Forget MacOS: The iPad is now Apple's mobile computing future

The Mac and MacOS are not going to die, but for the balance of its customers, Apple has very clearly has chosen its successor.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

At the keynote for this year's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple announced an unexpected change for the iPad: The company is spinning off a variant of its mobile computing platform as iPadOS and introducing changes that will make it more like a desktop operating system.

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

It also introduced a new developer toolset for Mac (named Project Catalyst), developer tools running in XCode, and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that enable the Mac to natively run ported iPad applications. The introduction of Project Catalyst is significant, because it would drastically increase the number of applications available on the Mac platform, if not the Mac App Store, easily by a factor of 10.

Does this mean the Mac and the iPad are going to merge at some point? No, but it does mean the two operating systems are approaching a single development target, which is significant.

Streamlining or consolidating the application development process for the two platforms would be beneficial, because it allows developers to more easily maintain a unified codebase between iOS and MacOS. That means improvements and fixes are easily incorporated in both platforms at the same time, and software releases on the App Store can also occur at about the same time.

Most importantly, from an end-user perspective, it also means there will be no significant learning curve when switching back and forth between both platforms, because the UX and the capabilities of the respective versions of the apps for each platform will be remarkably similar, if not identical.

Why is that important? Because, if using an iPad for work becomes no less painful or functional to using a Mac for the same tasks, then it makes it much easier to migrate the bulk of Apple's Mac user base to iPad sometime in the future.

This iPadOS forking effort by Apple is not a merging of the operating systems. It's a full-blown transition to iPad and its successors as Apple's mobile computing future.

Why make the iPad more Mac-like than making the Mac more iPad-like? Well, I think it's a matter of how difficult a path to accomplish the same goal for both systems are, how far along each platform is in terms of the size and maturity of their user base, and how engaged their developer ecosystem is on each platform.

In short, the level of effort needed to make the Mac touch-enabled as well as fully optimized for the ARM architecture would be huge. Getting developers jazzed on writing a lot of Mac apps in this stage of the platform's lifecycle is a tall order when it only has 100 million users in the wild -- a number that was confirmed at WWDC during the announcement of Project Catalyst. That's not a small population, but it's much, much lower than what exists on iOS -- Apple has stated there are 1.4 billion users of its platforms total, with the balance of it on iPhone, iPad, Watch, and Apple TV.

Similarly, Microsoft underwent a significant level of effort for Windows and Surface, and it was an extremely long and painful undertaking. It involved designing an entirely new user interface for touch and creating a new programmatic model for a new-style of apps, which it hoped would translate into a market for their smartphone platform, Windows Phone, and later, Windows 10 Mobile.

The effort for this began in earnest in 2009 or 2010, when Windows 8 was under development. Now, 10 years later, there still aren't many "Modern" Windows apps in the Windows Store. Microsoft itself has not been able to make a transition to a modern application architecture with Office -- because it is a massive undertaking.

It's also because Win32 is such a prevalent developer target, and so much of that application code has legacy components that they would have to be written entirely from scratch using the modern APIs. That went down like a lead balloon with most of its developer base and was likely a massive contributor to Windows 10 Mobile's failure. Also, given Microsoft's increasing cloud focus, it is now more likely the future version of Office will be more web and PWA-based, rather than run natively on the local device.

Microsoft -- much like Apple is making improvements to iPadOS -- is making Windows more ARM-optimized so it can run well on Qualcomm Snapdragon-based systems from HP and Lenovo, and presumably, at some point, an ARM-based Surface Pro. And rather than porting tools for Win32 application development on ARM, it's vastly improved Windows' on ARM's x86 application support so that programs for that architecture run at near-native speeds even on current versions of the Snapdragon.

While Apple and Microsoft have different approaches to dealing with legacy platforms, they have the same fundamental problem to solve, which is having to migrate a vast legacy user base onto newer systems. Apple's problem more has to do with the fact that iOS, not Mac, is the money-making, hot developer platform. That's also where the majority of its end-users also reside, because that is where all the apps are.

So, it doesn't make sense to put huge investments into redesigning MacOS for touch enablement or for ARM. There's a lot of legacy junk inside MacOS that shouldn't move over to ARM, and a lot of the work to modernize the platform has already occurred on the iPad. The balance of Apple's investment should happen on the iPad itself, to make it into the true successor to MacOS.

Still, you can't abandon the Mac entirely yet. That is where Project Catalyst comes in.

The iPad and the iPad Pro soon can almost certainly replace the day-to-day functions for virtually all types of business-class users. The A-series chips are now powerful enough to handle medium-level content creation and Office-style workloads, and there is no reason why iPad devices cannot be made to accommodate larger amounts of memory and flash storage. However, there is the issue of high-end content creation for audio, video, and software development.

You can't build iOS, WatchOS, TVOS, and iPadOS apps without a Mac. Although third-party services like MacStadium exist, Apple doesn't provide a cloud-based equivalent yet. And while the A-series chips are powerful, they aren't anything like what a new fully specced-out Mac Pro can do it terms of compilation speed with its 28-core Intel Xeons.

Over time, the A-Series chips should be able to "self-host" development environments, and cloud-based software development has to be on Apple's radar. It's doubled-down on its relationship with Amazon's cloud, which is estimated to be spending in the tens of millions per month.

But it could be five years before the A-series chips are robust enough to handle things like software builds, even in cloud-based clusters, let alone on devices themselves. So, until that time, the Mac is going to be a safe platform to continue to invest in as an end-user in the content creation fields and for software development. However, it's not going to get a ton of improvements -- other than the ability to run iPad apps and make paces with the advancement of x86 desktop chips and graphics/coprocessor hardware as we have been shown with the new Mac Pro.

And as we've seen at WWDC, aside from Project Catalyst -- which already has been used in Mojave for Apple's internal apps such as News -- Catalina appears to be very much a minor incremental update.

What this means is, over time, we will start to see Apple wind down MacBook and MacBook Air SKUs in favor of iPad Pro SKUs. Content creators and developers will still need MacBook Pros, but your average end-users will not. In the future, there will be a clear delineation between strictly users and developers by which Apple platforms they use to do their jobs.

Beginning with the first version of iPadOS, the iPad now has to be considered as a serious mobile computing platform. We can undoubtedly expect more powerful iPad Pros next year, and going forward, other devices that use this OS are likely to appear, such as touch-enabled desktop systems, not unlike what we have seen with Microsoft's Surface Studio. It's also possible -- now that iPad Pro has a USB-C connector -- full-blown Thunderbolt connectivity may be in the future for iPadOS, and we might very well see Apple OEM docking stations that enable the iPad to become a full desktop computer.

The Mac and MacOS are not going to die, but for the balance of its customers, Apple has very clearly has chosen its successor.

Will the balance of Apple's MacOS users shift to iPadOS? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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