Apple iPad: It's high time that Apple's venerable tablet received a PC makeover

Using an iPad Pro as a computer today means lifting up your hand from the keyboard cover every time you interact with the interface.

By Rohan Naravane

In 2012, alongside Windows 8, Microsoft unveiled Windows RT. It was a subset of the good ol’ Windows operating system made for computers with ARM chips; the kind that are in your smartphone, instead of an Intel inside. The idea was to create thin and light tablet-computers with a longer battery life than your average laptop. Unfortunately, it received a response that was worse than Windows 8 (which itself wasn’t well-received), mainly due to the lack of apps. After a rather poor demand with just half a dozen products running the operating system, Windows RT was eventually shelved in 2015.

Microsoft hasn’t given up on the tablet-computer combo yet. Their most successful take on it is the Surface Pro 4 — a tablet that runs traditional Windows, and converts into a computer with a keyboard accessory. Then there’s the Microsoft Surface Book, which is a laptop that converts into a tablet, thanks to a detachable screen.

For the longest time, Apple has not been a fan of this combo idea. During the introduction of the iPad in 2010, the late Steve Jobs famously dissed touchscreens on computers. In 2012, Tim Cook compared the idea of a laptop/tablet hybrid to that of combining a toaster and refrigerator. Last year, during the launch of the new MacBook Pros with Touch Bar, Apple’s software head Craig Federighi again drove the point home that a touchscreen on a computer is best-placed where your hands are (i.e. right next to the keyboard and trackpad).

However, since the introduction of the iPad Pro, Apple has been contradicting itself for well over a year now. Its recent ad campaigns suggest that the company wants people to replace their computers with an iPad and a keyboard accessory. The official website’s literature too suggests how the iPad Pro is as powerful as a computer. And you know what, it might not be too outlandish an idea.

(Also read: How about an iPad with macOS?)

Of the two million apps available for iOS, fifty percent are reportedly optimised for iPads — that’s way more than what Microsoft has on its app store. Barring applications that certain professionals like software developers or video editors would use, it has pretty much everything else. It even runs MS Office, which back in the day was a big selling point for Microsoft Surface products. Next, just like a computer, the iPad Pro can run two apps side-by-side, supports keyboard shortcuts like Cmd-C to Copy, Cmd-V to Paste, Cmd-Tab to juggle between apps, etc.

All this really begs the question — why can’t Apple just make a computer that runs on iOS? In fact, the company doesn’t even need to make an entirely new product either. By simply adding a trackpad onto the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard accessory, it will have one.

Using an iPad Pro as a computer today means lifting up your hand from the keyboard cover every time you interact with the interface. A trackpad, as Apple has repeatedly said, is a more natural interaction method, as it sits right below the keyboard. The Surface Pro 4’s keyboard cover, for example, has a touchpad too that makes it more computer-like when it needs to be.

Apple iPad: Its high time that Apples venerable tablet received a PC makeover

Now, you might say that iOS wasn’t designed to be operated with a mouse, but if the touch targets are big enough to be operable by a finger, they can certainly be clickable using a mouse. And this is not just any trackpad we’re talking about — Apple MacBooks have big, accurate trackpads that recognize multi-touch gestures like pinch to zoom, two-finger scrolling, four-finger multitasking, etc.

Also, none of the iPads to date have 3D Touch, the technology that senses different levels of pressure applied on an iPhone’s screen. But guess what, since 2015 MacBook trackpads have ‘Force Touch’, which, like 3D Touch, recognise different levels of pressure too. With 3D Touch being deeply integrated into iOS since iOS 10, a Force Touch trackpad might just be a neat way to enable this feature on the iPad.

The possibility of using a computer running iOS also seems more promising if you were to look at the recent state of the Mac. Since 2011, every version of the macOS operating system has been borrowing features from older iOS versions. Most of the new stuff comes to iOS first, and is brought to the Mac eventually, and many a times not in its entirety. For example, Stickers and Effects, which were the highlight features of iMessage in iOS 10, don’t work on the Mac yet. The Mac now has Siri, but third-party app support that came to iOS 10 isn’t available yet. This just makes for an inconsistent experience for users of the two operating systems, and it sucks. Apple’s defocusing from the Mac also can be seen in a report which suggested that macOS doesn’t even have a dedicated software team anymore. Despite all this, most of Apple’s Macs cost upwards of a lakh of rupees and the most affordable model — the MacBook Air — hasn’t been updated for the past two years.

Apple iPad line-up

On the hardware front, Apple has an advantage with iPads since they’re powered by the company’s homemade A series chips, thereby reducing its dependence on Intel to push better performance and efficiency each year. All this talk might also suggest that the company runs a risk of cannibalising sales of entry-level Macs in favour of these iPad Pro + keyboard combos. But Apple hasn’t been a company that has shied away from one product competing with the other in the past — iPods were effectively killed by iPhones, and iPad minis became almost irrelevant after the Plus-sized iPhones.

Using tablets as computers might have seemed like a crazy idea seven years ago, but today it seems feasible. Apps and services that most people need exist, the hardware is powerful enough, and thanks to wireless technologies and the cloud, the usage of peripheral devices like DVDs, pen drives, ethernet, etc., has greatly reduced. In my opinion, the only thing that’s stopping an iPad from becoming a computer for many is a mouse.

If I’m allowed to dream a little, a second-generation iPad Pro Smart Keyboard cover that includes a trackpad, and maybe a USB Type-C port or two, might just make the iPad Pro a really good toaster-refrigerator combo device people actually want.

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