We’ve been asking the wrong people the wrong question
With the release of the first iPad Pro in 2015, Apple began making the argument that for many people, an iPad was now powerful and capable enough to replace a laptop/PC. Since then, practically every review and article written or recorded about new iPads has addressed this question of whether an iPad could be a legitimate laptop replacement.
This was almost entirely based on the all-important metric of whether a person could do “real work” on an iPad, and nearly every reviewer found the iPad wanting for a number of logical, completely sensible reasons, and dinged new iPads commensurately. This iPad ≥ laptop debate was further enflamed when Apple released an ad following a young girl as she used her iPad Pro throughout a day for a number of activities — including drawing, talking to friends, reading a comic book, and doing homework — ending with her asking the now infamous question “What’s a computer?” So this debate was not a case of the tech press engaging in a straw man argument based on a misinterpretation of what Apple was saying or not saying about their products. Apple is really the one who started all this.
But after buying (and thoroughly enjoying) the new 2019 iPad Air, I’m beginning to wonder if everyone — including Apple — has gotten this iPad vs. laptop question all wrong. As personal computing continues to evolve, I think the real question for most people won’t be whether a laptop can be replaced with an iPad. It will be whether there is any good reason to replace an iPad with a laptop.
Farm Trucks vs. Casual Cars
Of course, when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPad in 2010, it was not described as something that could replace your laptop — it was something to inhabit a “third category of device” that fit between the iPhone and MacBook. And when he described what the iPad was primarily for and what it could do as well as or better than a laptop, he listed seven primarily non-work functions: web browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and ebooks.
In a notable change from most Apple product introductions, Jobs demonstrated and visualized the casual nature of the iPad by using it while reclining in a comfy leather chair as he browsed the web, checked emails, looked through photos and more using the now-familiar multi-touch interface that made the iPhone such a revelation. Much later in the presentation, senior vice president of marketing Phil Schiller would demonstrate how Apple’s iWork suite of productivity apps had been adapted for the iPad. But the main message had already been driven home — PCs were for work and the iPad was for light, casual use.
Months later at the D8 conference, Jobs was asked in an interview if he thought tablets would ever outsell PCs, despite the fact that tablets couldn’t really be used for “content creation”. Jobs predicted that tablets would indeed eventually replace PCs for most people, and after thinking for a moment, demonstrated his uncanny knack for making technology both personal and relatable with a brilliant yet simple analogy: PCs are like trucks while the iPad is like a car better suited to regular people for everyday tasks.
As we now know, Jobs was ahead of the curve — iPads outsold Macs for the first time in 2013 and have never looked back. But as iPads have grown more powerful, is the iPad Pro now more comparable to, say, an SUV — a truck-like car with the muscle to handle some heavier work, even if most people rarely (if ever) use them for that purpose?
Life With the iPad Air
With the 2019 iPad Air and its terrific mix of newer features, older hardware, and a way lower price compared to the Pro models, I was finally enticed to see if there was a place for an iPad in my life. I am still very happy with my 2017 5K iMac, and while my beloved 2012 11” MacBook Air is still hanging on valiantly, I know it’s in its last years, especially since it will not be eligible for macOS updates going forward. So I figured now would be a good time to dip my toe in the iPad-as-MacBook-replacement pool while I still had a MacBook to use if it couldn’t. Even if I only ended up using the iPad for games, making music on Garageband, and basic tablet tasks, I could still consider it money well spent if it lasted long enough.
On a trip to visit my parents, I decided to take a weeklong iPad plunge and left my MacBook at home to see if my iPad could replace it. Unfortunately, this experiment concluded almost immediately. Even with a job as straightforward as writing a post for Medium like this one, I quickly grew frustrated with the inability to switch easily between multiple apps in iOS 12. I was fine if I was only writing in Microsoft Word, but if I also needed to swing over to Safari to check some information on a website, wanted to change what I was listening to in Apple Music, and my wife asked me a question on Messages, everything became a slog. Even though the screen of my 11” MacBook Air is nearly the same size as my iPad Air’s, not having apps just a click away made it feel like I was trudging through mud when I wanted to walk, run, and jump. In early 2019, an iPad could not replace my laptop.
