17 Dec 2015

iPad Pro

Many reviewers are talking about whether the iPad Pro is a laptop replacement. The consensus seems to be that it’s not.

Looking at it from the other side is the excellent article, Can the Macbook Pro Replace Your iPad? It points out that the Macbook is costlier, heavier, has worse battery life, lower resolution, doesn’t have touch input, and can’t use an Apple Pencil. It doesn’t have a rear camera, so sharing photos is a pain, involving copying them over from your phone. You can’t change the keyboard layout after you buy it. The Macbook has many types of ports (USB, Thunderbolt, HDMI, SD card) that do many of the same things. It’s confusing for a user to decide which port to use. It’s limited to landscape orientation, which requires excessive scrolling to read web pages or books. And so on. You should read the article, since it does an excellent job of looking at the Macbook from the perspective of an iPad.


LOSS AVERSION

There are many factors here. First is loss aversion. People react strongly if you take something away from them that they already use, but aren’t as happy when you give them something new. And since most people are used to MacBooks or other laptops, that becomes the standard by which newer devices are judged. When they consider an iPad Pro, they are unhappy at losing many features they already have in their laptops, but undervalue the new features they could use. For example, an experiment found that:

Participants first given a Swiss chocolate bar were generally unwilling to trade it for a coffee mug, whereas participants first given the coffee mug were generally unwilling to trade it for the chocolate bar.

Likewise, people who have laptops are unwilling to trade them for an iPad Pro. This bias is something we all have to guard against, if we want to find the best device for us, as opposed to fooling ourselves into believing that what we have is better.


PERFORMANCE

Moving on from perceptions to objective measurements, for a long time, phones and tablets have been underpowered compared to laptops. The iPad Pro changes that. It has a higher resolution screen than even the 15-inch Retina Macbook Pro, whether you count megapixels or pixels per inch. It has a faster CPU and higher benchmark scores than the 12-inch Macbook and some 13-inch Airs.

It’s amazing to have an iPad that’s faster than many MacBooks. What uses could you find for an iPad if it had way more horsepower?

And it’s not just the iPad Pro. The iPhone 6s has roughly the same performance as a Macbook Air.

As iPhones and iPads get as powerful as MacBooks, the argument that the former are limited devices becomes less defensible [1].

In addition to making iDevices more powerful, Apple also tried the converse with the 12-inch Macbook: make a laptop with a slower CPU, small screen (by laptop standards), and only one port. In return, you get a laptop that’s light, thin, and compact. Most of what I do on a laptop doesn’t need a lot of horsepower, a lot of screen space [2], or multiple ports [3]. The 12-inch Macbook may work fine for many uses.

Taking a step back, it’s interesting to see that while the iPad Pro looks for customers who are okay with the tablet form factor and the limited operating system but need more horsepower (screen space, CPU, memory, etc), the Macbook is for users who need the laptop form factor and a powerful operating system but not a lot of CPU.

Apple is now offering a greater variety of devices: devices with a tablet form factor and the power of a laptop (the iPad Pro), devices with a phone form factor and the power of a laptop (the iPhone 6s), and devices with the laptop form factor but the power of a tablet (the 12-inch Macbook). Rather than assuming that people who want a certain form factor want less or more horsepower, Apple is offering all four combinations: you can choose whichever form factor you want, and then choose a device with more or less horsepower. This kind of product experimentation [4] may result in newer types [5] of devices that work better for many users. We don’t know how the future will play out, so it’s crucial to experiment.


TASKS

Ultimately, what matters are not the specs or the feature list but whether the iPad Pro can do what you need it to do in your daily life, which you currently do on a laptop. That’s the acid test. If it does what you need to do, then it doesn’t matter what the specs or features are. Conversely, if it doesn’t, then having a fast processor or plenty of memory is irrelevant.

The iPad Pro falls short here. I’m a programmer, and the iPad Pro doesn’t have Xcode or Eclipse or Android Studio or IDEs. When I return from vacation, I can’t upload 10GB of photos to Google Drive. I can’t use BitTorrent. My uncle is a chartered accountant, and I don’t think he’d be okay with entering numbers all day using a touchscreen. A friend of mine makes animations and videos for a living, and I think he’d want the PC versions of Premiere or Maya or whatever other apps he uses. I don’t think a professional photographer would be okay with the limited, iPad versions of Photoshop and Lightroom. And so on.

The iPad Pro’s software lets it down. I think a good part of it is because pro apps have been designed PC-first, and then ported after the fact to mobile. Entire categories of apps we use today were conceived of in the PC era — spreadsheets, word processing, presentations, email, notes, web sites, media players or editors, IDEs, and so on. They work the best on laptops, because that’s the environment in which they were born.

