The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10

Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad on stage at the Yerba Buena theater in San Francisco. It surprised everyone, in several ways. Some expected a touchscreen Mac with a stylus. Some expected a product that would do for the news industry what the iPod had done for the music industry a decade prior. Most expected a $1,000 starting price. The iPad was none of those things. It was also Jobs’s final big new product announcement.

“It’s just a big iPhone” was the most common initial criticism. Turns out, “just a big iPhone” was a fantastic idea for a new product — music to tens of millions of iPhone users’ ears.

Jobs’s on-stage pitch was exactly right. The iPad was a new class of device, sitting between a phone and a laptop. To succeed, it needed not only to be better at some things than either a phone or laptop, it needed to be much better. It was and is.

Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential. By the time the Mac turned 10, it had redefined multiple industries. In 1984 almost no graphic designers or illustrators were using computers for work. By 1994 almost all graphic designers and illustrators were using computers for work. The Mac was a revolution. The iPhone was a revolution. The iPad has been a spectacular success, and to tens of millions it is a beloved part of their daily lives, but it has, to date, fallen short of revolutionary.

iPad hardware is undeniably great. Lower-priced models are excellent consumer tablets, and are the cheapest personal computers Apple has ever made. They remain perfectly useful for many years. The iPads Pro outperform MacBooks computationally. They’re thin, light, reliable, gorgeous, and yet despite their impressive computational performance they need no fans.

Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s “multitasking” model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.

Consider the basic task of putting two apps on screen at the same time, the basic definition of “multitasking” in the UI sense. To launch the first app, you tap its icon on the homescreen, just like on the iPhone, and just like on the iPad before split-screen multitasking. Tapping an icon to open an app is natural and intuitive. But to get a second app on the same screen, you cannot tap its icon. You must first slide up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the Dock. Then you must tap and hold on an app icon in the Dock. Then you drag the app icon out of the Dock to launch it in a way that it will become the second app splitting the display. But isn’t dragging an icon out of the Dock the way that you remove apps from the Dock? Yes, it is — when you do it from the homescreen. So the way you launch an app in the Dock for split-screen mode is identical to the way you remove that app from the Dock. Oh, and apps that aren’t in the Dock can’t become the second app in split screen mode. What sense does that limitation make?

On the iPhone you can only have one app on screen at a time. The screen is the app; the app is the screen. This is limiting but trivial to understand. On the Mac you can have as many apps on screen at the same time as you want, and you launch the second, third, or twentieth app exactly the same way that you launch the first. That is consistency. On iPad you can only have two apps on screen at the same time, and you must launch them in entirely different ways — one of them intuitive (tap any app icon), one of them inscrutable (drag one of the handful of apps you’ve placed in your Dock). And if you don’t quite drag the app from the Dock far enough to the side of the screen, it launches in “Slide Over”, an entirely different shared-screen rather than split-screen mode. The whole concept is not merely inconsistent, it’s incoherent.

How would anyone ever figure out how to split-screen multitask on the iPad if they didn’t already know how to do it?

On the iPhone, you always launch apps the same way: tapping their icons. On the Mac, it’s slightly more complex. In most contexts — the Dock, LaunchPad, Spotlight results — you launch apps by single-clicking them; in the Finder, however, you must double-click them. There’s a method to that seeming madness — you must double-click to open something on the Mac in any context where single-clicking will merely select that item. But the Mac’s “When do I click, when do I double-click?” issue has confused untold millions of non-expert users for decades. How many people have you seen who double-click links in a web browser? The iPhone’s simplicity eliminated this sort of confusion. No one needlessly double-taps tappable items on iPhone. The iPad, originally, shared this simplicity and clarity. When the iPad debuted it was, from top to bottom, easier to understand than the Mac, and you could learn everything there was to learn about it just by tapping and sliding to explore. It was impossible to get lost or confused.

As things stand today, I get a phone call from my mom once a month or so because she’s accidentally gotten Safari into split-screen mode when tapping links in Mail or Messages and can’t get out.

I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.

The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.