I had also forgotten that in the evenings when I’m visiting my parents, I like to use my MacBook Air’s mini DisplayPort, a dongle, and an HDMI cable to stream Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or HBO GO on my parents’ big 50” TV. While there are Lightning/HDMI dongles that allow you to mirror an iPad’s screen on a TV for things like PowerPoint presentations, Netflix and HBO (and probably other companies) disable screen mirroring when using their iOS apps because they know the Lightning jack can’t handle a high-quality HD video output. When I tried to watch an NBA playoff game through TNT’s website on Safari, not only was the stream quality terrible, but the dongle got disturbingly hot. So if I wanted to stream something, it would have to be on my iPad Air, and while video on my iPad looked great on its terrific screen, it was a lot smaller than 50 inches diagonal.
In both of these cases, neither of which require what I consider to be power user features, the iPad and iOS 12 simply could not do what my seven-year-old MacBook Air can handle with ease. This was due to the inflexibility of iOS and its lack of robust multitasking, while the other was from the lack of a port that could handle video output. However, solutions to both of these problems either currently exist or are coming later in 2019 . The 2018 iPad Pros have a USB-C port that can handle HDR video output up to 5K, and a handful of TV manufacturers have announced support for AirPlay 2, which would allow you to stream content wirelessly from iPads. More importantly, Apple is recognizing that the iPad is more than just a big iPhone and has announced that the tablet will run its own iPadOS to bring more features made just for the iPad, including better multitasking, improvements to the Files app, a downloads manager, and support for USB drives and SD cards.
Plus, there is another factor that might have contributed to the difficulty I had using my iPad for work — the fact that I have been using Macs for the majority of my computing needs for almost my entire life. It’s what I’m used to and what I’m most comfortable with. There are a lot of people that don’t carry that same baggage.
The Rise of the iOS Natives
If you see an awake child under the age of five out in public, chances are they are looking at an iPhone. Whether you see this as a sad commentary on modern parenting, the pervasiveness of technology, or how society is raising generations of children with the attention spans of caffeinated gnats, handing a kid an iPhone so they can watch videos is perhaps the easiest way for a parent to grab a few moments of quiet while allowing bystanders to enjoy a plane ride or a meal out in peace. This also means that the first piece of computer technology most kids will ever use will be an iPhone. iOS’s touch interface is so intuitive that not only can babies quickly learn how to use it, but even animals too. When a parent wants some adult time, they can just hand their kid their iPhone and the kid can watch endless videos without mom or dad needing to load up the next one for them.
As kids get older they often level up to an iPad, maybe a hand-me-down from a parent or older sibling, or perhaps Apple’s entry-level iPad or an iPad mini that’s easier for a kid to carry. With this bigger screen, kids can better play games, browse kid-friendly websites, more comfortably watch video, read ebooks, use educational apps, or do something creative like drawing. When the kid gets to homework age and maybe has to write a short essay about what they did over summer vacation, they’ll probably have no problem using the iPad’s onscreen keyboard, since any parent will tell you that kids raised on touchscreens can type as fast or faster on a flat screen than they can on a physical keyboard. And if they can’t, cheap Bluetooth keyboards are readily available.
A child who was born on the day the first iPad went on sale will now be nine years old, maybe a year or two from middle school where they may begin writing research-based essays or doing activities that might benefit from more advanced software. Still, I imagine most kids — especially ones who grew up on iOS and touchscreen interfaces — will be able to reach high school doing most of the work they need to on an iPad, especially if it means not having to learn a macOS operating system that isn’t as intuitive as iOS.
So at what age will an average modern kid today graduate up to a laptop? This might anger or scare older generations who love the Mac, but I suspect that the answer for most kids is: Probably never.
As someone who grew up on the Mac, writing an article necessitates having a Mac so I can quickly and easily switch back and forth between my writing app, my research, and a few other apps. While on my 11” MacBook Air, the screen isn’t big enough to have multiple full-sized windows open side by side, as is true on any iPad smaller than the largest Pro. But since the screen on my MacBook Air has a wider aspect ratio and customizable window placement, I can have lots of apps and windows peeking out from behind whatever I’m focusing on, and the trackpad’s precision pointer makes it easy to click on even the thinnest sliver of a window to bring it to the foreground. For me, the inability to do this on my iPad Air due to its screen dimensions and iOS 12’s multitasking limitations makes it a nonstarter when it comes to even simple work like writing.
