When the iPad experience goes sideways

As iPad displays have grown, they have mastered displaying more information and more simultaneous apps. But throw the wrong iPhone app into the mix and the iPad still takes the same hands-off approach it offered at its debut, offering no way to rotate such apps without rotating the device. It’s not a pretty portrait.

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The iPad is the rose gold standard of touch display optimization. Only with the latest iPadOS, for example, did Apple support that desktop relic of indirect manipulation known as a cursor, and then primarily as an assistive technology aid. The device family has grown into a powerful platform because Apple drove developers to optimize for the larger display. This was particularly true during the formative years of Android tablets -- when Apple would show off how well apps such as Twitter took advantage of the iPad's expanse, while the Android version portrayed the user interface desert of the stretched-out phone app it was.

But even with enthusiastic developer support for the iPad, Apple made an early concession. The tablet would run iPhone apps at their original size or enlarge them so that they displayed full-screen. Other than that, the iPhone apps stayed completely intact. The used the same keyboard display that they did on the iPhone, even if it looked and behaved suboptimally on the iPad. Functional? Yes. Pretty? No. Apple, after all, was not strongly motivated to make iPhone apps work great on the iPad. The idea, after all, was to encourage developers to make native iPad apps. Besides, the iPad's default orientation was portrait (Apple's first iPad keyboard even positioned it that way), and it was no big deal to rotate it.

Through the years, though, Apple's Smart Covers and Smart Keyboards, as well as countless third-party cover, keyboard, and stand options, have more often placed the iPad in landscape orientation. They are more likely to be set on a desk, with extra material flapping along to accommodate an iPhone app that insists on portrait orientation -- an app such as the immensely popular Instagram. Recently, I wanted to try out a few apps (Mubert, Melodica, and MusicFit)  that use algorithms to generate music or playlists, a perfect intersection of advanced technology and creativity that is the iPad's forte. However, none of them are designed for the iPad, and none of them operate in landscape mode. (In fairness, MusicFit is designed to respond to physical activity, which is far more of an iPhone thing.)

Android tablets have also long had apps that don't support landscape orientation. However, there are third-party apps that can force apps into landscape mode. They aren't perfect, but they generally work. And more recently, as Chromebooks have come to support Google Play, they run Android apps in resizable windows. The apps that don't natively offer landscape mode don't require device rotation, an even bigger hassle on those devices.

When Apple introduced Slide Over, the iPad's ability to show part of an app's interface in a horizontally movable window, it seemed like a potentially better way to accommodate portrait iPhone apps on the iPad. But even as the iPad's screen size has grown so large that it could easily accommodate several iPhone apps running in windows, iPhone apps on the largest iPads still run full-screen, look chunky, and may require disconnecting a keyboard to use without tilting your head 90 degrees. With the iPad now having its own dedicated OS, it's high time Apple fixed the way the iPad handles its second-class citizen apps.

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