, he suggested. Jobs agreed. So the resources were directed to revving up the tablet project rather than designing a netbook.

And while patents aren’t a meaningful metric to understand Apple’s product direction, that’s not to say that the company hasn’t patented designs that illustrate, say, a computer with a detachable screen.

But we don’t need to look at biographies or patent applications to understand what Apple used to think about touch interactions with laptops: at the “Back to the Mac” event in October 2010, Steve Jobs famously dissed the act of touching a computer’s screen as “ergonomically terrible”, citing arm fatigue and the fact that “touch screens don’t want to be vertical”. Apple tried the hybrid “touch computer” or “desktop tablet” approach internally, and ultimately decided against it. Neither was great.

iPad Pro

iPad Pro

I’d typically discard the tech press’ indulgence in this particular rumor as the byproduct of a widespread belief that Apple needs to constantly reinvent existing product categories to survive; it’s easy to see why a bigger, convertible iPad that turns into a laptop and vice versa can be appealing to those seeking constant reinvention in lieu of refinement. The “bigger iPad” rumor has been picking up steam in the past year, with different sources agreeing on a specific screen size (12.9 inches), a possible release date (late 2014), and the focus on market segments, albeit with conflicting reports (enterprise or educational; hybrid or just a larger screen).

From a hardware perspective, the iPad is a multitouch display that you hold in your hands. With a larger model, Apple would need to adapt or alter the iPad’s existing resolution to fit the new screen, and Rene Ritchie has already considered Apple’s options at iMore.

I’ve been pondering the nature of this rumor and how, exactly, a bigger “iPad Pro” would work. Rumors couldn’t settle on a single scenario, and neither can I.

Option A: It’s Just A Bigger iPad

The obvious candidate would be an iPad Pro with a larger screen and no exclusive hardware or software features. Just like the iPad Air and iPad mini are essentially the same device with a difference in weight and size[1], the iPad Pro would be an addition to the iPad family with no major internal or software changes.

Apple could position the three iPad sizes as “best” for consumers interested in an extremely portable iPad (mini), the general-purpose iPad (Air), and the larger iPad for creatives, students, and other professional users (Pro). Apple could market the extra screen space as an ideal companion to textbooks (bigger pictures, more content on screen), photo and video editing, and creation apps for digital artists. Businesses that employ the iPad as a cash register, interactive guide, or kiosk (settings where portability isn’t a factor) would likely benefit from a larger display with increased viewing area. This iPad Pro would be compatible with all the 500,000+ native iPad apps available on the App Store without requiring developers to update them for the new device; apps developed with Auto Layout and Dynamic Type would scale gracefully to the bigger display.

There’s also an argument to be made about gaming. With a 12.9-inch screen, the iPad Pro could be large enough to enable controller-based gaming from a distance without having to be really close to the screen – if you watched the promo video for the SteelSeries Stratus iOS 7 game controller, you’ll get the idea.

(12.9-inch iPad scale mockup by Chris Herbert)

On a conceptual level, I believe this is the simplest solution: it’s just a larger iPad. It would be instantly familiar to existing iPad owners looking for a bigger model and it would run every iPad app out of the box with no developer intervention needed. Developers could optimize iPad apps for the larger screen much like they already do to scale interfaces from the iPhone 5/5s down to the 4/4s – Instacast being an example. Flipboard could show more tiles on the iPad Pro; recipe apps could show larger and even multiple photos at once; Safari would show bigger webpages that are easier to read.

However, while I could see the iPad getting smaller while maintaining a usable interface, I can’t envision an iPad getting larger without deeper adjustments to the UI. Apps like Flipboard and Safari would look okay, but software like Tweetbot, Pages, or Mail would look comically large and full of wasted space if ported as is. Furthermore, I struggle to imagine how the average iPad user who doesn’t work with video editing suites, DAWs, Square registers, or 3D-rendering apps could benefit from an iPad that’s simply larger and running scaled up software.

The (extremely likely) downsides of a 12.9-inch iPad for the masses without particular software changes would outweigh the device’s potential strengths: you’d almost certainly lose comfortable one-handed usage, you wouldn’t be able to hold it with two hands for long periods of time, and, at the current resolution, the screen wouldn’t look as good as the Retina screen of the iPad Air and mini. You’d be carrying a 13-inch device that doesn’t do anything dramatically different than the much more portable iPad Air and iPad mini. I don’t see the appeal or need for Option A.

Option B: A “Pro” iPad With Substantial Software & Hardware Changes

I’m mildly intrigued by the idea of an iPad Pro that, as the invented name suggests, would target pro users with substantial hardware and software changes. The iPad Pro could be Apple’s test machine for major features that will eventually trickle down to the bottom of the iPad line towards more consumer-oriented products. After breathing new life into the Mac Pro, would it be inconceivable for Apple to target professional users on the iPad as well? Does that market exist?

