Tuesday, January 28, 2020

iPad at 10

John Gruber (tweet, Hacker News):

Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential. By the time the Mac turned 10, it had redefined multiple industries. In 1984 almost no graphic designers or illustrators were using computers for work. By 1994 almost all graphic designers and illustrators were using computers for work. The Mac was a revolution. The iPhone was a revolution. The iPad has been a spectacular success, and to tens of millions it is a beloved part of their daily lives, but it has, to date, fallen short of revolutionary.


Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s “multitasking” model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.


The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined.

John Gruber:

This is so convoluted, so undiscoverable, so easy to make a mistake with, that it proves my point that the multitasking interaction model on iPadOS is a shambles far better than if it weren’t possible at all. Just try doing this while hold your iPad in your hand, not resting it on a table. It’s like playing Twister with your hands. This reads like a joke and in practice it’s worse than it sounds. It’s embarrassing.

Mike Rundle:

A snapshot of Techmeme on the day of the original iPad announcement, ten years ago. It’s so incredible that @gaberivera built a website with this capability.

Benjamin Mayo:

Cool interview with Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno on the iPad during their tenure. A noted ‘regret’ is letting the iPhone dominate resources and attention too much.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

Of all Apple’s products, I feel iPad was the one most damaged by the loss of Steve; it took years until Apple figured out a path forward (: copy what MS was doing in Windows 8 & Surface). I’ve always feared that Apple squandered an opportunity to build a true successor to macOS

Steven Sinofsky:

The announcement 10 years ago today of the “magical” iPad was clearly a milestone in computing. It was billed to be the “next” computer. For me, managing Windows, just weeks after the launch of Microsoft’s “latest creation” Windows 7, it was a as much a challenge as magical.

Federico Viticci:

Writing about the iPad over the last 10 years has fundamentally changed MacStories and my career.

Here’s a thread with some highlights on a decade of iPad stories.

Chris Espinosa:

And I will now admit I was wrong: ten years ago today I tweeted that the personal computer was dead.

It didn’t die. Maybe it won’t. But I’ve been tablet-primary for 8 years now and would never go back to carrying a non-touch device.

Matt Birchler:

10 years ago the iPad was “about to replace the personal computer.”

Today the iPad is “about to replace the personal computer.”

10 years from now I suspect the iPad will be “about to replace the personal computer.”

Meanwhile, people like me and millions of others will continue to work on an iPad, not really trying to prove a point, just trying to use the best tool for us.

Jeff Johnson:

iPad’s inherent limiting factor is its form factor. You canna change the laws of physics, or the laws of ergonomics. Replacing laptops makes about as much sense as replacing human laps.

Power and convenience comes at a price, both in money and in physical space.

Dominik Wagner:

Sadly the Apple platform departed from being an easy thing to recommend and give to anyone disregarding of computer experience. Instead it morphed into something that has many quirks that are hard to explain and discover, and sometimes even hard to be the helpline for. Essentially this trend started since iOS 7 and never reversed.

One of the other symptoms of this is that you no longer can hand your iPad to a toddler without putting it into guided access. Otherwise they just trigger a lot of weird app switching based behavior.

Kirk McElhearn:

I don’t use my iPad a lot, but I know there are people who use it as their main computing device. While some of them leverage every possible feature of multitasking, shortcuts, etc., most probably just use a one-app-at-a-time approach. Why? Because it’s not confusing. When I have used multitasking, I’ve never felt that I accomplished any app-arranging actions by anything other than luck.

It’s not Apple’s fault that they couldn’t come up with a better system, it’s just the limitations of the device and its interface. If they want people to use these features, they need to figure out a way to make them easy to use, and, above all, easy to discover.

Rui Carmo:

And yet, after a full decade, it is still nigh on impossible to use an iPad for self-hosted development of anything but JavaScript. Pythonista, Codea and the like are amazing, but for me the lack of a shell (and a UNIX userland, even if sandboxed) is something I just can’t quite get over.

Nick Heer:

I find myself increasingly frustrated by the myriad ways using an iPad makes simple tasks needlessly difficult — difficulties that should not remain ten years on.

There are small elements of friction, like how the iPad does not have paged memory, so the system tends to boot applications from memory when it runs out. There are developer limitations that make it difficult for apps to interact with each other. There are still system features that occupy the entire display. Put all of these issues together and it makes a chore of something as ostensibly simple as writing.


No device or product I own has inspired such a maddening blend of adoration and frustration for me as the iPad, and certainly not for as long in so many of the same ways.


