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On the Future of the iPad

After several years of falling sales, it’s hard to believe that the iPad was once thought of as the future of personal computing. Sales continued to soar for the first few years until it stopped. The prevailing theory is that existing iPads are good enough, and that even satisfied customers aren’t being persuaded to upgrade, and Apple has provided few compelling reasons to do so.

Consider the changes Apple has made to the lineup in recent years. Product development of the iPad mini and the regular 9.7-inch iPad have stalled. The “Pro” models, available in 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch versions, are mostly about improved performance and a custom Smart Connector for an attachable Smart Keyboard. When connected, it turns the iPad Pro into a clumsy notebook that is not altogether different from the Microsoft Surface concept.

It’s hard to tell whether the Pro line has impacted sales all that much, except to give customers another model to select, and, of course, increase the average sales price across the lineup.

Despite questions about the future of the iPad, Apple expresses confidence. Customers like them, people are switching to them, and they are still selling more than twice as many iPads as Macs.

According to published reports, there may be yet another screen size, between 10 and 11 inches, with the next product refresh. But whether that makes a difference is anyone’s guess. Were people holding back buying iPads because Apple needed to deliver a model in a different size? What about an iPad larger than 12.9 inches?

In a column for Macworld, blogger Jason Snell, a former editor for the publication in the days when it had a print version, suggests that the computer for 2025 will be closer to an iPad than a Mac. But he isn’t saying Macs are going away, only that the iPad will become the mainstream PC.

I wouldn’t dispute the suggestion. Even now, many people are perfectly happy doing all or most computing chores on an iPad, supplemented with an iPhone on the road. To some, the “Plus” phablet may be preferred to an iPad, since the display may be large enough. In some parts of the world, a phablet is the only computer for many people. That may also account for the loss of some sales for Apple’s tablet. It’s about product cannibalization.

Unfortunately, Jason’s vision of our computing future is too general to consider why the iPad is losing sales, and what Apple needs to do to better embrace its potential. There’s talk of better file system access and improved multitasking. As it stands, the best you get is a Split View, allowing you to work with two apps at once, but that’s hardly sufficient for many of the tasks that you can do far more flexibly on a Mac.

This is where the article is deficient, because Jason doesn’t make an effort to provide case histories of how an iPad can perform key productivity tasks, areas where it does it poorly or not at all. If you can’t use the iPad to do what you want to do, why buy one? That is one of its key shortcomings.

Take my two radio shows. Editing audio waveforms and coordinating the recording process ought to be tailor made for an iPad. A 12.9-inch iPad Pro might be a suitable substitute for my iMac, particularly because it would allow me to hang out in the bedroom with a set of headphones and manage most of the post-production process. There are several audio apps available from the App Store that might just do the job, assuming there would be an easy way to handle a large number of assets with flexible file management. That’s where things get dicey.

Recording the show would be another matter entirely, and it’s just not possible right now. I record episodes in Rogue Amoeba’s Audio Hijack, which can capture audio from multiple sources and combine them in a single file. I use it to manage audio from Skype and an outboard mic mixer. But iOS doesn’t let you do that sort of thing, due to Apple’s sandboxing limits. So app developers are unable to devise solutions.

Of course, the Mac App Store won’t allow Audio Hijack either, but you can download a copy from the developer’s site. You cannot get apps from anywhere but the App Store for an iPhone or iPad unless you jailbreak the device and make it susceptible to security threats.

Even if Apple would allow for an iOS version of Audio Hijack, or a similar app, being limited to two app windows is a non-starter. At the very least, I need to access Audio Hijack and Skype and also jump to Safari, Mail and sometimes a word processing app (either Word or Pages) for research. That level of multitasking is simple for the macOS, and impossible on an iPad.

At the very least, iOS needs to be changed to allow for more classes of productivity apps and wider and more flexible multitasking. File system access also needs to be handled more flexibly. In other words, it has to become more Mac-like to perform a whole range of productivity tasks that it cannot handle now.

This is something that Jason hasn’t considered in his Macworld piece. Perhaps he’s right about the future potential of the iPad, but Apple will need to make a number of important changes for it to get there. Would that make the iPad take a midway path between the present models and the Mac? Is that the future of personal computing? For some, perhaps. But I agree with Jason that the Mac will still be here for quite a while yet.