The Unspoken Limits of Apple’s iPad Are Strangling its Evolution

4 minute read
| Editorial

Recently I watched Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was the episode with Jay Leno. Mr. Leno talked about how in the very early 20th century, steam, electric and gasoline powered cars each had about a third of the market. There were, in fact, electric charging station in New York.

Buried in that discussion was what I thought was a great observation. For an emerging technology to supplant the previous one, it can’t be merely equal. It must be dramatically superior.

Eventually, the convenience and energy density of gasoline won out. The internal combustion engine quickly evolved to be dramatically superior to the competition. This episode got me thinking about the future of Apple’s iPad. To do that, I need to go back and look at the first Macintosh, poised to supplant the Apple II in 1984.

Original Mac Add "hello"

The original Mac from 1984.

The Failed Original 128K Mac

The original Mac back in 1984 was not a long-term success product. It appealed to early adopters, and sales were decent for awhile. Then it began to tank. Why? Here were its features.

  1. A built-in 9-inch display.
  2. Black & white display only.
  3. A mere 128K bytes of RAM.
  4. No internal hard disk.
  5. Limited expansion: keyboard, mouse, printer
  6. Unlike Apple II, not possible to program out of the box.

As a result, soon the first Mac, an “appliance computer” began to fail. Quickly, Apple executives realized that the limits of this computer need to be lifted if it wanted to go against the vaunted IBM PC introduced a few years earlier. The IBM PC was eating Apple’s lunch.

Over time, the Mac gained more memory, a color display (even a user selectable display in the Mac II) an internal hard disk, SCSI expansion and user programming languages. These important changes led to a development mentality that allowed the Mac to evolve and become what it is today.

The iPad’s Limits

I see the modern iPad on the same evolutionary path. Early sales were good, then the sales peaked, and now they’re declining. That process took a little longer than the original Mac, but the sales curves are similar.

Like the original Mac, Steve Jobs conceived of the iPad as a closed, friendly, appliance. Easy to use, one just sits down and starts tapping. Notable in the introduction event, Mr. Jobs sat in an arm chair, legs crossed, and just tapped away.

Steve Jobs introduces the iPad

Steve Jobs introduces the iPad.

After seven years of sales and only minor conceptual evolution, Apple has unilaterally decided that modern iPad Pros with iOS 10 can now supplant Macs. As if claiming made it so. How can a device, so conceived by Mr. Jobs in the photo above, ever be the Mac replacement? It’s still silly in 2017.

Apple is trying, however, touting how, with a Pencil and keyboard, this may be the only computer we need. The general reaction, except for limited cases and sensationalistic articles, has been:

No, it’s not. Not yet.

And why is that? Going back to Mr. Leno’s observation, the iPad is not dramatically superior to the Mac. Let’s look. (Compare to above.)

  1. A built-in display. Maximum size: 12.9 inches.
  2. A single window for apps. (Recently, PIP plus two apps side by side for iPad Pro).
  3. No multi-user accounts.
  4. No visible file system.
  5. Limited expansion ports.
  6. Unlike Mac, not possible to program out of the box.
  7. Unable to run macOS apps (See below).

In my view, these are limits that are strangling the iPad’s evolution. They inhibit its future growth.

Next page: The dramatic vision of the Microsoft Surface Studio.

15 Comments Add a comment

  1. geoduck

    Well said. You nailed it.

    In 2012 when I got my MacBook Pro I stated publically, here and elsewhere, that it likely would be my last Mac. I EXPECTED the iPad to be far Far FAR more advanced by now than it is. So last November when it came time to replace The Beast what did I do? I got an iMac.

    The trouble is, as much as the iPad has evolved it is still crippled. The six items you listed are the core of the issue. You add those things and the ability to drive an external 28 inch monitor and I’ll be there with bells on. Right now my iPad, an Air, just can’t do several critical things I need. Yes I know there has been an iPad Air 2 and two models of iPad Pro. I haven’t upgraded because the limitations of THE SYSTEM mean there would be little change for MY needs. The A9X, or heck the A10 this fall will not make the things I need to do better. I can only type so fast, a faster chip won’t help. I can only draw so fast or lay up a graphic so quickly. A faster crippled system won’t really be any better. What can’t I do? Well editing video with iMovie on the iPad was an exercise in frustration. That had to go back to the Mac. Now I’m experimenting with DaVinci Resolve for video. Oops it’s a Mac only App so not on the iPad. The same goes for VirtualBox and the Linux environment I use for experimentation. Or for that matter a dozen other apps I use regularly for which there are no versions for the iPad.