However, it’s easy to imagine that an iOS native who has never used a Mac would handle multitasking on an iPad much faster and smoother than I can, especially since they wouldn’t have to unlearn or attempt to replicate a macOS workflow. And with WWDC 2019’s announcement of better multitasking, more laptop-style capabilities, and a separate iPadOS that will develop more iPad-specific features going forward to make the iPad less like “just a big iPhone”, iOS natives will be able to do even more PC-type work with their iPads, especially since Apple’s A-series chips already rival or outdo those in most laptops. While Apple may have been premature in 2015 when they claimed that an iPad could replace a laptop, that scenario just became way more plausible with the announcements at the WWDC 2019 keynote, and will certainly become even more true with each new version of iPadOS.
In any case, the whole question of whether Mac users can transition to the iPad is totally irrelevant to iOS natives. That’s part of the reason why asking older tech journalists and nerds who grew up on and love the Mac to evaluate if they could do the same work on the iPad always seemed like asking the wrong people the wrong question. If what you love about the Mac is its customizability, complexity, larger screens, precision controls, and your familiarity with it that you’ve developed over decades, why would you love something as much or more that had none of these things, has only existed for a few years, and for many of those years could only have one app open at a time? If the Mac continues to exist and you love it, why would you ever switch to an iPad unless forced to?
A few weeks after the first iPad went on sale in 2010, a friend of mine bought one and brought it to my house. I asked him what he thought of it after using it for a few weeks, and he said, “It’s awesome. I’ve never owned a computer before.” I found this to be somewhat surprising since I grew up around computers and my friend is about the same age as I am, but he was clearly delighted with his iPad and didn’t think he was missing anything by not having a “real” computer.
Right now, there is an entire generation of kids who are growing up in a world where there have always been iPads. What does the Mac offer those kids that will entice them away from the only “computers” they’ve ever known?
It’s the Apps, Stupid
On a recent vacation to the Hawaiian islands, I had to make another travel tech decision. I knew that during the trip I’d want to do some writing, researching things to do during the trip, and with my team (Golden State Warriors!) still in the thick of the NBA playoffs, I wanted to make sure I had a way to stream the games on a TV in case any of the Airbnbs my wife and I were staying at didn’t have cable. So bringing my laptop was an easy decision, especially after the previous trip to my parents’ house.
But I also ended up bringing my iPad Air to Hawaii. Why both? I’ve recently really gotten into Garageband on iOS and was hoping to work on some songs and maybe record some ocean sounds in the sampler, and using Garageband on my old laptop isn’t nearly as nice of an experience. Since Netflix’s and Amazon Prime Video’s iOS apps let you download content for offline viewing, my wife and I would have movies and TV episodes to watch on a nice big screen during our flights. I’ve also been playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the iPad and figured I could get a few missions in during some down time. And since the iPad Air is so small, light, and charges with the same cord and charger my iPhone uses, it didn’t take up too much space or add much weight to my luggage. I did feel a bit silly (as well as worried) about traveling with over a thousand dollars of tech, but the iPad and its apps had enough unique capabilities that I figured it was worth it.
To me, my decision to bring my iPad on vacation along with my MacBook is a microcosm of why I think it will be so hard to get people who grew up on the iPad to switch to the Mac. The app ecosystem for iPad is so much more vibrant, diverse, capable, and fun to use than what is happening for macOS that it would be impossible for a MacBook to fully replace it, especially when it comes to apps that use the camera, accelerometer, augmented reality, Apple Pencil, or are better with a multi-touch interface. The portability and battery life of the iPad make it easy to take anywhere and use for the whole day (or two) without needing to charge. And with Apple’s A chips already outdoing most Intel-powered laptops, iPads will continue to have enough muscle to handle more processor-intensive tasks.
