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The iPad as a PC peer: Are we there yet?

At WWDC, Apple recounted how the iPad has long been positioned between the smartphone and laptop. With iOS 16, it continues crossing the bridge from the former to the latter.
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Written by Ross Rubin, Contributing Writer on
A woman in a red sweater uses an iPad Pro with keyboard attachment to edit a video.
Apple

In my last column, I wrote about how the iPhone and iPod touch, two products that started out as near-twins, parted ways as the former's pace of improvement pulled away from the latter's. But the iPhone's evolution has also dramatically contrasted with that of another relation: the iPad. At that device's introduction, Steve Jobs famously described it as serving a purpose between the phone and the laptop, a reference Apple returned to after a long absence in its WWDC '22 keynote.

However, for the first few years of Apple's tablet, the iPad was far closer to the phone than the laptop. It ran the same operating system and used the same touch gestures. Apple implored developers to create iPad versions of their iPhone apps in order to take advantage of the iPad's larger display. But while that helped the iPad maintain a strong lead over Android tablets, it didn't do much to change the core set of tasks that defined its use. Apple called the iPad the future of personal computing. But despite an oxymoronic ad campaign, the future seemed distant in terms of handling everything you can throw at Macs and Windows PC.

Nonetheless, Apple has tenaciously pursued its vision for the iPad, making it one of the most dynamically developing platforms since its release. In 2017, I wrote that iOS 11 had enabled the iPad to grow up. The next year, I noted how the increasing popularity of keyboards and styli had taken the iPad far from its minimalist beginnings. And when Apple announced iPadOS in 2019, I noted how the new OS brought the iPad closer to the Mac's feature set. But when Apple revealed the first MacBooks built on Apple silicon, I recognized how the new Macs achieved what iPads did not -- even though the new Macs' ability to run iPad apps was the most powerful example of crossover in the devices' history.

At this year's WWDC, Apple stepped up its attack on addressing elements keeping iPad software from taking its apps to the next level via features such as customizable toolbars and a more capable Files app. After noting that many iPad apps had their origin in iOS apps, Craig Fedheriighi said that Apple had "scoured the entire system, from system elements and interactions to new features you use on Mac and want on iPad". As became custom long ago in Apple OS announcements, this included updates to Apple apps such as Calendar and Contacts. But there was also plenty from a narrower, more traditional OS scope, including capabilities in Files that Mac and Windows users take for granted, e.g., sortable columns and folder size calculations, menus allowing file manipulation within apps, universal undo and redo, customizable toolbars, and extending (versus just mirroring) displays to second monitors; these are all welcome additions.

Also: iPad Air (2022) vs iPad Pro (2021): What's the difference?

But at the risk of mixing theater metaphors, the show-stealer was Stage Manager. This new interface not only brings desktop-like resizeable, overlapping windows to the iPad (previously a key line in the sand between the Mac and iPad) but does so in a new app/window navigation interface that parallels one on the Mac. Stage Manager isn't the first user interface mainstay to migrate between Apple's main productivity platforms. The company's migration of the iOS launcher to the Mac -- dubbed LaunchPad on its new platform -- landed with a thud as it replicated already familiar and functional functionality. And while redundancy also holds true for Stage Manager, the new interface more fundamentally changes how Mac and iPad users traverse chaotic piles of apps and windows.

Stage Manager cuts to the core of the app-switching experience on both Mac and iPad. While it's a sea change for the iPad (at least those using Apple's M1 chips), it's also a significant change for Mac users. In a cautious break from its tradition and a sign of how important the installed bases of its customers have become, the feature must be manually turned on from the Controls on both devices. Not doing so keeps you in the familiar confines of the Mac's dock and Mission Control as key app-switching methods and the iPad's tiled app switcher.

Stage Manager, which optionally organizes stacks of windows into four app-based stacks on the left side of the display, has some changes and platform-specific accommodations similar to the spirit in which Apple brought mouse control to the iPad. Touch-resizing is, of course, supported on the iPad, where Stage Manager will dynamically (and sometimes unfavorably) move on the Mac; for example, it supports multiple desktops. On the iPad, though, it shifts and resizes windows.

Also: The 4 best iPad models 

Some quirks and limitations may be related to the feature's beta status or compromises in trying to straddle the Mac and iPad worlds. For example, since Stage Manager hides the desktop, you can't directly drag files into apps without further steps. There's also no right-click support for offstage window sets, which would be helpful for more directly selecting windows (versus cycling through them) or quitting an app as one can from its dock icon. These are largely non-issues on the iPad.

Ultimately, though, while Stage Manager gives the iPad a more familiar feel for Mac users. The capability of apps forms the real difference between the Mac and iPad. The promise of "desktop apps" in Apple's touch-centric operating systems stretches back to the launch of the iPhone, where Steve Jobs touted the OS X variant that would become iOS, supporting "desktop-class applications and networking."

Of course, nobody expected to run AutoCAD on the iPhone, and what the iPad lacks in application depth, it makes up for in slick operations and mobility. But that said, while there are many impressive pro apps for the iPad, there are still wide feature chasms between desktop and iPad versions of many apps, such as the "desktop" version of Photoshop on the iPad. And while it's unreasonable to expect a relatively new application to have the same depth as one that has more than a 30-year legacy, the list of missing features is extensive.

Also: The 4 best free video editing software apps

Apple's intent is clear, and Stage Manager sends a powerful signal. But there are significant gaps to address in even workaday apps that leave out significant features since developers think of the iPad as a second device. Even Apple's own creative iPad apps are a mixed bag. GarageBand is pretty great, while iMovie is a shell of its Mac counterpart. The most powerful move Apple could make would be to create credible versions of its pro apps, such as Final Cut Pro for the iPad. Indeed, Apple's addition of Reference Color to the iPad Pro may be another foundational layer portending its arrival. Even if the iPad version had feature parity with its Mac counterparts, established professional workflows would make for a cautious embrace. But while these apps might not immediately win over desktop video editing pros, they would expand the options for those already editing video on a device Apple touts for pro video capture and, more importantly, leave little doubt among developers that the iPad had overcome its "toy app" legacy. Apple's future of computing would be fully cleared for arrival.

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