The case against building an iOS laptop—and why it might happen anyway

iPad with keyboard in kitchen
Jason Snell

Last week I wrote about how Apple should make an iOS laptop, and unsurprisingly, a lot of people reacted strongly to that suggestion! The conversation made me consider where iOS needs to be improved, especially in the context of laptops, but also more broadly, whenever external input devices are connected. So let’s take another dip into the pool of speculation about where Apple is headed with iOS and the Mac and whether they’re on a collision course.

There are a lot of interesting arguments against Apple making an iOS laptop. (I’m going to call it “the iBook” as a placeholder, since I’ve been a fan of Apple re-using that name since the iPad was just a rumor.)

What about Zombie Arms?

Touchscreens have been prominent on non-Apple laptops for years now. Yet every time Apple has been asked why macOS has steadfastly resisted support for touchscreens, company executives has explained that they don’t believe that lifting your hands up from a keyboard and pointing device and interacting with an entirely vertical touchscreen is a good experience for users.

The term that gets brought out in these discussions is “Zombie Arms.” Picture yourself reaching out with both hands to manipulate a touchscreen that’s perpendicular to your keyboard and you can probably figure out the choice of imagery.

So, wouldn’t an iOS laptop have a Zombie Arms problem? Wouldn’t the release of an iOS laptop directly refute what Apple’s been telling us all these years?

It’s complicated. Let’s not forget that Apple has sold a keyboard for the iPad Pro for a couple of years, meaning that it’s already endorsed the idea of using a touchscreen in a vertical orientation while attached to a keyboard. In some ways, Apple has already admitted that in some contexts, using a keyboard with a perpendicular touchscreen is just fine.

I use my iPad with external keyboards all the time. Sometimes it’s clipped into a keyboard case, so it’s shaped exactly like a laptop. Sometimes it’s on a table with a Smart Keyboard attached. Other times, it’s in a stand on a table with a USB keyboard attached via Apple’s USB 3-Lightning adapter. And I can tell you, the Zombie Arms issue is real—but only in some circumstances.

I primarily use my iPad with a keyboard when I’m writing, a task that generally requires very little use of the touchscreen. Yes, I occasionally need to reach up and tap something—and it’s not great. I prefer to use keyboard shortcuts whenever possible. But I can manage.

If I were doing something that didn’t require typing, something that involved intense tapping and swiping on my iPad, the Zombie Arms experience would start to come to the fore. On the iPad, that’s when I would disconnect the keyboard and hold the tablet more naturally. (That’s why I think an iOS laptop would ideally be a convertible laptop, so you could fold back the keyboard entirely when it isn’t needed.)

For all the talk of Zombie Arms, though, I think the main reason Apple hasn’t embraced the touchscreen on macOS is that it would require a pretty dramatic redesign of the Mac interface. The Mac simply wasn’t designed for touch, and I think Apple believes using a touchscreen Mac would be frustrating and unpleasant. This could be addressed by a major overhaul of macOS to support touch—but I believe Apple has made a decision to keep the Mac the way it is, and focus its energies on iOS instead.

Better pointing through devices

The better the keyboard support in iOS gets, the less a problem Zombie Arms are. Apple has made great strides here, and some of the apps I use have a remarkable selection of shortcuts. (Hold down the Command key the next time you’ve got a keyboard attached to an iPad and you’ll see all the shortcuts available in the app you’re using.) To get better, Apple needs to provide more powerful tools to attach keyboard shortcuts to actions across the entire OS, or give app developers the ability to register for systemwide shortcuts themselves.

On my Mac, I can rely on tools like Keyboard Maestro to automate behavior and tie it to keyboard shortcuts, but iOS just can’t do it, not even with the excellent Apple-owned app Workflow.

Beyond that, there need to be systemwide shortcuts for controlling multitasking with more granularity. I should be able to select an app and pop it into Split View on my iPad without moving my hands off the keyboard. Right now, that’s just not possible.

And let’s not leave out mice and trackpads here. Conventional wisdom is that iOS will never, ever support old-style computer cursors. That hasn’t actually been true for the past two years, though—iOS 9 introduced a cursor to select text and move the text insertion point, which you can move with a 3D Touch on an iPhone or two fingers on an iPad. In other words, iOS already has a cursor. So why not support trackpads?

Trackpads could have other uses on iOS, too. No, I’m not recommending that a little floating black arrow be introduced to iOS. Instead, why not look at something like how the trackpad is used on the fourth-generation Apple TV? It hops through selectable items, scrolls lists, and the like, but at no point do you actually see a selection cursor. Something like that could be an interesting option on iOS, once external pointing devices were allowed.

But what about the Mac?

One surprising reaction I heard to my story was the idea that if Apple made an iOS laptop, it was the official end of the Mac as an ongoing platform. If Apple has decided to put the Mac out to pasture, the release of an iOS laptop could certainly be taken as proof of that fact... but it wouldn’t be the cause. And I believe the Mac can go on leading a long and healthy life no matter what Apple does on the iOS side.

People are going to want to use the Mac for a very long time, because the Mac has been honed over decades to be a tool for certain tasks. Software, especially for professionals, has been built around the platform. If the Mac went away tomorrow, I am pretty sure I couldn’t do every aspect of my job on iOS, and a whole lot of people fall into that category. I really do believe Phil Schiller when he says “the Mac goes on forever.” As long as there are people who want to use the Mac—or at least a viably sized market—there will be a Mac.

Which is why, when someone tells me that it’s stupid for there to be an iOS laptop because it wouldn’t run Xcode and couldn’t be used by professional developers or pro video editors or power users who have spent a decade building up productivity-boosting workflows based on macOS, I don’t have much of a response for them. The iBook wouldn’t be for those people. It would be for people who don’t need all of the features and flexibility that macOS brings. It would be one in an array of products Apple makes—iPhones, iPads, desktop Macs, laptop Macs—that appeal to different users with different needs.

I think an iOS laptop would be an appealing product for some users. It wouldn’t be for everyone, but as iOS continues to grow and evolve, it could be a pretty awesome product for people who are comfortable with the shape of a laptop, but the simplicity of iOS.

Will it happen? I feel like further Apple experimentation in iOS hardware is inevitable—but I certainly wouldn’t put money on it appearing in 2018.

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