Apple could make notable changes to the user experience and beef up the hardware to entice the pro audience. The 64-bit CPU of the A7 is a solid foundation to build upon, and if Apple could make that even faster without impacting battery life, while driving a larger screen and adding more RAM (needed) and a more powerful GPU in the process – at that point, interesting possibilities would open up to developers and users.

Apple likes to pride itself upon the tight integration of hardware and software that can improve the user experience by leveraging the interplay of components and the operating system – how hardware and software can work together rather than separately just to check off items in a checklist. With an iPad Pro carrying more RAM, iOS could keep more apps alive in memory, making the multitasking experience seamless – you wouldn’t see Safari reloading tabs when you switch to it after a while and apps could store large amounts of data in RAM without being terminated.[2]

Professional users who have been trying to record and edit podcasts on the iPad or use it as a filmmaking tool would probably accept the trade-off of a larger device in exchange for faster video and audio rendering, more RAM, increased available space on the screen for multiple controls shown at once, and overall higher performance. In the couple of stories detailed by Apple in Your Verse and Life on iPad where portability isn’t a problem, a larger, more powerful iPad Pro could be preferable to an iPad Air.

With an iPad designed for pros, the iOS multitasking experience could (and should) be enhanced with dynamic app previews (something that a few developers are already experimenting with) and inter-app communication capabilities to exchange data between apps.

Some people argue that a possible use for the 12.9-inch screen would be to show portions of multiple apps at the same time – something akin to Windows 8’s multitasking with “sidebars” attached to the side of the screen to view different sets of information simultaneously. What would be cramped on an iPad Air or mini could make sense on an iPad Pro: college students could write research papers in Pages while referencing an email or webpage, and audio professionals could monitor audio sources from different apps in real-time with two distinct panels. This old idea by Kontra – a multi-slot clipboard to store multiple bits of text or images at the same time (think Unclutter on the iPad) – would make sense as a floating widget on a larger screen, not getting in way as much as it would on an iPad Air.

I work from my iPad every day, and the idea of an iPad capable of showing multiple apps and clipboard popups fascinates me. On paper. The truth is, as much as I like to imagine how an iPad could become a more powerful productivity appliance by employing separate areas of the screen for multiple apps displayed at the same time, the idea worries me.

One of the great things about the iPad is how it politely forces you to focus on the task at hand by showing only one app at a time. When I’m in Editorial, the iPad is my automated typewriter. When I’m in Tweetbot, the iPad is Twitter in my hands. Interface layers that Apple has added over the years (banners, Siri, Notification and Control Center) walk the fine line between displaying more information and breaking the iPad’s 1:1 relationship of device-app. I fear that multiple apps – even in the form of fixed sidebars that “snap” on the screen – would do just that, adding complexity to the iPad’s experience and, most of all, introducing the notion that you have to visually manage app windows on the screen.

Galaxy Pro

Galaxy Pro

(Samsung Galaxy Pro, via The Verge)

Does the iPad need to end up like a Galaxy Tab Pro, turning a 12-inch display into a mess of resizable windows? Isn’t the iPad’s inherent simplicity one of the reasons that are leading us towards the gradual and inevitable demise of the PC? If the reasoning behind the 12.9-inch screen is to have room for showing more apps at once, can Apple come up with a good solution that doesn’t add confusion and complexity?

Do average users looking for a bigger iPad need something similar to Samsung’s new multiple windows feature? And if the iPad Pro is for pros, would pros actually like to constantly drag & drop windows around to rearrange them on screen?

(Jump to 1:07 to see Samsung’s window manager in action)

Let’s say, then, that Apple doesn’t think that adding a larger screen equals using it for multiple windows. Apple would improve multitasking and inter-app communication in other ways and stick to its one app at a time approach because it’s better for customers. Faster hardware and larger screen would be the key differentiators at this point. Unlike Option A, Apple would alter iOS on the iPad Pro in ways that show off the bigger screen, such as app redesigns tailored to the device. iPhoto could always show editing tools without tucking them away in a menu; Mail could open hyperlinks in an adjacent web view and, when composing a reply, show the original message in its entirety with a wider app layout; Calendar could show two weeks back to back, and so forth. Third-party developers would build their iPad apps to make sense on the iPad Pro without looking like scaled up versions that don’t do anything meaningful with available space. Apple could release desktop-class, pro apps like Logic Pro and Aperture for the iPad, “optimizing them” (for both performance and design) for the iPad Pro.