    Yes there needs to be a paradigm shift for the iPad, much as there was with the Mac when the Macintosh II came out. Until that happens the iPad will be a very useful device where I create things, but all my finishing work will be done on the Mac.

    At root though is that the iPad runs an OS designed for a four inch phone screen. Until those shackles are removed it can’t grow.

  2. John Kheit

    Great article and analysis John. Now if Apple would just have the courage to keep evolving either or both by some leaps and bounds instead of micro baby steps, they might actually get it and get there.

  3. John Q

    One could argue that Apple has done a poor job of making iOS take full advantage of what iPads could do, especially under a “Pro” guise.

    It was encouraging to see iOS 9 finally pay some attention to making use of the extra screen space.

    iOS 10? Any progress was stopped dead in its tracks, and the biggest news are the new frills added to iMessage, which, incidentally, also made it harder to use for those who just want to send text messages.

    Look at the Springboard layout on an iPad Pro, and you gotta think, “really?” The same grid of app icons that started on a 4″ phone just blown up to 13″ with minimal changes? It’s silly.

    And that’s just the easy stuff. Where is the additional windowing? Multi-user profiles?

    Simply adding a stylus (which Jobs would have hated anyway) does not turn the iPad into a “pro” device.

  4. ChrisLaarman

    I find it a bit unfair to measure the iPad by Mac standards and then find it falling short. Matter of opinion.

    Yes, they’re both computing devices. But they are aimed at performing different roles in Apple’s ecosystem. Like spoon and fork, or whatever the better comparison to matters outside that system.

    The selling points of any tablet are, according to me:
    – easy change of orientation (I tried reading a portrait-oriented document by rotating a netbook, next day bought my first tablet.)
    – featuring a suitable input device if needed (an on-screen text keyboard if you want to compose text, an on-screen piano keyboard if you want to compose music, cards if you want to play cards)

    The iPad adds its integration in the Apple ecosystem to those.

    A separate design aspect is, according to me, to extend the usefulness from the couch to the road. This calls for an even sharper eye on battery life, weight and quick switching between rest and action.

    In this multi-dimensional balancing, Apple has traded off things like processing power and operating system features. For comparison, Microsoft hasn’t. I have a Surface Pro 3. The edition with Core i5 CPU, as I had read about the heat issues of the edition with Core i7. Together with the optional keyboard cover, I still consider it best of both worlds. Yet it is collecting dust (along with my larger iPad Pro and my Pixel C) as I heavily default to an iPad Air 2 (and before it an iPad 2).

    Yes, there are things that the iPad is less suitable for. Obvious, no problem! I then switch to a Mac or to an even older (2009) large-screen dual-boot Windows/Linux notebook. But the power of the iPad is on the increase, so it may already have desktop class (a moving target!) in processing power and inter-app operations.

    The only real drawback of the iPad is (in my opinion) ithe iOS file system. But that drawback is limited to local files (not to the files in the cloud or on external storage (I’m using the Lexar microSD-card reader for Lightning)), and moreover it is to change with the introduction of the AFS file system.
    So I’m not a one to complain about connecting devices. I even have several peripherals related to making (not merely playing) music: audio and MIDI interfaces by Alesis and IK Multimedia.

    Actually, this very rise to desktop class may be strangling the evolution of the iPad. The larger iPad Pro could well be a non-Pro MacBook killer. It may boil down to a financial decision of the Apple board: would the profit be greater in one product line or in two?

  5. tcrooks3843

    I really thought we had got beyond the ‘one type fits all’ approach by now but clearly, John, you don’t think so. Surely we have reached a stage of maturity that for some a smartphone suffices, where for others a PC is mandatory. My read of the Apple strategy isn’t one of wholesale replacement of the Mac market with iPads. Rather it is provision of a variety of devices to meet slices of the broad marketplace.

