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The iPad Operating System

WWDC 2019 included a vast list of releases and it’s quite difficult to summarize. The focus is always on software updates but this year the list seems more exhaustive than usual.

The highlights for me are:

  1. WatchOS now includes direct App Store access. This continues the separation of the Watch from the iPhone, on a trajectory that remains predictable.
  2. Hearing Health/Noise App/period and trends management extends the iPhone’s health maintenance “jobs to be done”.
  3. AR & Swift extend the platform through Reality Kit and Reality Composer and Swift UI.
  4. MacOS improves through a new Apple Music app, Sidecar iPad integration, Accessibility and “Find My” Mac offline beacons.
  5. iPad and Mac are beginning to share Apps with Project Catalyst.
  6. New Mac Pro and new XDR Display are quantum leapfrog leaps in the high-end performance computing market where Apple has lagged for a few years.
  7. Sign-in with Apple is a huge and much needed update to identity management on-line. A big deal.
  8. iPadOS introduced as fifth Apple OS. Rather than merging iPad and Mac which would be suggested by Project Catalyst, Apple preserves and sanctifies the modularity of form factors based on their differences rather than commonalities.

If there is one thing I took away as most significant it would be the iPadOS spin-off. I don’t quite know how this will change the fortunes of the iPad but in declaring itself a platform distinct from iOS it signals that iPad can evolve rapidly in a new direction. The promise and problem with the iPad has always been that it was great hardware held back by software that was not able to take advantage of it.

The core apps, interfaces and connectivity were all constrained, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Constraints make a system and the constraints of the iPhone made it great. Not having a stylus, not having a menu system and not having windowing meant the UX had to be drastically simplified.

But apparently the iPad could not evolve without a re-evaluation of these constraints. The last iPad Pro release hinted at what was coming: it had a full-size keyboard and an immensely capable processor and screen.

So we saw new features such as split view for the same app, Files folder, doc sharing, USB and SD drives support, Zip/Unzip, Desktop class Safari optimized for touch. Download manager, custom fonts, new text editing gestures (copy/paste/floating keyboard). Pencil latency improvement. All these changes are geared toward “productivity” or Pro use.

And yet, the iPad is not Mac. It will remain separate and target Mac non-consumers. Indeed there are three times more iPad users than Mac users and it’s quite possible that the iPad base can expand further with enhancement into productivity.

The iPad has not proven to be either an iPhone or a PC killer. It’s just in between. It’s not a bowl and it’s not a swimming pool. It’s a bathtub. And yes, bathtubs are never going to be as common as bowls but they have their uses and are not obsoleted by better water containers.

The Operating System idea here is a bit of a conceit. In terms of the kernel and the core APIs there are vast common grounds between all Apple’s OSs. But what Apple calls an OS is not just the core code but also the positioning of the idea _to developers_. By branding iPadOS the company is signaling to developers that they should think about the iPad differently.

To a large extent they already do. Coding for iPad has always required a different design approach. But now perhaps Apple is drawing an explicit line enforcing the distinction.

Going back to the list of highlights above, none of them is a “home run”, re-enforcing the idea that the company has run out of big ideas. But hitting 8 base hits yields the same result as two home runs. There is a consistent delivery of improvements here that can’t be ignored. There’s something to be said for polishing rocks until they turn into gems.