Over the past few years, we've been redefining what it means to use computers at work. From the ubiquitous tower machine of the last decade, we've moved to a highly mobile environment where many of us use laptops as our primary work machine when in the office, and a combination of phones, tablets, and laptops when on the go.
Even just five years ago, the concept of a desktop machine was pretty clear. You sat in front of it while at work, you interacted with it using a mouse and a keyboard, and you peered into its soul with an external display. At that time, I wrote an article suggesting that perhaps it was time for an iOS desktop called "5 top reasons it might be time for an iOS desktop."
My premise then was that Apple might want to consider introducing a desktop machine, generally in the form factor of an iMac, that ran iOS. I cited, mostly, the safety benefits that come from a more locked-down environment like iOS.
Last week, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes posted an article stating that the iPad Pro is one feature away from being a true PC replacement. That feature was external storage. Adrian's article got me thinking about my earlier iOS desktop article and whether or not the iPad Pro was worthy of taking the place of a traditional PC desktop machine as part of the traditional enterprise PC work flow.
In this article, I'll run through a number of factors we'll be able to decide together whether or not, in fact, the iPad Pro has what it takes to be desktop-worthy for a work environment.
In 2011, when I last looked at the question of an iOS desktop, the most-current iPad model was the iPad 2. While the iPad 2 was a big improvement on the iPad (and, in fact, I still have one here at Camp David that gets regular use), it was most definitely not a desktop-class machine. It ran basic iPad apps nicely, but would wheeze on anything requiring any real processing power, including many web pages.
Now, however, there's the 12-inch iPad Pro, which -- in single core mode, at least -- gives my pretty beefy MacBook Pro a run for its money. According to GeekBench testing by EverythingApplePro, which is confirmed by ArsTechnica in their independent testing, single core performance of the iPad Pro is at an overall score of 3231. Here's where it gets interesting. The brand new, updated and speedier MacBook clocks in at 2546 and my own MacBook Pro measures 2892.
In other words, in single-threaded applications (which includes most general workflow sorts of apps), the iPad Pro beats both the MacBook and MacBook Pro. There are some caveats. Multi-threaded performance of the iPad Pro does not beat my MacBook Pro, and there are other obvious limitations to the iOS device (no mouse, no external storage, no multiple windows).
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Yes. From a performance point of view, the iPad Pro can be considered every bit as desktop-worthy as Apple's OS X notebooks.
Wide range of mounting and docking options
One of the considerations of the typical desktop computer is that the monitor is often a vertical flat screen display presented 18 or so inches in front of face level. Tablets, by contrast, are usually devices used on a lap or a table top. So how could an iPad be considered a desktop display?
The answer is quite simple. Almost nothing has more add-on gadgets and docks and mounting options than an iPad. If you want to place an iPad in front of your face at your desk, there are tons of options. Even the BESTEK mounting bracket I spotlighted last year for Father's Day would do the job.
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Definitely. If you want your 12-inch (or especially your 9.7-inch) iPad Pro to sit right in front of your face like an iMac display, you can make it happen -- and with a lot more options than the iMac has.
User input options
I am a keyboard and mouse user from way back. I am not a big fan of what I've called the Playskool interface for computing, touching things with fingers. That said, multi-touch does have its benefits, especially when navigating on an iPad screen and managing photos and graphics.
One of my criticisms of finger touch has been the accuracy of the touch. I have big fingers and it's almost impossible to tap or touch in just the right place, especially when pixel or letter tolerances come into play. The iPad Pro's pencil helps mitigate that complaint, at least to some degree.
In many ways, the pencil takes the iPad Pro into productivity levels that a traditional Mac or PC desktop can't begin to compete with, especially if you're a graphic artist. But I'm a programmer and writer, and the idea of spending my day reaching up with a pencil to touch the code or words I want to get to does not appeal to me.
From the point of the keyboard, modern iPad keyboards do all you would expect from a traditional PC keyboard, so that's good. And the iPad Pro adds some excellent camera capabilities that go well beyond the cameras on most laptops.
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Mostly. Programmers probably won't choose the iPad Pro, but then even laptops are often too light on screen real estate for coders. For the rest, if you're into the pencil or do graphics, the iPad Pro is definitely worthy. We won't give it a full thumbs-up, but you can get by.
Security and app management
When it comes to PC security in the enterprise, the typical approach is Windows policies and Active Directory. As it turns out, app developers can authenticate using Active Directory with Azure, right inside of iOS. iOS also has its much-maligned-but-appreciated app sandboxing and, unless the iPad has been jailbroken, iOS machines are quite secure.
