The iPad Pro is a pilot fish for Apple's ARM Laptop

The latest iPad is a distinctly different creature than its predecessors, and Apple openly compared it to a laptop in specs. But is it a sign of even greater convergence?

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When you come to a fork in the road, take it, Yogi Berra is alleged to have said. Microsoft chose this bon mot to guide its Windows 8 strategy, converging mobile and desktop in a way that pleased no one. And now the new iPad Pro sits beside the 12-inch MacBook to suggest Apple is approaching that very same fork.

I was confused during Apple’s introduction of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which has a display so large, it can nearly fit two iPad Air 2s side by side. The Pro’s focus on drawing seems highly specialized. And despite some other productivity features, the iPad Pro doesn’t seem to have a natural audience. Yes, it has amazing specs, but can a bigger, pencil- and keyboard-compatible iPad really be the answer to Apple’s stalled tablet sales?

The iPad Pro is a full-fledged product—more so than the original MacBook Air (which was underpowered, port-poor, and battery-weak); the original iPad (which lacked much app support); and the 12-inch MacBook (which has a poor keyboard and a dearth of ports). Compared to all these other first-gen efforts, the iPad Pro looks much more buttoned-up—if not also incredibly niche. 

But don’t get too caught up on what the iPad Pro is now, because it’s also a pilot fish: Apple is testing the waters for future tablet directions, all while paving the way for an ARM-based laptop running OS X.

ARMed and ready

Ever since Apple began designing its A-series chips, we’ve heard rumors that the company is working on a laptop powered by an ARM chip. Certainly, Apple tests all kinds of ideas in locked-down labs. The iPad was built years before it finally shipped, and the iPhone actually came out of its development, not the other way around. Similarly, Apple had a group building OS X on Intel chips long before the PowerPC processor line was dropped.

And thus we can be sure that OS X is running on prototype ARM-based hardware somewhere at One or Two Infinite Loop. While Intel ticks away at producing faster and more efficient processors, Apple focuses on controlling its own destiny. It’s been this way since the return of Steve Jobs, and slowly reducing the need for Intel processors would be a reasonable path.

ipad pro cpu chart

"Desktop-class," Phil Schiller said about the iPad Pro's performance.

Please note that in last week’s keynote, Phil Schiller discussed iPad performance in a way Apple has previously avoided. The new tablet has a 64-bit chip that offers “desktop-class performance.” The iPad Pro’s CPU is 22 times faster than the original iPad’s chip, and twice as fast as the iPad Air 2’s processor. The new tablet also has twice as much memory—we know it’s 4GB thanks to an accidental disclosure by Adobe. Graphics performance is also 360 times faster than the original iPad.

Apple even noted the Pro has better performance than 80 percent of the laptops on the market. That 20 percent is key, though. Apple’s laptop sales are just above 10 percent of unit shipments worldwide, and Apple’s lowest-performing model is faster than most other laptops. Thus Apple doesn’t sell any laptops slower than the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro hasn’t yet been benchmarked against notebook computers, but its performance is likely competitive with an entry-level MacBook Air.

Why praise the Pro in this context if it isn’t a test to see whether the market is waiting for something that combines attributes of a laptop and a tablet without the drawbacks of either? Even the best tablets suffer from system constraints, while laptops with capacitive touchscreens are highly awkward to use.

Microsoft went down this path, and tried to marry the two. The desktop OS would benefit from touch gesture support, making laptops more flexible, the case went. Meanwhile, phones and tablets could run the same software as on the desktop—except they couldn’t, really. The promise of a single OS powering all types of devices is only just beginning to emerge in the Windows universe.

ipadpro lifestyle splitscreen print Apple

An ARM-based laptop is more likely from Apple than one with a touchscreen.

Microsoft’s current mission is to make the best native apps for every OS iteration on which its software can run. Last week, Apple made a similar case, explaining how software optimized for the iPad Pro keyboard experience could be as good as, or better than, a comparable laptop version. That’s irony, but also good for Apple’s future.

A reasonable person could argue the iPad Pro is a niche product that will have a high margin at its price point, and will be embraced by illustrators, artists, architects, and others who already integrate an iPad Air 2 (or a Wacom Cintiq tablet) into their workflow. Indeed, a bigger iPad with a pressure- and direction-sensitive stylus and keyboard just makes everything that’s right about iPad even better for this highly specialized user base. 

But millions of people buying the iPad Pro? That’s hard to see, unless I’m misjudging the market.

The Macintosh Way—way, way into the future

In June, Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims suggested Apple drop the Mac. He argued that computers were distracting Apple from its core business, and noted that laptops and desktops account for only 10 percent of Apple’s revenue. I argued at the time that Apple would be abandoning a loyal audience, including video, design, animation, and illustration professionals—and amateurs, too. iOS devices don’t have the performance for high-end computing, and iOS developers can’t even build their apps on iPads.

The chips in Apple’s Mac lineup will outperform mobile-class processors for the foreseeable future, because mobile devices can’t tap into enough power—nor dissipate enough heat—to use the best-performing CPUs and GPUs. Some GPUs calculate specialized operations hundreds of times faster than desktop-class CPUs, which in turn can run dozens of times faster than equivalent mobile chips.

Rather than eschew the fork and take both roads at once, as Microsoft did, I see Apple’s convergence meeting at a paper-thin margin. On one side, trailing off on a curve from cheapest/smallest/slowest to richest/biggest, are iPhones and iPads. On the other side, you’ll see an array from Mac Pro down to MacBook Air.

new macbook primary Jason Snell

As the space between mobile and desktop performance shrinks, people might wind up choosing based on preferred form-factor and which software they need. 

From a use-case perspective, the interstice is very thin between an ARM-based OS X laptop with a MacBook-style keyboard and iPad Pro specs, and an ARM-based iOS tablet with MacBook capabilities but a touchscreen and only an option—not a requirement—for a keyboard. The two devices might even look quite similar, but a buyer will pick one over the other for distinct reasons: the way they input and interact with data, and the range of software they need to use on a daily basis.

We could speculate that Apple is aiming towards hybrid convergence: a single device with the next generation of A-series chip that either runs both iOS and OS X as a dual-boot, or is an OS X laptop with all the touch advantages of an iOS system. But Apple doesn’t make these sorts of compromises. It tries to avoid producing equipment that’s neither fish nor fowl—not fully in one world or another.

Rather, the iPad Pro lets Apple test the parameters of how far it can push its current technology toward providing laptop performance without making an underperforming OS X-based ARM system. It’s an experiment; the end goal isn’t to follow Microsoft down a path already shown to diverge in use cases and users’ needs.

Apple doesn’t have to converge entirely. It can have two distinct, parallel, and separately useful general computer operating systems with their own strengths, meeting just in the middle without ever touching. Apple could take the path less traveled by, and it would make all the difference.

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