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The iPad Pro: The Start of Something New

If all we do is look for the iPad Pro to replace our desktop or laptop, we're missing the point.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

The beginning of my experience with the iPad Pro started with thinking that I would use it with the intent that it could replace my laptop. In fact, I was going to write this article with that in mind. I realized quickly that the iPad Pro could easily replace my laptop for more than 90 percent of the things I need on a day-to-day basis. The only thing my laptop still does more efficiently than the iPad Pro is work on spreadsheets, which may also be the most boring part of what I do. It also happens to be something very few people do regularly and for long periods of time. In so many ways, all the things we consider as “productivity” are perfectly doable on the iPad Pro.

However, if all we do is look for the iPad Pro to replace our desktop or laptop, we’re missing the point. The paradigm of a fixed desktop computer plus a portable desktop computer, along with a mouse and keyboard as a primary input mechanism, is the old world of computing. I believe Apple has laid the groundwork for something new in this category.

Since the iPad first came out, I have been adamant that it represents a fundamental shift toward simplicity of the personal computing standard. A notebook running a desktop operating system is, by its nature, a complex device. Desktop operating systems require a learning curve — many of us needed to take classes to teach us to be “computer literate.” Also, a mouse and keyboard as input mechanisms are not as intuitive as touch. Therefore, operating systems and software ecosystems built around touch-based computers lower the barrier to entry, allowing more people to use these machines to maximum capability. My experience with the iPad Pro furthers that conviction. In my opinion, the best positioning of the iPad came from Steve Jobs himself when he said, “The iPad is more intimate than a notebook and more capable than a smartphone.”

The tablet is a unique form factor. By the nature of the software, the tablet can become all things to all people. It can become a TV, an art easel, a word processor, a movie studio, a music recording tool, a photo editing tool and so much more. What sets the computer (in the shape of a tablet) apart is the ease with which it can be held during use. The PC, in the shape of a notebook, is generally designed to be used while sitting with it on a desk or on your lap. The tablet can be used that way, too, but it can also be held while moving around or while leaning back in bed. In short, the tablet is a much more versatile shape for a computer than a traditional notebook or desktop computer.

Lastly, the debate around what can and can’t be done on a PC, smartphone or tablet is nonsense. People say you need a real PC with a mouse and keyboard to do real work. That’s simply not true. Having used the iPad Pro for more than a week, I’d offer that the limiter to how much “real work” one can do on any of these devices is screen size, not whether it has a mouse or a keyboard. The bigger the screen, the more you can get done in an efficient manner. As screen size increases, so do capabilities. The bigger you can make a computer, the more machine you can pack into it. The iPad has always represented in my mind the right amount of machine for the masses.

It’s so big!

Your first reaction when you see it will be, “It’s so big!” Then you will pick it up, and you’ll say, “It’s so light!” I had the same reaction, as did most people around me, when we first saw and got to touch and hold the iPad Pro at the launch event. It really is big and surprisingly light. That makes it easier to hold in a number of different contexts, from sitting on the couch and watching TV or reading the news, even holding while walking around.

This is important for not just consumers, but for the many commercial uses for iPad I’ve studied over the past year. Doctors using them in the field, or on construction sites being used to replace thousands of pages of manuals and blueprints, or in colleges to replace a backpack full of textbooks. All these applications will benefit from the added screen size while not sacrificing the portability they need out in the field.

Prior to the iPad Pro, I used the iPad Air as my primary iPad. While larger, the Pro does not feel significantly heavier, at least to me. This allowed me to use it in many of the same ways and contexts I use my Air. The only tradeoff was lying in bed to read. When I do this, I hold the iPad in the air, like you would a book. This was a bit challenging with the iPad Pro. I also realize this is a minority use case but it was the main tradeoff I experienced between the iPad Air and the iPad Pro in terms of how I use them.

iOS and mobile apps continue to impress on larger screens

It feels as though iOS, as it has evolved, continues to improve, even as it goes to larger screens. More importantly, iOS software developers continue to get better at using the additional real estate Apple gives them as they bring iOS to larger screens. The iPad Pro is no exception. Gaining just over two full inches doesn’t seem like that much but, in reality, it is a great deal of extra screen. I’ve experienced other mobile operating systems when they run on larger screens, and the apps are either blown-up versions of their small-screen versions or do not take advantage of the added screen size. I was concerned that iOS and a plethora of apps that run on the iPad Pro were going to yield a similar experience.