The iPhone 5 can be considered a precedent for this. When Apple introduced the taller screen in 2012, developers had to update their apps for it, otherwise they would be letterboxed automatically by iOS. With time, developers haven’t simply made their apps extend in the vertical direction – they now tend to show different controls depending on the screen size. This is a minor case of platform fragmentation: multiple iPhone screen sizes sold to consumers, multiple resolutions to deal with for developers, slightly different app interfaces depending on screen size.

Can Apple redesign its apps for an iPad Pro without causing UI fragmentation and user confusion?

Option C: The Hybrid

The third option is, according to an analyst’s report, the hybrid. An iPad that “could serve as both a tablet and a notebook”.

Let’s ignore, for the sake of the argument, Steve Jobs’ old dismissal of touch screens used in laptops. How would a hybrid iPad Pro work? Would it run OS X and iOS side by side? That would mean Apple has perfected OS X on ARM, which would be a major platform change. The kind of change that would drastically alter the course of the entire PC industry and Intel’s relationship with Apple.

Or could be Wang envisioning a larger iPad, running iOS but capable of turning into something that looks like a MacBook thanks to a keyboard accessory? If that’s the case, how would user input work? Would the keyboard be made by Apple specifically for this device and be a detachable accessory like the Smart Cover? Or would it be a specification provided to manufacturers (like iOS 7 Game Controllers) so that Logitech, Belkin, and others could make their own iPad Pro keyboards? Would the keyboard have special keys for more functions like app switching, Notification Center, or Siri? Would users have to switch between keyboard input and touch like they currently have to with Bluetooth keyboards on iOS 7?

More importantly: is Wang thinking about interacting with iOS through a trackpad and a cursor?

Patrick Wang’s report (as relayed by AppleInsider) is awfully vague about technical details. Saying that Apple could create “a hybrid-style device that could serve as both a tablet and a notebook” is just as unclear as “a machine that could serve as both a car and an airplane”. Explained like that, it doesn’t make any sense.

Allow me to consider the remote possibility of a “hybrid device”. But first, let’s conveniently forget about that time when Tim Cook said that products based on convergence at all costs aren’t pleasing to consumers, citing as an example the famous toaster fridge:

I think anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator but y’know, those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.

Or when he also added that Apple isn’t going to the convergence party:

I think even the more formal predictors outside of [Apple] are beginning to see these lines cross, and so I strongly believe that they will. Now, having said that, I also believe that there is a very good market for the MacBook Air and we continue to innovate in that product. But I do think that it appeals to someone that has a little bit different requirements.

You wouldn’t want to put these things together because you wind up compromising in both and not pleasing either user. Some people will prefer to own both, and that’s great too. But I think to make the compromises of convergence, we’re not going to that party. Others might, from a defensive point of view, particularly. But we’re going to play in both.

Let’s skip Cook’s beliefs for now and let’s imagine a hybrid device that’s both an iPad and a notebook. First off, Wang ascribes Apple’s work on such device to the willingness of targeting the enterprise market – to “make the iPad lineup more appealing to business customers”. Hasn’t the iPad been deployed or tested by almost every Fortune 500 company because it’s not a traditional notebook computer though? Is Apple lying to its shareholders when they report these stats, and to it customers when they write (on a dedicated business webpage) that iOS provides a “simple, intuitive, and engaging” experience for business users? All these companies profiled by Apple with employees holding iPads and not tethering them to a desk with a keyboard – are they insane?

What’s more likely: that analysts and rumor sites have a profound misunderstanding of the need for a hybrid device, or that Apple has staged fake profiles of invented companies using iPads, while the rest of Fortune 500 has spent the past four years asking for a hybrid?

Surface Pro

Surface Pro

(Microsoft Surface Pro 2, via The Verge)

Still, let’s ignore OS details, Tim Cook’s thoughts, Steve Jobs’ old views, and Fortune 500 companies using iPads (and liking them, it appears). Is there at least some merit to the idea that, when used on a desk, the iPad could use a keyboard accessory to simulate the typical notebook setup?

Kind of. With iOS 7, Apple expanded iOS’ Bluetooth framework to allow developers to add support for custom keyboard shortcuts in their apps. These shortcuts are modelled after the ones you’re used to on OS X; Apple is using them, third-party developers are using them. When I’m writing on the iPad with my Logitech Tablet Keyboard, I like the fact that some of my favorite apps support the same shortcuts they’ve always had on the Mac. Keyboard shortcuts work on the iPad, but the feature is still very much in its infancy: Apple’s implementation is inconsistent, and developers are somewhat hesitant to adopt them because of the framework’s limitations (shortcuts can only be triggered in text fields where the software keyboard would normally be shown).

