As Apple execs took to the stage Monday to announce the latest and greatest in the world of iOS and Macs, there was one standout for Apple's most diehard fans: the new Mac Pro. The desktop computer represents the most powerful Mac ever, with a $6,000 starting price to boot, and amongst pro users, you could almost hear the collective drooling.
It might be tempting then to think that Apple is still committed to a segmented future in which Macs are the workhorses for serious work and iPhones and iPads remain primarily mobile, consumption devices.
But in a packed, impressive keynote, the most important announcement wasn't a new computer, a fancy new display, or even the many new features coming to iPhones this year; rather, it was the announcement of iPadOS, a specific offshoot of iOS aimed solely at the iPad. More than just a mere rebrand, it is further evidence that for Apple, the iPad is the future of computing.
It's not that the new products weren't impressive. Apple's new Pro Display XDR showcased some very fancy tech, the Mac Pro may well be the most powerful desktop computer ever created, and the variety of new features coming to iPhones, the Apple Watch, and the Mac is a bit mind-boggling.
The focus on the iPad, however, seemed both more meticulous and purposeful. As opposed to adding more features for the sake of building on a long list, the new iPad OS seems instead aimed at fundamentally altering what a tablet can do.
Now, the iPad can have two windows side by side in the same app—a common request for moving things between, say, two Microsoft Word documents. The iPad browser is now a desktop one rather than mobile, letting users run Google Docs or Slack. Multitasking is easier, and it's even possible to do things like plug in an external drive and import photos directly into software. There were also new gestures for cutting and pasting. It is, in short, an update to bring an iPad much closer in functionality to a laptop, and to clearly distinguish it from an iPhone.
In one sense, this is Apple almost directly responding to criticism of the iPad Pro. An expensive, beautifully designed machine, the newest model was harshly critiqued for the incongruence of its high price tag and limited capabilities. As one writer from The Verge put it, the keynote at times felt like a subtweet of all those negative comments.
In another sense, though, this was Apple putting forth a vision of what they think computing should be. When you listen to those common complaints from power users about how only a real computer can be used to do real work, they are usually based on a set of assumptions—say, that a mouse and keyboard is the most efficient way to do digital work, or that a tablet is still a consumption device.
What has thus far prevented this vision from becoming fully fledged are the constraints of an operating system built for a phone. But with the creation of iPadOS, Apple are signalling that the tablet is no longer just “a big iPhone,” but instead a category unto itself that best covers the most computing use cases — everything from watching movies or taking notes to writing documents or editing photos or video.
What Apple seem to be suggesting is that a tablet with touch and a pen is not just a device appropriate for that vague idea of “real work,” but actually a better one. Not only are iPads lighter and smaller than laptops, they also contain a variety of sensors and inputs unique to mobile devices: the ability to detect rotation or angle, touch input, pen input, and in general, a more immediate, tactile way to interact with one's work or content, all of which results in a dizzying array of what you can actually do with an iPad.
It's that multifunctionality which positions the iPad as the future of computing. More than any one feature or input method, it's the simple fact that the tablet can counterintuitively just do more than a regular laptop. And the fact that Apple are also working to bring iPad apps to the Mac suggests that Apple realize that the iPad is the locus of interesting app development, not the Mac itself.
Recently, in a post on the utter dominance of mobile computing, analyst Benedict Evans pointed out that there are about as many iPads in the wild as there are consumer laptops. In that sense, the iPad has already won. But more to the point, with its increasing feature set and performance, the iPad is perhaps the strongest argument that the future of computing is about touch, mobile, and light and fast devices. A new Mac Pro may make the hardcore ooh and ahh, but for most of us, it is the iPad that it is in fact the most “powerful” computer.