My single biggest problem on the iPad is the way Safari just randomly kills your background tabs. Filling out a web form? You’d better hope that their half-baked tab state saving worked! (Spoiler alert: it probably didn’t)

If iOS isn’t going to have virtual memory, why can’t Safari at least save the page contents itself? I have to screenshot a page that’s open just be sure I’ll be able to view it later.

Craig Hockenberry:

Universal apps are the worst thing that ever happened to the iPad.

The economics for developers are to make a big iPhone app or ignore the device altogether. No business model = no innovation.


After years of Apple insisting it won’t add touch inputs to macOS because it’s not ergonomic to reach up to your screen, that’s exactly how you have to control an iPad when you have it in ‘laptop mode’ (ie. w/ the keyboard case).

See also: Rene Ritchie, Joe Rossignol, Jason Snell, John Voorhees.


Update (2020-01-30): John Gruber:

I’m aware of no other graphical user interface that offers a setting like this. The existence of this setting — and that it is not tucked away under Accessibility — feels like proof that Apple knows iPad multitasking is often invoked by accident and can be confusing.

Fraser Speirs:

Brilliantly expressed article by @gruber - captures my feelings exactly. iOS multitasking took a serious wrong turn with iOS 11 and more and more has been heaped upon its creaking foundations ever since.

Ben Thompson:

In my opinion, multi-tasking on the iPad is an absolute mess, and it has ruined the entire interface; I actively dislike using the iPad now, and use it exclusively to watch video and make the drawings for Stratechery. Its saving grace is that it is hard to discover.


It’s tempting to dwell on the Jobs point — I really do think the iPad is the product that misses him the most — but the truth is that the long-term sustainable source of innovation on the iPad should have come from 3rd-party developers. Look at Gruber’s example for the Mac of graphic designers and illustrators: while MacPaint showed what was possible, the revolution was led by software from Aldus (PageMaker), Quark (QuarkXPress), and Adobe (Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat). By the time the Mac turned 10, Apple was a $2 billion company, while Adobe was worth $1 billion.

There are, needless to say, no companies built on the iPad that are worth anything approaching $1 billion in 2020 dollars, much less in 1994 dollars, even as the total addressable market has exploded, and one big reason is that $4.99 price point. Apple set the standard that highly complex, innovative software that was only possible on the iPad could only ever earn 5 bucks from a customer forever (updates, of course, were free).

Ben Bajarin:

I remember when we talked about this early on and debated it’s upside. I think you succinctly made the ultimate point which was iPad was a luxury not necessity.

iPhone is the indispensable platform which is why it has always had the most momentum.

Francisco Tolmasky:

I don’t think if I went back in time 10 years & gave myself an iPad Pro that I’d be blown away by the progress. I think I’d say the hardware is nice but be shocked that that’s all the progress the software had made.

Compare that to showing devices from 2010 to people in 2000.

The thing is, I don’t think it’s because we reached a “natural” plateau in these areas. Sometimes you really fully exercise the capabilities of a technology or fully saturate the market. Not the case here in my opinion. I think a bunch of (bad?) business decisions led to this.


As someone who worked on the iPad v1, I can tell you, it was a product built in search of a problem.

Alexander Griekspoor:

I still feel a lot of the failure is due to restricting developers so much when it comes to sandboxing, private APIs, etc, it’s those gray areas where the innovation is, or better used to be (on the mac)

Daniel Cook:

Ten years ago I thought the iPad was going to change the world, now in my family we have Chromebooks to solve the same use-cases. I’m not sure if it is the multi-user or the keyboard but they fit the need for a simple, small computer in ways the iPad never did.

Lukas Mathis:

The fact that [iPadOS] is based on Apps as first-level objects, instead of files, is what hurts it most as a productivity device. An App-oriented user interface works well for playing games, browsing the web, and answering an email once in a while, but real work is typically file-centric.


Who is going to write something like Switcher for the iPad? Nobody, because it can’t get on the App Store, so it can’t be sold.

Who is going to write a real, truly integrated file manager for the iPad? Nobody.

Who is going to invest a year - or more - into creating an incredible, groundbreaking new app, the killer app, the desktop publishing equivalent for the iPad? Knowing that Apple could (and probably will) just decide to not put in the App Store, destroying all of that work?

Nick Heer:

The other thing that stood out to me was a year-over-year decline in iPad sales. It may have been the tenth anniversary of the iPad yesterday, but this was its fourth-lowest holiday quarter. I imagine that many users are hanging onto their older iPads, as iPadOS 13 supports models all the way back to the five-year-old iPad Air 2. But I imagine that not updating the iPad Pro at all in 2019 muted sales somewhat.