To my surprise, it did not. Due to the many optimizing options Apple has given developers, apps do more than just scale nicely onto larger screens. Take my favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, for example. This app on the iPhone 6 or 6s will show just your timeline. However, on the 6 Plus or 6s Plus, when you hold it in landscape mode, the app uses the additional real estate of the 5.5-inch screen and shows you a customizable pane on the right. Similarly on the iPad Pro, the app utilizes the additional real estate and in both portrait and landscape mode, both panes appear.

Slack is another app I use regularly that optimizes well, adding functionality as it goes from small screen to large screen. On the iPad Pro, the Slack app is quite similar to its Mac or Windows app, displaying a sidebar of teams, channels and individual members, and all your files. Slack is able to make one app cover all screen sizes and leverage the additional real estate nicely.

Making movies was another experience that amazed me. I create 90 percent of our home movies on my iPhone, largely because I capture nearly all the video and photos using it. Now that I have added a quadcopter with a camera that captures in 4K resolution, along with a host of other GoPro cameras, I have a multitude of capture devices that all have iPhone apps that transfer footage to the iPhone wirelessly. This workflow makes all the video and photos available on my iPhone and iPad, and I’m pretty good at using iMovie on the iPhone to create videos. Given the additional real estate and horsepower from the iPad Pro’s A9x processor, the speed of video editing was incredible. A friend who is a professional videographer didn’t believe me when I said I could edit multiple 4K streams (shot using the iPhone 6s) simultaneously on the iPad Pro. Sure enough, when I showed him the movies, he was blown away, as was every one else I demoed them for.

Split screen was another element that added a new dimension of iPad productivity for me. The vast majority of my time spent on the iPad Pro was using it in split-screen mode, similar to how I have multiple apps open side by side on my Mac. I’d often keep Tweetbot or iMessage open in the right pane, then jump between other apps for my workflow — email, Safari, etc. What is great about apps that take advantage of split-screen capabilities but are also built for smaller screens is that they scale nicely between split-screen and full-screen mode. The apps utilize the small or large space given to them, since they were built with many screen sizes in mind. This is the opposite of the desktop or laptop app experience, since most OS X or Windows apps were built only with large screens in mind, and many don’t scale well when you shrink their window.

Apple’s inclusion of the tools for developers to allow their apps to be used side by side feels like something done specifically for the iPad Pro.

The most eye-opening observation

From my time with the iPad Pro, the most interesting observation I made was not how I used the tablet but how my oldest daughter, who is 12, used the iPad Pro. She goes to a private school where each kid uses an iPad all day, every day. They use the iPad in every aspect of their education, from textbooks and learning materials, to real-time collaboration, notes, making movies during class, presenting and much more. When we were checking out this school, we spent time watching kids use their iPads to do a range of things in the classroom. I was stunned by their fluency and efficiency. How fast they type, how quickly they multitask between taking notes or a picture of the teacher’s notes on the board and then mark up their own notes on top of that. These kids were more literate with the iPad than many people I know who are highly technical, including myself. This ingrained literacy is the result of using a touch-based computer and the apps built on top of the mobile ecosystem, every day. After watching them for a day, I’m honestly not sure I could have accomplished as much as they did in as short a time using a traditional laptop.

So I should not have been surprised when my daughter started playing with the iPad Pro for a few hours and came back and showed me all the things she had done: Movies she made, photos she took outside (which she edited/mashed up using the different apps she also uses in creative projects at school) and taking advantage of the unique benefits of the Apple Pencil. With nearly everything she showed me, I had to ask her how she did it. I had no idea some of the apps on iPad were as powerful as they were, enabling her do things I didn’t think were possible (leading me to think developers need to do a better job of touting their apps’ features). As I said, her fluency with the iPad Pro and the quickness with which she adapts to new tools like the Pencil and pushes the limits of the new tools so quickly was astonishing.

