Recently, I traveled to Europe for about a week, and though I packed plenty of technology, I decided to forego my 11-inch MacBook Air in favor of an iPad mini. Not that the MacBook Air is an especially bulky or heavy computer, but as a machine on which I primarily do work, I simply didn’t see myself needing it while I was on vacation.
The day I arrived, an editor contacted me and asked me to do a quick story—so much for not working on my vacation. (The life of a freelancer means generally not turning down assignments when they come your way.) I ran through the project in my head and decided that, fortunately, it didn’t require anything that I couldn’t do on my iPad: namely, writing—made infinitely easier by the fact I’d packed my Bluetooth keyboard—taking screenshots from my Apple Watch, and bundling those screenshots and text into an archive to send to my editor.
But while my iPad could do all of these things, I was quickly reminded that my Mac can do them much more efficiently.
Working on the iPad
Back in 2012, I decided to experiment with working from the iPad. For three days, I used my iPad for all the tasks for which I’d normally turn to a Mac. And while I found I could do nearly everything, my conclusion was that the iPad wasn’t quite ready to replace my Mac:
Is the iPad ready to be your only computer? It’s not quite ready to be mine, but I doubt that’ll be the case forever. I saw enough in these few days to realize that the iPad will soon be ready for whatever I throw its way. That will happen in part because the iPad will adapt and change. But so will we.
Here’s the thing, though: While the iPad hardware has gotten more powerful, and we’ve seen better apps appear, my experience working with the iPad today didn’t feel appreciably different from that experiment three years ago.
When the iPad was first announced, I wasn’t shy about its prospects—I dubbed it a third revolution in computing. But in the years since, I can’t help but feel that the tablet has languished. While iOS 7 and 8 brought the same interface refinements that came to the iPhone, in many cases the iPad felt like an afterthought. (Look at the Timer feature in the Clock app on the iPad and tell me it doesn’t feel kind of unfinished.) The iPhone has clearly remained Apple’s flagship device, not least of all because that’s where it makes the bulk of its money.
Though Apple and the iPad’s defenders—and I count myself among them—have always argued that the tablet is more than just “a big iPhone,” as Apple’s smartphones have gotten larger and more capable, that’s exactly what the iPad has started to feel like. Things that I used to turn to the iPad for now happen on the phone (because I have it with me), or the Mac (my primary work device).
So, has the iPad become just a third device, unsure of its place in the world? It’s become harder and harder to ignore that the its sales figures are slumping, and while some of that may be attributable to the long lifecycle of those devices, part of it may also be the lack of a raison d’être for Apple’s tablet.
There are plenty of suggestions about what could light a fire under the iPad. There’s talk of a larger “iPad Pro,” but I’d like a better idea of what exactly we’re supposed to do with all that extra space. Rumors suggest some sort of split-screen multitasking mode might appear in iOS 9, specifically for the iPad, which I think would be a great move that would really set the iPad apart from other iOS devices.
It’d also present a new challenge for third-party app makers; despite the emphasis Apple makes on designing apps for the iPad, a lot of apps for the tablet still feel like blown-up iPhone apps, even five years in.
The iPad remains a fantastic device, and I know plenty of people who are still using iPad 2s and some that are using iPads as their only computing device, both of which are a testament to its success. But hard as it is to believe, we’ve had half a decade of the iPad and the initial excitement behind the device has waned somewhat. Now that we’re all used to the idea of a tablet computer, it’s time for Apple to show us what makes the iPad insanely great.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.