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iPad turns 10: Why did it take a decade for Apple's tablet to get its own operating system?

The iPad launched in April 2010, and since then we've seen it slowly morph into a device that's able to stand on its own.

Apple has streamlined its entire iPad lineup to replace your laptop ZDNet's Jason Cipriani tells Karen Roby that the base-model iPad is more capable than ever thanks to a recent update. Read more: https://zd.net/2NdaomS

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A superb tablet waiting for its time to shine

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On Jan. 27, 2010, Steve Jobs famously sat on stage and walked the audience through what seemed like a scene straight out of Harry Potter. As he held a piece of glass in his hands, tapping and swiping through websites, a calendar, digital books, and a music library, the iPad came to be. A lot has changed in the last 10 years, both for the iPad and the rest of the tech industry, for that matter. But why did it take 9 long years for the iPad to get its own operating system, iPadOS? To understand that, you have to go back to the beginning. 

The iPad went on sale in April 2010 with iPhone OS 3.2 as its operating system. The OS featured new interfaces and methods to interact with apps not found on the iPhone or iPod Touch. That same year, Apple announced iPhone OS would transition to iOS, and that's what the iPad had used up until this year, when Apple announced the iPad would get its own operating system called iPadOS

When it was released, critics panned it as merely a bigger version of the iPhone. Indeed, it ran the same apps as the iPhone, but developers were able to customize the look and feel of their apps to fit a larger display. Apps like Mail could show your inbox on top of an email you were currently looking at, for example. 

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Another common critique of the iPad, and one that I still hear echoed to this day, is that it's a consumption-only device -- meaning it's best suited for someone who wants to watch Netflix, manage their inbox or scroll through Facebook (i.e., consume various aspects of the digital world).

Over the past decade, the iPad has shed the "bigger iPhone" label as Apple has expanded the iPad lineup, and it's added meaningful software features. I've never really viewed the iPad as a consumption device, and I'm not entirely sure Apple ever intended for it to be viewed as one. During the original announcement Apple showed off a drawing app, and Apple's iWork suite of apps -- Pages, Keynote and Numbers -- were available at launch. 

I've been using an iPad as my main writing device since 2012. Back then, I relied on third-party Bluetooth keyboards. Heck, I wrote two digital books entirely on the third-generation iPad. There was something about the way that its software forced me to focus on a single task that I feel in love with. I immediately began looking for ways to expand the iPad beyond being my modern-day typewriter and using it more like I would a computer. Years ago, I wanted my iPad to replace my laptop.

The problem was that it took a lot of work to figure out workarounds for tasks like easily combining images, or working with the content management systems that I often run into to publish online. 

Also: iPad Pro vs Surface Pro 6: Can a tablet-laptop hybrid really replace your PC?

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One of my first reviews of a keyboard for the iPad back in 2012. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

I spent a lot of time buying and testing apps, and ultimately, buying and testing more apps until I found a workflow that worked. And when all else failed, I would remotely connect to a computer and finish a given task on a computer, using my iPad. It worked, but I was in the minority of users who were willing to spend time trying to make the iPad work for me. Essentially, I had to force the iPad to be the device I wanted it to be. Still, the potential was there. 

Apple steadily updated iOS, some years adding new features specific to the iPad, other years simply updating iOS as a whole and leaving the iPad as a de facto beneficiary of the improvements. 

It wasn't until the release of iOS 9 in 2015 that we really saw Apple start to add impactful features with the addition of split view, slide over, and picture-in-picture. The three new features improved multitasking on the iPad and were timed with the release of the first iPad Pro. Apple also debuted the Apple Pencil in 2015, adding another layer of productivity to the tablet. 

The 2015 iPad Pro -- combined with iOS 9 and its new iPad-specific features and Apple's Smart Keyboard Cover -- began to lay the groundwork for the iPad's divergence from the iPhone and its ability to replace the computer, but it wasn't quite there yet. 

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

In 2016, iOS 10 added split-view for multiple Safari tabs and some other minor updates. In 2017, iOS 11 was one of the biggest updates we'd seen for the iPad. Apple added a Files app for managing files and folders directly on the iPad, the application dock was redesigned, and drag-and-drop was added, making it possible to drag photos or text from one app to another. 

Throughout this time, Apple continued to update iPad hardware, releasing new models at a regular cadence. The iPad's hardware and software were gaining momentum, boosted by Apple releasing the second-generation iPad Pro in 2017. But, in 2018, even as the iPad's hardware became more robust and powerful, its software started to fall behind. 

Apple didn't announce any meaningful iPad updates in iOS 12 despite releasing the third-generation iPad Pro. Safari, Apple's web browser, wasn't providing a desktop experience. Instead, it was defaulting to the mobile version of websites, and it severely crippled the overall experience. 

Also: Can you really run the iPad Pro as a full desk setup? This guy did

My review of the 2018 iPad Pro was mostly positive in relation to hardware, but the software was holding it back

With the iPad Pro dropping Apple's Lightning connector in favor of USB-C, and Apple touting the ability to connect the iPad to external monitors and accessories, users naturally began asking for the ability to connect external storage to the iPad in addition to an improved browser and the ability to have multiple windows of the same app open at once. 

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In June, Apple announced iPadOS. The iPad will still share the same core features as iOS and the iPhone, but by giving the iPad its own operating system Apple is signaling the company is ready to begin to make big changes to the iPad. 

The major changes started with iPadOS 13.1, and it included a desktop-class version of Safari, the ability to connect to external storage, vastly improved multitasking -- like the ability to have multiple windows of the same app open -- and a new home screen that puts more information at your fingertips. 

It's by far the biggest update we've seen to the iPad, and with a dedicated operating system in iPadOS, Apple is poised to push the iPad forward. 

Also: iPadOS pushes Apple's tablet closer to mainstream PC replacement

Just what that looks like is uncertain, but a lot of it will have to do with user feedback (a driving force for a lot of the changes we've seen up until this point). 

I think, in general, it took a decade for the iPad to be ready to stand on its own because Apple has been trying to figure out the exact path forward for the iPad, and just how far to push it. The messaging from the marketing department didn't often align with what the iPad was truly capable of. Sure, it could replace a computer for some users, and with the iPad Pro lineup (and the added versatility it provided) that dream came closer to reality. Combine the hardware and the cascading of a dedicated keyboard for even the entry-level iPad, along with iPadOS, and it's clear that the iPad is more of a laptop now than it has ever been.

I've all but quit looking for apps that provide some sort of workaround to common tasks, and I can't tell you the last time I remotely connected to my computer in order to finish a task. iPadOS is only a few months old, and it's already had a big impact on my day-to-day workflow. 

What the next 10 years hold for the iPad is anyone's guess, but with its own operating system, I think it's safe to say we're about to see the iPad truly grow as a computing device.

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