She embraced the Pencil, and used it to create more precise illustrations on top of the video-and-image mashup she was creating for a class presentation. The extra level of detail and precision of the Pencil allowed her to create a digital version of the paper art project she was doing for class. All the other students were presenting their paper illustrations alongside the digital video and photo presentation; she was able to add digital art and present the entire project digitally.

There is truly something happening with this generation growing up spending the bulk, if not all, of their computing time using mobile operating systems and doing new things with new tools. Being the techie that I am, I was a bit disheartened that my 12-year-old was getting more out of the iPad Pro and pushing it to further limits than I was. But she is a part of the mobile generation, after all. For them, the future will look quite different, and the tools they use to make that future might look quite similar to the iPad Pro.

Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard

While I’m not the target audience for Apple’s stylus, which is sold separately, I have used way too many of them over the years than I’d like to admit. Palm rejection is always the first thing I test when using a product that comes with a digitizing input device, and it is flawless on iPad Pro. I let an artist friend try it, and she couldn’t believe it. She also tried to steal the iPad Pro from me because of how excited she was about its potential for artists.

Apple’s implementation of the stylus seems to be targeted more toward artists and creative professionals than note takers, though. The Pencil itself has a glossy finish, and feels more like an art brush or sketch pencil than a note-taking device. This, I think, is a key distinction of how it was designed and who it is intended for. A product like the Surface Pro 4, which I have also been using for a few weeks, is more focused on note takers or someone who marks up documents for work. Since I’m the latter, I related more to the use case of the Surface Pro 4.

One last point. I hope Apple steals an idea from the Surface Pro 4 in the future related to the pen. The Surface Pro 4 Pen has a magnetic side to it that sticks quite firmly to the edge of the tablet, giving you a slick solution to store the pen and not lose it. The Apple Pencil is just as easy to lose as a regular pencil, but at a cost of $99.

I had mixed opinions of the keyboard at the beginning. The case feels like a normal smart cover, but the difference is there is a very thin keyboard that folds under the cover. What matters about this keyboard is how, when it is docked, it is held by a very strong magnet. There is very little give to the screen when you touch it. I tried this against the play on my MacBook Pro, and the movement when touching the iPad Pro when docked with the keyboard was actually less than if I touched my Mac screen. This matters for using the iPad Pro with the keyboard on your lap or on an uneven surface. The new technical term for this particular use case is “capability” and, from my experience, the iPad Pro and keyboard work as well on the lap as on any laptop I own.

Something old making way for something new

Adding a touchscreen to a PC doesn’t make it a tablet any more than adding a keyboard to the iPad doesn’t make it a PC. We certainly need modern definitions for these terms, because what constitutes a personal computer is now so wide that it applies to nearly all large and small screens. The additional capabilities of creativity, the mobile software ecosystem and so many things not found on traditional notebook and desktop operating systems is where I believe the upside is for this product. It is a healthy blend of the things we do with our PCs and the things we do with our mobile devices.

The argument about what can be done versus what can’t be done is quite useless. I emphasize the importance of maintaining a mass-market perspective when talking about what is and isn’t a PC. For more than a billion people, the smartphone is their primary personal computer. Each screen we add to our life is a new tool for the task at hand. The PC, in the shape of a desktop or notebook, has its role for those who need it. The goal of the PC was to put a computer on every desk. The goal of the smartphone is to put a computer in every hand.

The iPad Pro also represents something new from a software standpoint. However, turning the iPad Pro into something new rests squarely on the shoulders of Apple’s developer community. Developers will hopefully embrace the skills they have built coding for iOS and start pushing the limits and enabling brand-new, never-been-done-before experiences on top of this platform. Like all platforms, it rests in the hands of developers to use the tools given to them and to innovate.

The iPad Pro represents the mobile ecosystem growing up. It shows the software community’s ability to leverage the foundation built around smartphones and bring more capable software to devices with larger screens and new input mechanisms. This part, the new era of computing built by the ecosystem of mobile developers and born out of mobile platforms, is the new narrative to follow.

Ben Bajarin is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc., an industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Reach him @BenBajarin.

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