The M1 Macs are no iPad killers

While they are arriving as the perceived competitive value of the iPad Pro is at a lull, the new MacBooks may help drive sophistication of iPad apps.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

Prior to the launch of the game-changing but not price-changing M1 MacBooks, I wrote about how their launch would put alleviate pressure on the iPad to fulfill the needs of those wanting a laptop that blended the performance per watt of the Apple's tablet with the work style, applications, and relative openness of its laptops. 

But, earlier this week, fellow ZDNet contributor Robin Harris went much further in comparing Apple's elite portable computers, alleging that the M1 MacBook will put the hurt on the iPad Pro after conducting a point-by-point comparison. Indeed, it's been a tough fall for Apple's highest-end iPads, with the revamped iPad Air coming closer to the industrial design of Apple's iPad flagship while slipping features that may have marginal appeal such as the LIDAR sensor, quad speakers, and Face ID. (The latter, of course, has at least temporarily fallen out of favor in an age of facial coverings.) 

But if the M1 Macs have an Achilles' heel, it is in their selection of and compatibility with iPad apps; the two limitations may be related. iPad developers can choose whether to list their iPad apps in the Mac App Store. Some may be holding off for business reasons; the M1 Macs, especially for now, provide a limited incremental market. But others may be holding off because they want to improve the experience before listing. And yet others may be evaluating Catalyst, Apple's option for turning an iPad app into a genuine Mac app that can run on the much larger installed base of Intel-based Macs as well as the first and future Macs with Apple silicon.

Apple's support of native iPad apps on the Mac represents those apps coming full-circle. After years of exhorting developers to optimize iPad apps for a new world of multitouch-driven, cursor-free sparse interfaces, Apple shifted gears as it literally grounded the iPad with its own line of keyboards and, with them, the implied need for keyboard control and keyboard shortcuts. Apple followed up by experimental and then standard cursor support. Many developers have been slow to take Apple up on the suggestion. Indeed, there's still a large number of iPhone apps that still don't even have a native iPad version and can sometimes make for a frustrating experience when they don't accommodate landscape mode for keyboard use. (And if these developers haven't been enticed by now, it's hard to imagine that they ever will.)

But those who go through the effort of modernizing their app to support good behavior on the Mac will also support features such as split-screen and keyboard equivalents; these are more likely to be used on iPads with larger displays and keyboards, in other words, the higher end of the iPad line. Access to the Mac market will also open these apps up to Mac-first and Mac-only competition, which could spur developers to add features heretofore missing from the iPad versions of their apps.

We could see further development of "pro" app versions that are more geared toward iPad Pro-Mac scenarios versus standard versions more geared toward iPhone-baseline iPad scenarios. For example, while the largest iPad Pro has more than enough screen real estate to support a desktop Mac app like Twitter's multi-column Tweetdeck client, Twitter offers only a version of the iPhone-derived, single-column interface for the iPad.

Apple couldn't be happier if it turns out the strongest competition for the iPad is the Mac. To date, the iPad has thrived in a world where the Mac already existed, but which couldn't compete on factors that boil down to better performance per watt. Now, the Mac has more than evened that playing field. Its apps may not be optimized for iPad Pro-like usage scenarios but can provide a gateway to drive app improvements on the iPad.


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