Imagine an alternate reality where desktops and laptops weren’t invented till 2015. Instead, imagine that phones and tablets were all we had for the past three decades. In such a world, all our software would have been conceived of with touch in mind, rather than keyboard and mouse. It would have taken a radically different form.

For example, how would spreadsheets work in this alternate universe? To begin with, all rows would have a minimum height that’s touch-friendly. In the world we live in, we sum up a range of values by first selecting the cell where we want the result to appear, and then typing a formula like =SUM(A2:A9). In this alternate universe, maybe we’d use multitouch to mark the range, by simultaneously tapping the first and last cells in the range. Then, we might select the formula from a menu rather than typing it out (typing works best on a hardware keyboard, and an onscreen keyboard takes up a lot of space that could be used in a better way, say for a menu). Finally, we might select where we want the result to appear.

The point is that most of our software has been imagined and built in the context of the PC, and then ported over. All of it needs to be re-imagined from scratch, from first principles, to work efficiently on the iPad Pro. If you didn’t have a PC, how would you do it?

If this were done, tablets would be excellent productivity devices, especially large-screened, powerful ones like the iPad Pro.

To fully compete with the laptop, iOS’s limitations need to be lifted. It needs full multitasking, for example, so that I can upload 10GB of photos to Google Drive when I return from vacation [6]. iDevices should support using an external keyboard and monitor, when you need to type a lot of text or when you need more space than 13 inches.

The iOS app store needs to allow trials and discounted upgrades. In fact, given the concern that the iOS app store is not conducive to building a sustainable business, iOS should let users download apps from outside the store. Apple can still verify the identity of developers using Gatekeeper without needing to validate the apps themselves. This way, developers can charge users without Apple taking their 30% cut. And users can use software that Apple doesn’t like, like BitTorrent [7] [8].

In summary, when a new type of device comes along, we should resist the urge to criticise it for what it’s missing without also recognising what’s genuinely new and valuable. It’s great to see iPhones and iPads become as powerful as a Macbook Air, which makes arguments about the former being limited devices less tenable. Apps need to be reimagined to work well with touch, not just in superficial ways like making touch targets big enough, but by rethinking the fundamental actions and how they’re done. Finally, iOS needs to be more powerful to not be a bottleneck. If all these are done, phones and tablets have a promising future ahead for getting work done, as competition to the PC.


[1] The iPad Pro has less memory (4GB) than many MacBooks, but iOS apps are more efficient than Mac apps at memory use. They use less memory for a given task, since they’re more optimised. And when they go into the background, they can be killed to free up memory without losing data. A 4GB iPad Pro is probably just as good as an 8GB Macbook.

The exception is if you have a single task that requires a lot of memory, in which case you’re better off with a Mac than an iPad. 

This goes for the CPU as well: iOS apps use less CPU than Mac apps. The same exception applies: if you’re doing something intrinsically CPU-bound like transcoding Ultra HD video, you should, of course use a Mac.

[2] Software should make better use of screen space, as with OS X’s full-screen mode, or the always-full-screen nature of iOS apps.

[3] Probably two ports are good enough, to simultaneously charge and plug in a device. The 12-inch Macbook should have had a second USB type-C port, in lieu of a headphone port.

[4] The Surface Pro 4 is another interesting experiment. It takes a different approach from the iPad Pro in offering the full power of a desktop OS and apps.

The Surface Pro 4 also supports both interaction models — touch and keyboard — while the iPad supports only touch. In practice, though, apps on the Surface Pro 4 generally work well only with keyboard and mouse, while apps on the iPad Pro work well only with touch.

Whether or not you prefer the Surface or the iPad Pro model, it’s important that the market is experimenting with both.

[5] Another axis is the OS. I’d want iOS 10 and Android N to support keyboard and mouse in addition to touch. You’d then be able to use a phone or tablet as a PC, with a Bluetooth keyboard and an external monitor. This will be easy to convince users to buy, since they’re used to buying smartphones, anyway, so working as a PC will merely be an extra feature. Devices like the iPad Pro, Surface Pro 4 or the 12-inch Macbook are a harder sell, since they don’t conform to norms.

[6] Maybe it can be accompanied by a persistent notification, so that the user is aware of ongoing background activity that may hurt battery life, and be able to stop it.

[7] A ₹6K Android One phone is more powerful than a ₹1 lac iPad Pro.

[8] Lest you are inclined to dismiss these as edge cases, maybe few users need an individual use case, but almost everyone needs one or the other edge cases, so they are in aggregate critical for a laptop-replacement device.

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