So what could get an iOS native to try a Mac? Probably the biggest reason would be to use professional-grade software that requires more CPU, GPU, and cooling than an iPad can handle, while also benefiting from having a large screen and pixel-precise controls. Essentially, it would be for the kinds of work Apple thinks is best-suited for the new Mac Pro, like editing and rendering 4K-8K video, making music with hundreds of tracks, or developing software. But even if an iPad user was convinced they needed a Mac, they almost certainly would keep using their iPad for all the things the iPad is better at, which are numerous. The Mac would handle a certain type of work and the iPad would handle everything else that the iPhone isn’t already doing. But if asked if a Mac could completely replace an iPad, the answer from an iOS native would almost certainly be no.
All this brings us back to Steve Jobs and his analogy comparing iPads and Macs to cars and trucks.
For a few worrying years for Mac enthusiasts, it seemed like Apple was focused on making the Mac more car-like. This arguably started with the “trash can” Mac Pro in 2013, with its eye-catching cylindrical design, small size, and ambitious gamble on what the future of pro computing might be, as opposed to giving professionals what they needed at that moment — a big modular box running macOS with lots of slots, ports, and swappable components. It continued with the radically thin 12” MacBook that was hobbled by an underpowered processor and just a single USB-C port, which was significantly less than the refresh of the MacBook Air with a Retina screen customers were asking for. Then there was the new MacBook Pro, which got significantly thinner but contained only one type of port (USB-C), an iOS-powered touchbar nobody seemed to want, and a newly-designed keyboard plagued with reliability issues. By attempting to make Macs smaller, sleeker, and more car-like, the fear was that Apple had given up on making the trucks that pros and Mac enthusiasts loved and depended on for heavy work.
In that same period, the iPad was in the process of changing from a car into something more like an SUV — a vehicle that most people are content to use as a car, but with the weight, power, and capacity to accomplish some light truck-like tasks, enough for many people to get “work” done on. But with the iPad still lacking many important PC features as Apple was simultaneously claiming that it was a PC replacement, Apple left itself vulnerable to criticism that they no longer understood what trucks were and what they were used for.
But with the WWDC 2019 keynote, it now appears that Apple has cleared up some internal philosophical confusion and now has a better understanding of what the iPad and Mac need to be going forward. With the number of iOS and iPad natives who have never touched a Mac growing every day, Apple needs to make the iPad more distinct and capable, which it will achieve by giving the iPad its own operating system that will have more features than the iPhone but will still be familiar and comfortable for iPhone users. The iPad may very well be the first and only type of “computer” millions of people will ever use, so Apple needs to make sure it can do more things better, including light-to-moderate work.
For the Mac to survive in an environment where more and more people are exclusively using iPads and iPhones and have no desire to move to the Mac, Macs need to become even more powerful and more truck-like because they will increasingly only be used by people who need that power and flexibility to do serious, CPU-, GPU-, and RAM-intensive professional work on them. The number of people without extensive computing needs who use Macs just because they like them and are familiar with macOS (like myself) will be replaced by a much larger number of people raised on iPads and iPhones who will have no affection, nostalgia, or even appreciation for a form factor, operating system, and interface from what will seem like a primitive and bygone era. This might mean that MacBooks will become more chunky and powerful, or might disappear altogether.
Where tech journalists still currently see the iPad as an accessory or lightweight version of the Mac, most people will eventually — or maybe today — see the Mac as a heavy-duty accessory to iPads, but only if you are one of the rare people who actually needs one. If you drive a garbage truck for work, you aren’t going to buy your own garbage truck so you can pick your kids up from school or make a CVS run. They’re simply too big, expensive, unwieldy, fuel-sucking, and ill-suited for the needs of everyday life. Macs will be trucks exclusively for work, and after leaving work, you will use your iPad/car for the rest of your life. But as long as there is still heavy-duty work to be done, the Mac will continue to have a place in the world.
But no one will be asking truck drivers if they can haul a bunch of freight around in a Nissan Altima. The only question will be whether a car can handle the vast majority of your transportation needs. And we already know the answer to that.
P.S. In this “cars vs. trucks” analogy, I’d say that the iPhone is most like a motorcycle. Lightweight, nimble, fuel-efficient, easy to park, surprisingly fast and capable, and the best thing to get you where you need to go in a hurry. But not the right vehicle if you want to tow or haul a bunch of garbage.