    For me I find that, after spending 50+ years in computing, what I’m most interested in are these;

    1. A take it with me everywhere device that can at a pinch do almost anything, albeit not everything with the utmost ease, (a smartphone – size depends on hand size, comfort, etc.)
    2. A take it from room to room device that I can use in any environment to do almost everything rather better than 1. above, ( a tablet, maybe tablets, that are big enough to view detail clearly but not heavy enough to be a problem holding/carrying)
    3. A device that sits on my desktop that can do everything but is large enough to do more complex tasks with great precision and ease, ( a large screen tablet that allows for precision CAD, image editing, video editing, etc.)
    4. A device that acts as my very secure (in all senses) archive/retrieval device from which I can access information anywhere. ( an easily expandable storage RAID system that can withstand failure, both electronic and physical – a home ‘black box’ as it were.) Not a believer in cloud storage as yet – too limiting, too slow, too expensive for large capacity for private use.

    I think I’m correct in thinking that when Gates forecast that every home would have a computer he envisaged one per household. Clearly with smartphones we are way beyond that. When Jobs suggested that the information PC would be the ‘truck’ to the iPad he had only sketched the idea rather than fully developing a future device schema.

    What is stopping the growth of tablets use, especially the iPad line, is price rather than specifications. If the iPad was 30% lower in price then would its take up as an alternative to PC/Macs be the subject of a different commentary than the one you have set out?

    Do you think that in 20 years time general purpose computers – PC/Macs – will be a consumer product line? Possibly not a workplace commodity? I rather like the concept of playing to where the puck is going to be, don’t you?

  6. geneking7320

    If the iPad is going to evolve in a way that will make eligible to replace the Mac maybe Apple should consider naming it a different species of apple.
    With a new name fewer expectations and more possibilities.

  7. tedlandau

    Yup. Tooting my own horn a bit here, I made pretty much the same comments back in 2013.
    And I recall discussing yet other points (like how you can’t develop iOS apps on iOS devices) during several podcasts with Chuck Joiner at the time.
    Not much has changed since. My iPad Pro is a much better laptop replacement than my 2013 iPad ever was. But it is still nowhere close to being a complete Mac alternative. My iMac still rules.

  8. geoduck

    Just had a thought.
    Suppose the idea for an ARM Mac is totally off base. Assume Apple has no plans to move the Mac away from Intel.
    What if Apple intends to evolve the iPad with a separate padOS with the capabilities you mentioned above. This would REPLACE the Mac and would BE ARM based.

  9. shameermulji

    @geoduck: “What if Apple intends to evolve the iPad with a separate padOS with the capabilities you mentioned above. This would REPLACE the Mac and would BE ARM based.

    That is an excellent point. That is exactly what I think Tim Cook means when he says he sees the iPad Pro as the clearest expression of their vision of the future of personal computing.

  10. PaulFranz

    I think John has something right and something wrong.

    When it comes to built-in display being limiting. Isn’t that the same issue with a Mac Book Pro. You can use an external display with an iPad. You can not touch it. But that is not the point

    When it comes to single window for apps, that is only an issue for larger displays. How many people view multiple windows on a 13″ MacBook Pro?

    When it comes to multi-user accounts how many people have multiple user accounts for there MacBook Pros? iMacs, yes. Portable laptop less so. (Exception when you need to do screen captures for production product) The real issue here is not multi-user accounts. It is that the iPad is so expensive for the limited abilities that people want to share it. If people could do everything they need to do on an iPad and not need another computer, multi-user accounts would not be needed because people would not be sharing their only computer.

    When it comes to no visible file system, this is problem for the transition. The problem is that we are still so tied to past when it comes to thinking. We should not have to deal with files and directories and the like. We should be able to focus on what we want to do and not worry about things like what program can open what kind of file.

    When it comes to limited expansion ports, the Mac Book Pro only has 4 ports. So I don’t think that is the real issue. The real issue is limited 3rd party hardware support for connecting to the iPad.

    I agree that there is no way currently to develop for the iPad without a separate Mac to develop on. But I think that is in the works. One step at a time.

    When it comes to can’t running macOS programs. It never should.

    I think that Apple will slowly build in functionality in secure and methodical way. Like the ability to record sound from other applications.

  11. Robert Latterman

    NOT HAPPENING with TIM COOK at the helm………. Tim Cook as ZERO vision or tech smarts to make things happen……. he’s a bean counter that was a temporary stand in for Steve Jobs (who did not plan on kicking the bucket at the time) ……….. Apple is in trouble…….. big big trouble

  12. Macsee

    iOS and ARM are toys compared to Mac and x86 computers. And x86 is required for full and true compatibility with the rest of the world (read, 95% of Windows market share of true-full computers worldwide).

    Bring a Mac tablet. Now it is possible with the new and future Intel microprocessors. Competitors like Microsoft have demonstrated it.

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