Apple Has a Focus Problem

But it’s not what you think

The iPad has made great strides in the last few years toward being a full-time computing platform. While many still cry that it’s just not very useful yet, others are out there using it as their only computer, or have at least shifted significant usage from desktops and laptops to it. I have been traveling at least a third of the time over the last few years, and the iPad is my only companion on the majority of those trips. It is by far my favorite computer, but it has one glaring defect.

Obviously, the heart of the iPad is its touch interface. The direct interaction is exactly what makes it such a joy to use for so much of it can do. However, even Apple has finally acknowledged that a keyboard is a necessary companion for many iPad uses. While their keyboard has some issues (or rather, their keyboard connection technology does), the overall experience is quite nice. Except for one little detail.

Unlike touch, keyboards are inherently targeted. While touch is powerful specifically because of your ability to directly manipulate the software you’re using, keyboards must first be pointed at a place that needs text. They need focus. And here’s where the iPad falls down.

It has no concept of focus. Or rather, it obviously does, but its designers are in denial about it. Keyboard focus is littered throughout the platform, from the presence of a cursor when inputting text, to the software keyboard auto-hiding when no text field is in use. When you’re producing text, this generally works pretty well.

But the keyboard is used for far more than typing. Whether it’s command-tabbing between applications or using shortcuts within them, the keyboard is a critical control device. And it just does not work right on the iPad.

Honestly, it does not work that well on the mac these days, either. Apple’s Mail application can’t seem to figure out how to pass focus between emails, especially when deleting them, and there are plenty of other situations where focus within a window — as opposed to between them — can neither be perceived nor controlled.

But because of its orientation around touch, the iPad is much worse. The vast majority of the time that I want to, say, delete an email, the delete key just literally does nothing. I can even touch the email I want to delete to “ensure” it’s focused, and yet still the keyboard is useless. I have to resort to touch for interacting with applications the vast majority of the time. Many iPad-specific apps now advertise keyboard shortcuts, but they’re useless. I mean, sometimes they work. But that’s not good enough when you’re trying to get something done; we learn, eventually, to do what’s consistent, rather than what’s fastest when it works but often fails.

I have so many memories of using my keyboard to tell some app to do something, and just starting at the iPad until I realize nothing is going to happen. I tap around, hoping to tell it, “start here”, but it’s usually no use. My expectations collapse, and I feel crippled, reduced to the level of those who just click around their GUIS. It’s not wrong, but it can be so much better.

I follow every conversation I can find about the iPad as a productivity platform. I’m deeply interested in the thoughts of people who are bought into it, such as Federico Viticci, so I am cognizant of the general thread of how this is progressing. As so often happens to me, I seem to be the only person concerned about this problem. Here are all of these people talking and writing about the iPad as a general purpose computing platform, yet they don’t mention this problem of the inconsistency and invisibility of focus at all. Do they just not use keyboard shortcuts? That’s not possible, right?

And don’t tell me it’s my iPad. I’ve had literally every version ever made (I currently have both sizes of the iPad Pro), and every few iterations I do a clean install. I’ve tried every variety of keyboard, from Apple’s to Logitech’s to a $15 piece of junk I bought at Brookstone at the airport one time because I managed to leave mine at home. I’ve changed every variable. The only explanation seems to be that others just don’t care about this.

I’d also like to see people rallying for Apple to shift the default orientation of the iPad Pro to landscape, because the keyboard is so central to its use, along with an automatic disabling of the rotation lock when the keyboard is connected, but these are minor compared to the core utility of a keyboard.

To me, one of the central reasons to want a keyboard, one of the primary purposes of the keyboard on my computer, is to control the computer. At that, the iPad is currently failing miserably, and it deserves better.

I fear that this can only be fixed by introducing completely new design concepts to the iPad. Obviously the OS understands focus, but the design team has worked hard not to ever indicate that to you. That has meant application developers have not bothered to manage it effectively, and has trained users to rely on touch rather than the keyboard.

While Apple is a design powerhouse, they’re also into brutalist design, always opting for less, always preferring to forego a capability if they can’t make it perfect. This causes me to despair that they’ll make material strides on this any time soon.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but for Apple to start caring about this, its customers need to first.

What’s your story? Do you just not use keyboard shortcuts? Do they work great for you? Or they’re totally broken, but the other broken stuff is just so much more important you haven’t mentioned them yet?

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