Riccardo Mori:

What I believe is that the iPad and its OS could have been so much more than a reinvention of the computing wheel adapted for a touch interface. What I believe is that Mac OS could be so much better if it kept evolving on an ‘open’ path, not a progressively locked-down one.

Update (2020-01-31): Matt Birchler:

Most people get maybe 2% of the potential of their Macs and Windows PCs today. Have you watched most people use a computer laterly? Most people I see have all apps in full screen all the time, no matter how big their screen is. Most people I see use keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste, opening new tabs, but basically nothing else.


I could go on, but my point is that most people don’t use computers like we do, and for us, I think we have the tendency to look at a platform and UI paradigm that we’ve been ising for 30 years and say "look how natural this is!" when of course it’s natural in large part because we’ve gotten used to it over 3 decades. I don’t mean to throw shade at the Mac and say it’s trash, but there is a ton there that is far from intuitive.

John Gruber (tweet):

But how many people think iPadOS has a good interface for managing files? Crickets. The Mac interface for managing files is too overwhelming for typical users to understand, but somehow iPadOS offers something worse.


The problems with the iPad are about consistency, coherence, and discoverability.


Affordances are not clutter.

Matt Birchler:

The points John and Dieter Bohn brought up are valid, too.

  1. The iPad’s multitasking interface requires too much fine grain motor movements, and it’s too likely you’ll make a mistake.
  2. The iPad’s multitasking is hard to learn inside iPadOS, you really need to watch/read a tutorial to see how it works.

My feelings are this is an opportunity for refinement, not a “throw it in a fire and start over” situation.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

There’s plenty of iPad’s multitasking UI that I think is great at a conceptual level, but affordances (like a tab bar, or window controls) just aren’t there for users who don’t want to have to learn arcane gestures. Even I lose track of what windows are open in iPad’s junk-drawer

Loren Brichter:

Also, the App Store is what killed the iPad.

Update (2020-02-04): Dave Nanian:

My only real comment on the iPad anniversary/success:

If I had to give up one Apple “computer”—iMac, Laptop, iPhone, iPad—it wouldn’t even be a difficult choice. Three out of four are essential.

Dave Nanian:

Most of my other writing is support email, and that’s what I tried to do on vacation. It was damn near impossible. Wasted so much time.

The next year I was able to do it no problem, though, on a Surface Go. (“Go” figure.)


So want to use the iPad for this…

Jean-Louis Gassée:

The trap Apple seems to have fallen into is in trying to ape some of the features of the old UI model without quite duplicating them entirely. Not as powerful as a classic PC UI, but without the simplicity of the original iPad.


The iPad situation is serious. As an old warrior of the early Mac years recently said, one worries that Apple’s current leadership is unable to say No to bad ideas. Do Apple senior execs actually use the iPad’s undiscoverable and, once discovered, confusing multitasking features? Did they sincerely like them? Perhaps they suffer a lack of empathy for the common user: They’ve learned how to use their favorite multitasking gestures, but never built an internal representation of what we peons would feel when facing the iPad’s “improvements”.

Marc Verstaen:

Excellent opinion on the iPad by @gassee. Ten years ago, I was part of the team working on the iPad (delivering the tools to build third party apps). Today, I don’t use an iPad anymore. There is something not right here.

Craig Mod (via John Gruber):

Having used the heck out of iPads these past few years, I believe there are two big software flaws that both make iOS great, and keep it from succeeding as a “pro” device:

  1. iOS is primarily designed for — and overly dependent on — single-context computing
  2. Access to lower level (i.e., a file-like system) components is necessary for professional edge-tasks

And one big general flaw that keeps it from being superb:

  1. Many software companies still don’t treat the iPad as a first class computing platform

Update (2020-02-17): See also: The Talk Show.

Update (2020-02-22): Mike Rockwell:

I have a more optimistic outlook on the iPad than many of the bigger influencers within the community. It’s far from perfect, but I think the state of iPad is overall positive. There are issues with the multitasking interface, text selection, mediocre mouse support, and more — I trust that these annoyances will be smoothed out over time, though.

And even with these issues, my iPad is still my primary personal computing device.


There are still plenty of limitations on the iPad, but the ceiling feels higher for me than it does on macOS. The key is access to automation through Shortcuts. On macOS, I’ve used Alfred, Quicksilver, Automator, and countless other apps within the category, but I’ve never been able to build anything quite as advanced as I have with Shortcuts.

