The New iPad Pro and What It Tells Us About the Future of Computing
“It’s like giving a glass of ice water to someone in Hell.” Remember Steve Job’s words when Apple introduced iTunes for Windows? For some tasks, the iPad just felt like that. It is the the most natural encounter with technology I’ve had so far.
Praising the new iPad Pro as the “ultimate” PC replacement and reiterating diligently that this will be the future of computing, Apple made its stance as clear as a bell. It was not the first time Tim Cook asserted that publicly on stage. Consequently, many tech-reviewers fallaciously measured the new iPad by its capability of replacing a laptop. But that’s insidious. For now, let the iPad stay in that “third category of devices”, between a phone and a computer, famously illustrated by Steve Jobs during the introduction of the first iPad in 2010. Seeing it just as that, it does a terrific job.
With this in mind, instead of addressing all the details of the device, I will focus on the most noteworthy feature, the Apple Pencil, before I speak about its implications for computing.
The New iPad Pro 9.7
The new iPad feels like a sophisticated, well-rounded and thought-through piece of technology. It comes with the same, battle-tested shell design like the iPad Air 2 (except for the camera bump), but is armed with a much more capable True Tone display, a better camera and impressive speakers. The most notable change however is its support for the Apple Pencil, which is easily the best stylus I’ve ever used on a screen. The set-up is quick and easy and it produces smooth, pressure-sensitive strokes. With the Pencil, the iPad becomes a champion of unconstrained creation and consumption. Not only that, it also makes navigation much more convenient. That’s a game-changer. I’ll explain later why.
The use cases for the Apple Pencil:
- Sketching: superb. I owned a Wacom Cintiq 12WX, and the experience with the Apple setup is clearly superior. Neither cords, nor apower source, nor computer are needed to start with drawing, which makes the whole setup far sleeker and nimbler. Moreover, the iPad creates no distortions on the edge of the display and needs no calibration. Also, on the iPad the tip of the pencil seems to be right on the display itself, whereas a little gap between the glass and the display tarnish the experience on the Wacom. However, most Wacom tablets and styluses come with freely definable function keys, which is clever and useful feature missing on the iPad and on the Pencil itself. Particularly for professionals, function keys are vital for an efficient workflow. Here is a quick test sketch that I drew on the Apple Notes app using solely the pencil-tool:
- Writing: Mediocre. I tested a couple of writing apps, including Notability*, GoodNotes, Penultimate, and others. While Notability had the richest set of functionalities, a very high latency thwarts a smooth writing experience. GoodNotes and Penultimate had rather low latency, but Penultimate lacks in functionalities and GoodNotes distorts my writing (which might be useful for all other styluses which aren’t as precise as the Apple Pencil). I haven’t found out yet what causes a higher latency in some apps, but I assume it depends on how well the apps are programmed. Other apps that aren’t specialized on writing, MyScript Calculator for example, are at eye level with the Notes app, which has — as it appears just by testing it by hand — the lowest latency. Nevertheless, I hope to see latency improvements in third party apps in the near future.
- Navigating: Excellent. This became obvious to me as soon as I held the iPad in my hands. The Pencil works everywhere your finger would work too, but it relieves you from lifting your hand to the screen. And that’s a big thing. It makes working with the iPad so much easier. Especially since John Gruber mentioned the constant arm-lifting and the most inconvenient attribute of a touch-only device.
What this Means for the Future of Computing
Computing has always been driven by its input methods. The next big thing necessarily included a new form of input. In particular, Apple revolutionized the personal computer by introducing a graphical user interface with a mouse in 1984, then came the iPod with its famous click-wheel, later the iPhone with multi-touch. As these technologies progress, some will always be better suited for certain tasks. For example, assessing current input methods according to their intuitiveness, the mouse or trackpad clearly won’t win any awards. Meanwhile, multi-touch feels far less constrained. On the contrary, assessing them according to their convenience, a mouse with a pointer or a trackpad has a clear edge, as the arm can be left flat on the able and only slight movements of the hand are required. If you have to lift your arm 500 times a day, it becomes a notable disadvantage.
That’s why the Apple Pencil is a big thing. It’s a new input method and it makes navigating on the iPad much more convenient and also more accurate. In doing so, it allows the iPad to gradually progress into the value space of a laptop. But will that be enough to replace it? No. It will only push the iPad upstream, expanding its value space (see figure: “The future of computing” below).
On the whole, as these devices advance, they push their value space upstream, squeezing the traditional laptop and desktop PC’s out of the market. However, unless the underlying technology does not change, traditional computers will never be replaced. What that means is that up to now, the user still has to select every single command manually. Doing so by hand is inconvenient, doing so by voice is still too inacurate. This brings us again to the intuitiveness — convenience dilemma of the different input methods. As long as there is no new input form which is at the same time intuitive and convenient, laptops and desktop computers will live on. Even a stylus is not the solution yet.
Today, interacting with voice is cumbersome, not only because the technology is still in its infancy but also because software is still made for point-and-click devices. However, recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and the eagerness of the tech giants (Google’s search, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo) to push this technology forward, may shed a light on how we will interact with technology in the near future. Voice commands with AI may become the technology that relieves us from manually selecting commands, replacing the need for sophisticated and comoplex menus and input devices. Computers would be smart enough so that they would be able build command lines all on their own, instead of forcing the user to provide a step-by-step “recipe” for what to do.
For example: Instead of clicking in Apple’s Preview on “Tools”/”Adjust Size” to adjust the size of a picture, which requires two clicks, a single voice command could be enough. The same could work for more sophisticated commands and applications as well. This does not mean, however, that the voice will be the sole mean to interact with a device. Opening Safari, for example, is still far easier with a simple touch or click. Ultimately, being able to automate a large number of commands with AI would lessen the touch input, increase convenience and make point-and-click redundant. I call this “command-automatization”. It’s the combination of touch and voice that does the magic.
This combination will be the key to push us into a new era in which the mouse and the trackpad will be a relict from the past. But it will require a fundamental rethink in software and user interface design (UI).
For years, the analysts have searched for and tried to predict the next big thing in the consumer technology sector. It hasn’t been the wearables, including the Apple Watch. And it won’t be the “Apple Car”, if that ever finds its way to the light of day. And I also believe that it won’t be virtual reality (VR). In fact, it won’t be any hardware-related innovation. The next big thing will be a software-based input method. It will be voice command with AI. Hardware will become far less important, while software will be key. Apple has laid the hardware-foundation for this new input-era with the Apple Watch, the iPhone and the new iPad Pro. As the iPad will become even more capable, the Apple Watch will progress into a far smarter and powerful device which will be almost entirely controlled by voice. The iPhone will become the iPad, stuck in the middle. Nevertheless, the major challenge, especially for Apple, will be to master the shift from being a hardware to being a software company. Hardware won’t be a competitive advantage anymore. Everything will be based on software.
Let the race begin!
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*an update on the 12th of April greatly reduces the latency. In terms of latency, Notability is now at least as good as GoodNotes, if not better.