The story of the iPad Pro 2021

On April 20th Apple announced it’s 2021 update of the iPad Pro and it’s a doozy of an update with all new screen technology, the M1 chip with 8 or 16gb of memory, 5G, Thunderbolt port and of course the usual improved cameras.

And, like clockwork, all of the Apple pundits have come out with their predictable “The iPad hardware is too powerful for the software” articles. They’re not entirely wrong but I do think the echo-chamber is over emphasizing how bad the problem really is. The various articles point out the usual iPadOS shortcomings (currently groupthink is focused on Files, lack of proper 2nd display support, and limitations of multitasking), the lack of Apple’s pro software such as Xcode, Final Cut, and Logic. The story is that the hardware is plenty powerful and that what it needs are updates to OS and pro apps.

Let’s break it down.

The Hardware
I’ll start by saying that the 2018 iPad Pro that I’m currently using has been a fantastic work computer for 2+ years. I’ve used it everyday and after 2+ years it is still very fast for my daily work. From Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo to the occasional LumaFusion video project, it has handled it all with relative ease. From booting up, waking from sleep, authenticating, to app launching, it all is nearly instantaneous. I consider myself a “power” user and make my living with this device.

The only area where the hardware has lacked is in memory which was stuck in the 4 to 6GB range for the past two releases (2018, 2020). This limitation shows up when I do a lot of switching between apps. While most apps do a great job of holding their previous state the more demanding apps such as the Affinity apps will sometimes need to reload if I’ve been away using other apps for awhile. The new 2021 iPad Pro will have 8GB and 16GB of RAM so I expect this problem will be greatly reduced.

Too few pro apps
It’s true that Apple’s own professional apps such as Xcode and Final Cut Pro are not available on the iPad. But it’s also true that, at least on the video front, at least one very powerful solution exists: LumaFusion has grown each year into a more capable application for increasingly complex video projects. Why not give more credit where it is due? The same should be said of Serif’s incredibly powerful Affinity graphics apps. Over the past three years we’ve heard countless complaints that Adobe’s apps are not available (Photoshop now is with others on the way at some point). But Affinity brought it’s two well regarded and powerful image/vector design apps, Photo and Designer, to the iPad several years ago and they’ve got the third app in the suite, Publisher, headed to iPad sometime in 2021 (expected, not announced).

And I’m just pointing to three that I have experience with. There are many, many others, especially in the area of graphic design. I would suggest that there might be a bias in the coverage because it’s podcasters and writers whose voices are most amplified via publishing in well known publications and podcasts, but these folks perhaps lack the experience with this category of applications so they go unnoticed. People out doing other kinds of work with some of the more powerful applications such as those I mentioned above are not equally amplified.

A simplified OS
While Apple has continuously pushed the iPad forward it is still a different experience. Given it’s foundation as an intentionally simple, easy to use computer, those differences are often viewed as shortcomings by advanced, “power” users. The most often repeated complaint in the past year is multitasking. Apple has steadily improved it but advanced users still consider it to restrictive, likely because they come from the Mac with it’s unlimited windows. An iPad limited to displaying 2 app windows and a third in slide over is never going to please power users. Previous to that the loudest complaint was the Files app which could not display external drives attached via usb.

Another prominent example being discussed online are the limits when displaying to an external screen, namely that it’s mirroring only and, when attached to a widescreen display, it’s got the black pillar-boxing on each side. No doubt this is a shortcoming and, as the new iPad Pros have Thunderbolt, will need to be addressed by Apple. Some apps do take advantage of the full screen but not many. With the increased power of the iPads it should be improved in the next version of iPadOS and likely will be.

But as the story goes, these apps and features are all present and more powerful on the Mac. But of course the Mac OS is far older and more mature. And it’s also an OS, given it’s power, maturity and complexity, that many people can’t use. Again, it’s important to remember the origin of the iPad as an easier to use device with a focus on more casual computing.

I’ll point out that with each year we get improvements. Some years they are big improvements, others just more iterative refinements and fixes. In 2020, even before WWDC, Apple added a huge mid-year feature, full trackpad/mouse cursor support, something no one saw coming. It was widely praised as it should have been. But at WWDC the iPad was given fewer features and iPad OS 14 looked to be more of a bug-fix, refinement release. It’s notable that many users had complained about the bugs and had called for a bug fix type release. But many of them still complained at the lack of features and the focus on bug fixes. Basically, Apple will be criticized either way.

In short, people tend to focus on what they didn’t get rather than what they did get. It’s easy to focus on the negative. I’ve thought for several years that much of the problem lies with the culture of tech punditry and the over emphasis on critique. And, another aspect of this, the insular nature of tech enthusiasts that are focused on what they want as “power” users often forgetting that the iPad was really pointed at people who are not tech enthusiasts or professionals. So, yes, now we’ve had the iPad Pro for 6 years and iPadOS for 2 years, the iPad is maturing as a platform and needs to serve the original user base as well as the more advanced users that have grown in numbers over the years.

I recently came across Matthew Panzarino’s review of the 2020 iPad Pro on Tech Crunch where he concludes:

It’s insane to have a multi-modal machine that can take typing, swiping and sketching as inputs and has robust support for every major piece of business software on the planet — and that always works, is always fast and is built like an Italian racing car.

Who can argue with that?

I think that sums it up really well.

A small sampling of posts below.

Andrew Griffin at the Independent had an interview with Greg Joswiak and John Ternus, two Apple Execs to discuss the new iPad Pro, iPad Pro: How Apple Made Its New Tablet – And What Exactly It Is. They cover a lot of ground including ongoing speculation that the Mac and iPad will eventually merge which again Apple denies.

Jason Snell, writing for MacWorld,
The iPad Pro is a killer machine but its software is killing me:

And yet, in 2021, it feels like the same story: Apple killed it on the hardware side, and the software…well, the software lags behind, to put it nicely. Apple built a spectacular sports car, but where are the roads to drive it on?

Harry McCracken, noted for his use of an iPad as his main computer for a decade chimes in with
The iPad Pro just got way more pro. Now it needs pro software:

Apple clearly envisions the iPad Pro serving some of the world’s most demanding users. During Tuesday’s launch event, most of the applications the company referenced for the new models were heavy-duty tasks such as shooting movies, creating augmented-reality content, designing buildings, and editing vast quantities of 4K video. The kind of stuff, in other words, that people do for a living—and for which no tablet is yet the most obvious mainstream choice.

But while Apple’s hardware strategy for making such folks happy seems to be a smashing success, the software side is as murky as it’s ever been.

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