Jason Snell:

Yes, iPad file management finally exists. But it needs to be a lot better.

Update (2020-03-12): The Talk Show:

First-time guest Federico Viticci joins the show. Topics include how the coronavirus outbreak might affect WWDC, speculation on a possible March Apple event, the state of iPad keyboard (and trackpad) support, and iPadOS multitasking.

Above Avalon Podcast:

A discussion of the iPad’s first decade and why we shouldn’t feel bad for the iPad. Additional topics include a diff. way of looking at the iPad unveiling in 2010, how the iPad foreshadowed iPhone success, and the iPad pivot.


It was an interesting point I hadn’t really thought of.

Essentially, the iPad revolution did happen; it just happened on 4.7-6.5” screens rather than 9.7”.

Kind of interesting how that played out. Instead of 3.5” phones & 9.7” computers, we have 4.7 to 6.5” phone-computers.


Update (2021-03-22): Greg Morris:

This is all after spending weeks getting my head around the new multitasking and app pairing because they changed the way the iPad worked AGAIN. I feel like I’m splitting up with my long term partner now they have their stuff sorted and I’ve realised it wasn’t worth the pain after all.

Jack Wellborn:

The problem is the iOS paradigm completely breaks down as soon as the one-to-one relationship between screens and apps is lost.


I first assumed that iPadOS’s command-tab was just poorly thought out because app switching should be conceptually simple. The reality is app switching isn’t conceptually simple on iPadOS. This becomes obvious when comparing app switching on iPadOS to other platforms.

Update (2021-04-16): Jack Wellborn:

This screenshot perfectly illustrates just how incompatible a macOS-style app switcher is on iPadOS, where the primary user interface element is screens.

9 Comments RSS · Twitter

Although iOS 13 has improved things a lot on the iPad, it's still a mess. Other than graphic illustrators who use the pencil for direct drawing, I fail to see the advantage of an iPad over a Macbook Air for most people's needs (to go for the similar form factor, though I always prefer MBP). To get an iPad to even begin to come close, you need to use a keyboard with it. At that point, why not just use a Mac? I have 2 iPads and I like what they do, for me it's a special use case for software synthesizers which are much more fun to tweak the knobs and sliders on a screen with my fingers instead of using a mouse (mostly this is because the software synths are trying to emulate a real hardware device). Plus it's better when I'm doing some types of media consumption.

For the type of work which (imho) is much more easily done on a Mac -- email, web browsing, word processing, spreadsheets, photoshop... I still don't understand why anyone would use an iPad. To me it seems like needless torture, because the iPad is so limited and cumbersome to use. Simple stuff like multitasking doesn't work right (e.g. Safari dumping tabs out of memory -- really, this is where we are in 2020?!?), dragging and dropping files is complicated, adding attachments to emails is complicated, viewing multiple things on screen at the same time is nearly impossible, the list goes on...

Even now, 10 years later, there are still so many things I can do on my Mac that are impossible or extremely time consuming and cumbersome to do on the iPad. Sometimes, I'll be on my iPad and I'll want to attach 3 different types of files to an email -- I still don't know the best or quickest way to do this on the iPad, though Files app has made it easier than it used to be... on my Mac, this is something that I can accomplish in 5 seconds no matter where the files are located on my multiple disks. On iPad, it'd take me at least a minute of tapping and navigating to put 3 files from different locations (local, iCloud, another previously received email, etc) into a single email.

Like many of the people that Michael quoted in this post, I really thought that 10 years later the iPad would be something we couldn't even dream of back then. Sadly, it's not very different from the original one. All of the enhancements have mostly been to fix things that were obviously lacking on the first generation (better screen, faster cpu, better speakers, pencil support, etc). Where's the real innovation? Where's the boldness to break things for the better? It's amazing how much cruft the iPad has accumulated over the years, despite Apple's willingness to break each iOS release for the wrong reasons -- if they're going to make each iOS release basically incompatible with the last, why not use it as an opportunity to clean house, since developers basically have to keep rewriting their apps anyway?

As much as Apple likes to say "Adding a touch interface to the Mac would be a disaster" I think there are definitely more opportunities to bring Mac stuff to the iPad instead of vice versa. The Mac has got it right for so many years, why are they so unwilling to learn from it? Maybe at this point they really need 2 forks of iPad OS -- a dumb one that's basically "a big iPhone" for people who just want to browse the web and watch Netflix, and a pro version that really breaks off from all of the old iOS / iPhone conventions that the iPad has inherited to its detriment, and create something totally new.