One of the benefits of the iPad is it shares its architecture with the iPhone, which means that all of the many enterprise provisioning environments for mobile devices, like IBM's MaaS360, will also provision iPads. These sorts of enterprise tools will allow for complete control of documents, apps, and even monitor systems for jailbreaking.
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Absolutely. When it comes to enterprise mobility management and device security, there are deep resources available to manage these devices.
Robustness of app choices
A few years ago, certainly when I wrote my 2011 article, it would be reasonable to say that the iPad just wasn't up to the level of application support you'd need to accomplish desktop tasks. But with an excellent Microsoft Office implementation, a wide range of video and photo management tools, Citrix client and other remote access solutions, and even development environments for programmers, there are plenty of desktop-worthy apps available for the iPad.
Personally, many of the apps I favor aren't up to snuff on the iPad, so I'm not going to replace my honkin' four-screen iMac anytime soon. I use PhpStorm for development, which isn't on the iPad. I use full-power Photoshop and Illustrator, which also aren't on the iPad. Adobe does offer weaker photo editing apps and there are some pretty powerful Photoshop clones available on the iPad, so it's doable.
My large image library wouldn't make it on the iPad because of the lack of external storage. I also run a pile of virtual machines, both for running Windows on my iMac and to simulate a network for all sorts of testing work, and while there are virtual desktop viewer apps for the iPad, there are no fully-powered hypervisors running on the iPad.
On the other hand, the iPad and iPhone share the largest application library of any platform, ever. So while certain work-related tools aren't available, many other unique vertical applications are available uniquely on the iPad.
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Yes. As has always been the case, you should choose your platform based on what you expect to use it for. As a coder, the iPad isn't my favorite environment. But for other professions, the iPad is every bit as worthy as a desktop and with some applications, even more so.
RAM and storage
My MacBook Pro has 16GB of RAM and my iMac has 32GB. I have a tendency to run a bunch of virtual machines along with very beefy applications, and my number one purchase requirement for machines is RAM. In this context, the iPad Pro falls far short.
The 12-inch iPad Pro reputedly comes with 4GB of RAM, while the 9.7-inch iPad Pro comes with a measly 2GB of RAM. While I find both of these numbers completely unacceptable, it's only fair to mention that many Windows machines also ship with either 2GB or 4GB of RAM. I wouldn't be caught dead using them, but many corporate offices are populated with thousands of low-RAM machines and get by just fine.
In terms of on-machine storage, the iPad Pro maxes at 256GB. My MacBook Pro also has 256GB (although I do regret not ponying up the extra cash to take it to 512GB). My iMac has a terabyte of internal flash storage, but it also has a 16 terabyte array containing my graphics library, attached via Thunderbolt.
This is not something the iPad can duplicate, and it's here that Adrian is right -- onboard storage is a weak point for the iPad. But is it enough to disqualify the iPad from desktop-worthiness? No, I don't think so. I get by quite well on my MacBook Pro with exactly the same storage that's on the iPad Pro. True, my main desktop machine has a boatload more storage, but my main desktop machine has always been configured at a far higher end than almost anyone else I've ever worked with.
Enterprise desktop-worthy verdict: Yes, it's desktop-worthy. Storage on the iPad is weak, but it's no weaker than most lightly-configured Windows machines, which populate offices all over the world. If you're an over-the-top power user like me, you won't be able to get by with the iPad Pro alone, but I've had to use custom configured bleeding edge machines forever. That's not something that would disqualify the iPad Pro.
So, is the iPad Pro desktop-worthy?
Of the six parameters examined, the iPad Pro scored positively on five of them. The only complaint that might knock it out of the world of traditional desktop computing is the lack of a mouse. Even the storage issue didn't completely disqualify the iPad, because it's no worse than many of the desktop PCs we see in offices today.
The bottom line is pretty simple: while it's not the desktop-worthy PC I would choose for my main daily-driver, the iPad Pro is, with the possible exception of the pointing device, every bit as desktop-worthy as most laptops. In fact, if you add in the pencil and the fact that you can get an iPad Pro with built-in cellular, in some ways, the iPad Pro is even more worthy for production work than the PCs and Macs we've been using.
That brings us back to the thing I mentioned earlier: choose your machine based on what you need to do with it. In the same way you need to look at your needs and your corporate standards when choosing Windows, Linux or OS X, you can also look at the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is no worse than many of those machines and if you like working in iOS or have need for some of the special capabilities the iPad Pro offers, you should definitely consider it.
The iPad Pro is most definitely desktop-worthy.