Matt Gemmell

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The Other Shoe

tech & ipad-only 6 min read

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.

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The other night, we sat and watched some of the Apple WWDC 2017 keynote; mostly the parts pertaining to the upcoming iOS 11, and the new pair of iPad Pro devices. Digesting the keynote’s news after the fact has become a ritual for my wife and I. We very rarely watch TV, so it’s a fun and novel experience for us to have something playing in front of us while we discuss it together.

As someone who works exclusively on an iPad, it’s difficult to express just how relieved and enthused I was at the preview of the next version of the operating system.

Apple’s treatment of the iPad has consistently puzzled me. The original announcement keynote from 2010 squarely makes it a content-consumption device, and the creation-vs-consumption debate has continued ever since. Meanwhile, everyone is getting work done on the iPad, but Apple always seems to be playing catch-up in their marketing, and even their software development. Apple sells around twice as many iPads as Macs, but almost four times as many iPhones as they do both Macs and iPads combined. It’s clear which category should get most attention, and that’s fine.

There’s the issue of potential, though.

The iPhone’s potential isn’t being underserved; quite the opposite, in fact. Nor is the Mac’s, really, especially as the sole development platform for iOS software. The Mac lacks more than a cursory App Store, true, but unlike iOS it has a vibrant software industry beyond Apple’s walled garden, and no shortage of big-name applications and publishers. I remember far darker days for those machines.

The iPad, however, has been consistently done a disservice by its creators. The marketing is quirky and artiste-focused in places, but aside from the occasional detour — and the comparatively young iPad Pro line-up — it’s still mostly shown to be a lifestyle gadget for the backpack and the living room. At time of writing, the non-Pro iPad homepage has very telling and long-present messaging: the tag line is “flat-out fun”, and the following three pieces of prominent copy all de-emphasise creating things in favour of simply experiencing them: “Learn, play, surf, create”, “Whether you’re enjoying photos, shopping, or building a presentation”, and “Watch, play, and create at full speed”. You can make the argument that they’re distinguishing those machines from the Pro line, but the gist of their ad copy hasn’t substantially changed since the device was first launched.

It’s damned odd, because the iPad’s form-factor and interaction opportunities are laden with potential. Third-party developers, as ever, have demonstrated some of that potential to Apple, who have heretofore then followed suit in a limited fashion, and naturally been happy to promote those who are really driving the slow shift in perception of tablet computers.

It should have been Apple at the forefront of it; it’s their product, after all. They should have pushed the serious-work angle from the start, not just in the occasional app (the iWork suite being very deserving of praise in this context), but also throughout their customer-facing messaging, ads, and exemplary software.

Apple told us the iPad wasn’t just a big iPhone. But they sure as hell treated it like one.

iOS always felt somehow sparse on the larger screen. Like it was butter, and they’d just spread the same amount over a bigger slice of bread, leaving it patchy and bland. Things that fit the constraints of the iPhone’s screen felt gimmicky and shoehorned-in on the iPad. The on-screen keyboard still needed to be switched into different modes, despite acres of space and an entirely different ergonomic setup. Home screen icons float in a sea of emptiness, especially in their unique-to-iPad landscape orientation. The iPad was stunted, if truth be told, by software made for something that afforded only a more streamlined style of interaction.

iOS was designed for the iPhone, and only adapted to its notionally more sophisticated sibling.

That’s not to say that there should be iPhone OS and iPad OS, though; one of the great strengths of the two devices is how well they work together, and how their user experience does share a lingua franca. It makes the iPad as easy to use as the iPhone (mostly) is. In practice, though, we too often find that the iPad is also constrained to be equivalently — and unnecessarily — awkward.

Apple’s puzzling ambivalence to their much-touted third category was a part of what made me abandon the device a few years ago, I think. I was working with it, but I was also too often working around it. The notion of friction kept coming up; lots of little abrasions of inefficiency and needless faffing-around. It wears you down. I’d skip past the iPad parts of intervening keynotes, idly wondering if this would be the year when they finally got serious about it.

Apparently, this is the year.

There’s a whole lot of stuff you want to do on an iPad that Apple have previously technically allowed you to, while simultaneously hobbling the process with ridiculous barriers. Tiny, weird popovers on huge screens. Nested dialogs within dialogs. Having to expand and scroll and pick, when there’s plenty of space to just show everything. A crippled app-multitasking interface that pays lip service to what full-time iPad users want, whilst introducing further annoyances like a nigh-unusable app-picker for split view. A vast screen that supports eleven distinct points of interaction, but mostly requires single-finger tap-tap-tapping through screens and dialogs to pull data in from other apps. It’s been a death by a thousand cuts.

Until, in several cases, the arrival of iOS 11. Someone has clearly seen the light, and Apple has given itself permission to admit that the iPad is a different beast from a smartphone, and that its very dimensions require, afford, and give rise to a more nuanced interaction model. They’ve taken the opportunity to eliminate frictional elements of common tasks, while also starting to open up the potential of a large multi-touch canvas. And they’ve done a lot of it all at once.

The presence of a persistent dock, for example, changes the whole language of the machine. It’s no longer a phone-like launcher, with app sessions sitting on top; it’s a task-focused device, where you can arbitrarily branch to other areas as you wish. The Home screen has been demoted from its hub status, and instead it becomes the Mac’s Launchpad, to which it gave its look and functionality.

Drag and drop, with cross-app persistence, multiple non-modal sessions, and multi-touch adding and stacking, is an example of what iOS and the iPad should be all about: showing how we can not only replicate sophisticated desktop-era interactions on a touch device, but even improve upon them by being freed from the tyranny of the pointer.

Incorporating the app-switcher as a progressively-revealed tier of the dock, with preservation of workspaces, fundamentally shifts how iPad users will perceive what they’re doing when they use apps. iOS on the iPad will change overnight from being a card-based, kiosk-like comedy-sized smartphone interface, to having something pretty close to a multiple-desktop window manager, albeit for full-screen apps or composites thereof. A list of features that each sound merely useful in isolation, when combined together become emblematic of thinking differently about what the iPad is.

The next version of iOS acknowledges that the iPad can and ought to be a primary computing device, not just for leisure but also for productivity. It also acknowledges that the iPad’s differences from the iPhone are advantages, to be capitalised upon and exploited, rather than concealed and smoothed-away by a hampering little-brother software model. At last, Apple seems to be taking the iPad seriously.

The iPhone, and iOS, and indeed Apple in general, have a consistent strength: they know how to help people do complex things simply, and do simple things well. With the iPad, though, iOS was perhaps an imperfect fit, because a tool must ultimately facilitate the promise of its own nature, even as it brings difficult tasks within reach.

When Steve Jobs sat down in an armchair on stage seven years ago, I was fascinated by the device he held. It had echoes of the introduction of the iPhone, but this was a truly new thing; it felt like it held the future of mainstream computing within its dark slab of glass. Since then, that reality has been disappointingly slow to arrive — though it has been creeping closer and closer.

With Apple’s apparent recommitment to what the iPad can be — and how it really does occupy a third space, distinct from the iPhone and the legacy of the Mac — I’m feeling that sense of potential again. I’ve been anticipating it ever since that keynote in 2010, as if this summer’s announcement was a much-delayed one more thing.

With what iOS 11 hopefully heralds, the iPad’s other shoe has finally dropped.