Way back in 2010, when the iPad first debuted, I called it the third revolution of computing. It was an opportunity to start fresh, without the 30 years of baggage of the personal computer—to build a new device that was simple and easy to use, the same thing the Mac tried to do back to the PC back in the ’80s.
So it’s more than a little amusing to me that, of the many features announced for the iPad in iOS 11 this week, the most welcome have ended up being the ones seemingly pulled from the very devices the iPad was trying to leave behind.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an iPad spin on these features—it’s not as though they’ve been lifted whole cloth from the Mac and dragged and dropped onto the iPad. But it turns out that maybe, just maybe, Apple got some of these things right the first time around, and that the company didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it came to the future of computing.
File it away
Apple tried hard—and I do mean hard—to get rid of the file system on iOS. The original model, of associating documents with the apps that created them, certainly made a lot of sense at first blush. But as people started using the iPad for more complex tasks, that document model was quickly outgrown. Now, with iOS 11, the Files app finally brings the hierarchical file system of documents and folders to iOS.
Files and folders have been knocked in the past for being clumsy, outdated, and—most significantly—complicated for users to understand. But it turns out that over the last few decades, most people have gotten pretty comfortable using files and folders. No, not everybody develops complex hierarchies to logically store all their files, but the basics are widely understood, and since files and folders haven’t been done away with, more and more people are growing up with the concepts and internalizing them.
The Files app does put an iOS spin on the idea, not only integrating your files from the iPad, but from other cloud sources as well. And it does so while still tucking away some of the most complicated and anxiety-inducing parts of the Mac’s file system. For example, you’re not going to be poking around in system files or folders, deleting preference files, or worrying about kernel extensions. Instead, all you have to concern yourself with are your own files—the ones you created, downloaded, and so on. But you can still rearrange, organize, and open them in compatible apps ’til your heart’s content.
A tisket, a (multitask)et
The ability to run more than one app at a time in the foreground was a late addition to iOS—hard as it is to believe, it only appeared in 2015’s iOS 9. But not long after that feature was welcomed with a sigh of relief, the dissatisfaction began to set in. Why was that scrolling list of apps so clumsy? Why can’t you search for apps? How come you couldn’t drag and drop between two apps?
iOS 11 proposes to answer those questions, in many cases by tapping back into the Mac. You can now quickly select apps to add to multitasking by bringing up the Dock—and while the Dock is hardly new to iOS, it’s certainly never looked more Mac-like than it does in iOS 11. Apps can appear as panes that sit on top of another app, overlapping in much the same way as a window on the Mac, you might think—and you would think totally correctly. And the new multitasking interface borrows heavily from Mission Control and Spaces.
The new drag and drop feature is a Mac stalwart too. We’ve been dragging and dropping files since 1984, and it’s a little ridiculous that it’s taken this long for it to come to iOS. The iPad seems like a far more natural place for that mechanic, too, thanks to its model of direct manipulation. We’ve already been dragging and dropping elements inside iPad apps—it’s about time we be able to do so between them as well.
What goes around comes around
People have worried over the years that the Mac might become increasingly iOS-ified as Apple focused its attentions on the success of the iPhone, but iOS 11 makes it pretty clear that, if anything, the company is headed in the other direction.
In that years-ago piece, I wrote:
But something strange happened last week when I sat down at my MacBook after watching Steve Jobs unveil the iPad. I looked at all those little inscrutable icons in my menubar and saw them for what they were: hacks and shortcuts to “fix” the way the computer worked. Surely there must be a better way.
For me, the iPad’s always fallen slightly short of finding that better way, and I’ve ended up turning back to my reliable old Mac. I don’t think I’m alone, either: iPad sales have tapered noticeably over the past few years. While iOS 11 may not single-handedly course correct that dip, borrowing features from the Mac is a smart move—after all, with more than three decades under its belt, it’s clear that Mac has staying power.
But the most important thing, which I believe Apple has demonstrated here, is that it’s still trying to find that better way of computing. It’s not pulling features in willy-nilly; it’s being judicious about its application of these old computing paradigms. That makes this a revolution that’s not merely about upheaval but about taking some of those old, tried and true methods and making them new again—instead of reinventing the wheel, you just give it a spin.
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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.