I still can't believe we don't have multi user support on the iPad, either. Although I don't share my iPad with anyone, it might be nice to create different accounts for when I'm using the iPad for vastly different tasks (different home screen layout, different system prefs, different app sessions) such as music production, where I don't want to be disturbed and need a certain workflow, versus when I'm just using it to watch Netflix and browse the web. Again, how is it 2020 and iPad doesn't have this?

@Ben Or just the basics—I can’t believe there’s no way to select text in Messages.

I seriously wonder what Apple is thinking sometimes. It's easy to be an armchair expert, but so much of what is wrong with the Mac and iPad these days is completely obvious. Who is in their focus groups that is telling them that this stuff is okay? Isn't there supposed to be some new "Pro" group of advisors at Apple? If so, what are they doing? How are they not catching these huge bugs that the rest of us (doing much less demanding, non-pro work) see every single day in plain sight? Or if they are reporting this stuff to Apple, why is Apple not fixing it? It's beyond belief how buggy Apple products are these days and/or how many unnecessary limitations are imposed for no good reason other than lazy coding (like your example of not being able to select text in Messages).

I don't think the problem with the iPad is its form factor. I do think that the OS is a major issue - file management and multitasking are obvious examples of where the iPad just isn't suitable for real work. But the main problem is clearly the App Store. For the iPad to truly become a disruptive device, developers need to have the confidence that they can invest into a weird new idea, and at least know that it can be sold to customers, that it will at least get the chance to succeed. With the way the App Store works now, chances are that Apple will kill any innovative, new thing before it even has a chance to succeed.

Therefore, the only safe option you have is to make something that already exists, and was already approved, because then you know that your version of that will also be approved. Nobody is going to make a truly great file manager, or a better multitasking UI, for the iPad, because Apple won't approve it. There will never be a Switcher/MultiFinder equivalent on the iPad, because Apple won't allow it.

You don't disrupt industries by making the same thing somebody else has already made. With the way the App Store is set up now, the iPad will never be able to live up to its potential.

Congrats, Apple, you snatched a glorified graphics tablet from the jaws of the next era of personal computing.

For me, the primary constraint for the iPad is the touch interface. Finger touches are imprecise, and often slow because the touch inputs and gestures require interpretation. Often those interpretations are incorrect, which interrupts the flow of using the device.

With something like a mouse, trackball, or game controller, the action is immediate. Small physical movements become amplified into larger virtual movements. This approach is analogous to a bicycle: We use the leverage of a bicycle's gears to move more efficiently.

With the iPad, there is no such leverage; if I want to tap a part of the screen, I have to physically move my hand there. If I want to type text, I have to divert my gaze and look at the keyboard, which is now obscuring a large part of the screen. Over time this can present an ergonomic challenge. If a mouse is a bicycle, then the iPad is a pair of running shoes: Comfy for some purposes, but not the herald of a 'post-bicycle era'.

Apple keep touting 'direct manipulation' as the future, but ten years on, the physical limitations of direct manipulation feel like a step back from indirect manipulation via mouse/trackball/keyboard, etc. It's telling that one of the successful iPad use cases — art and graphics — is one that foregoes direct manipulation in favor of using a tool for leverage (a stylus).

@remmah I could’t agree more. With a larger (iPad rather than iPhone) screen, I find multitouch to be a negative compared with traditional input devices: slower, less precise, less ergonomic.

The discourse around multitasking (which I know is only one aspect holding the iPad back from its full potential) is making me think there ought to be some form of hardware control for it. I suppose the odds are low that Apple would ever put a second button onto the iPad, but it seems like the alternative of packing more and more "gestures" into the UI is causing problems for a lot of people. I'm not an expert here, but the extra buttons could be kind of like the red/yellow/green buttons in the upper left of Mac windows. The home button already functions a little bit like "close." Maybe there could be a second button that shrinks the current app to half-screen mode and shows your home screen in the other half, and any app you launch from there becomes half-screen as well.

Just a fully non-fleshed-out idea. I'm sure actual designers could do better. To me, though, it's starting to feel more and more like we're reaching the limit of the single-button paradigm.

"I suppose the odds are low that Apple would ever put a second button onto the iPad, but it seems like the alternative of packing more and more "gestures" into the UI is causing problems for a lot of people."

I don't think it's any coincidence that to get any serious work done on an iPad (other than graphic illustration with the pencil) it's a requirement to use a hardware keyboard... which is, just a big collection of buttons. But like I said before, at that point you might as well get a Macbook Air.

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