Keyboard shortcuts are a nice addition but I wouldn’t consider them an early sign of Apple playing around with the hybrid idea. The main problem remains: as it stands now, it’s nearly impossible to navigate and interact with iOS without touching the screen. And that’s by design: how would you replicate pinch to zoom or tap & hold with a keyboard? Would you add a trackpad? But wouldn’t the trackpad also come with a cursor – which is exactly the kind of baggage that Apple left behind with iOS seven years ago?

I can’t imagine what Wang means by “hybrid-style” device, but I don’t think he has a clear idea either. Technical questions aside, forcing iOS onto OS X (and vice versa) or making them coexist in the same device would generate a list of compromises far longer than potential upsides. All signs seem to be pointing to a general distaste from Apple about “convergence” and devices like the Microsoft Surface.

There are two only reasonable explanations I can give to Wang’s report and other vague rumors along this line.[3] The first one is that by “hybrid-style device that could serve as both a tablet and a notebook” Wang means a 12.9-inch iPad that has new professional apps and that comes with an optimized version of iOS for the larger screen. Essentially, my Option B.

The second one is that Apple has ordered 12.9-inch panels for a new MacBook that has a completely new design, a Retina display, but that runs OS X on an Intel chip. It’s the kind of computer that analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reported last year and that I suppose most “sources familiar with the matter” may have confused with a larger iPad. According to Ming-Chi Kuo, this new MacBook could “redefine laptop computing” like the MacBook Air did.

If Apple is working on a laptop with a new 12.9-inch display, that’s a topic for a different discussion.

Two iPads

I believe that Apple’s current iPad line fulfills most needs for a portable tablet device. A 12.9-inch iPad would be too large to be held comfortably and it’s unclear why Apple would prioritize desktop use over portability, which has been one of the iPad’s core design features thus far. Rumors that claim Apple is working on a “hybrid-style” device or an iPad targeted at a specific market segment (education or enterprise) sound either technically inaccurate or shortsighted to me.

When Apple increased the size of the iPhone with the iPhone 5, they reassured customers that the change wasn’t huge and that the iPhone could still be operated with one hand. But the iPad is different. In spite of the size and weight reduction, the iPad Air still can’t be a one-handed device for long writing or reading sessions. The 9.7-inch iPad is, in my opinion, the right balance between a large screen and a device that’s just portable and light enough. Even if it weighed less than an iPad Air (and I find that unlikely), I can’t see how a 12.9-inch iPad could be portable. And I can’t see how Apple would release an iPad that’s not portable.

The improvements that Apple would advertise in an “iPad Pro” – better inter-app communication, more RAM, more versatile document management – are features that need to come to the entire iPad lineup (and iOS), not just a new screen size. To me, refining and improving iOS 7 seems more important than scaling it up for a larger iPad or introducing UI fragmentation across devices. Bringing complexity to the iPad experience with resizable windows like Samsung did with the Tab Pro is exactly the kind of decision that I hope Apple will never emulate. The iPad is great because it doesn’t try to be a MacBook.

As more people will switch to tablets as their primary computers, Apple will eventually face the challenge of users wanting to perform moderately complex tasks on iPads. It will only be natural, years from now, to have pro iPad users – as crazy as that sounds to longtime PC users. It will happen.

But why do we have to assume that “pro” means “bigger screen”? On the iPad, “portable” is more important than “big”. A device that’s portable and light can allow people to work from anywhere, at any time. An iPad that’s too big and heavy would be intimidating and bulky. The rules have been reversed.

If the logic is that “pro” will always be associated to “multiple windows on screen” – well, I think that’s flawed. With the Galaxy Tab Pro’s multitasking, Samsung isn’t imagining the future: they are attaching a steam engine to a horse.

Can’t the iPad’s shortcomings for productivity tasks be fixed through software? Is there really such a demand for a larger iPad to justify the production of a device that wouldn’t be as portable as an iPad Air/mini or run OS X anyway? The whole point of the post-PC era is to get rid of old software complexities and reimagine apps for touch interaction and direct manipulation. So far, Apple and developers have done a good job at imagining new kinds of apps that save us time and make us productive in innovative ways. Making the iPad suitable for pros is a complex problem, and I don’t think that increasing screen size or adding multiple windows will solve it. In that way, you’ll eventually end up where you started – a desktop computer – only with an inferior input system. “Pro” needs to become something totally new.

On multiple occasions, Cook said that they consider the tablet market “huge”. I don’t think that a larger iPad – laptop convergence or not – is the answer Apple and consumers are looking for, and I don’t think that a bigger screen would empower millions of people as much as a better iOS could.

  1. For the technically inclined, also a minor difference in terms of CPU, plus color gamut. ↩︎
  2. I recently tried to parse a text file with over 10 million lines in Pythonista on my iPad mini, and the app couldn’t handle it. It kept crashing. ↩︎
  3. Well, three actually. The third option is that it’s simply not happening. ↩︎

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