The Problem with iPad and why it's not a Mac Replacement

The problem with the iPad is both hardware and software related. Anything work related you can do on an iPad can, in most cases be done faster on a Mac. No question.

The iPad was built to be a consumption device. Well, it was built on the back of the iOS system that was developed for the iPhone. Maybe that is part of the problem. If Apple set out to build a Mac replacement I think it would be better than the iPad is at doing work-related tasks.

While iPad is still the best media consumption device on the planet, I think the problem is that Apple didn’t set out to build it as a Mac replacement, but it’s what people want it to be.

The iPad is not a pro machine. I know a lot of journalists use the iPad full time, and that’s fine. The reason they can use it full time is that typing text has very low system requirements. However, as soon as you need to move files from one app to another, or unzip a document the iPad starts to make your life more complicated.

If someone emailed me a zip and I’m on my iPad, what do I do? I probably visit the App Store and try to find an app that would let me unzip the file. But how do I get the file from Mail into the app I just downloaded? This is not a trivial task for anyone to do on the iPad, and the iPad has been around for 6 years already. Meanwhile on the Mac… I just double-click the zip file to see the contents and I’m back to work.

Multitasking on iOS is not good enough

iOS is simple, well, it was simple. It’s now getting more, and more complicated with hidden gestures all over the place. Some of the newer features feel like they are being bolted on, they don’t feel like they should be there. Multitasking on iOS felt annoying to use and I’m betting a lot of users don’t even know it exists. We solved multitasking years ago with the Finder windowing system. The way iPad handles multitasking is still far too basic.

The iPad does have a windowing system of sorts, but it’s just video (for now), this reinforces the fact that this device is not for professionals. A more useful implementation would have been to allow any app access to this feature. Imagine being able to have a floating notes app, or calculator, or messages app, or music app, you get the idea.

Apple needs to solve fundamental issues like this at the system level if they want the iPad to become a pro computer.

Ergonomically terrible

Tapping on a sheet of glass is not very satisfying. Sure people get used to it but I think everyone agrees, it’s nicer pressing physical buttons with a little bit of travel on them. As humans we appreciate tactile feedback, it lets us know our action has had an affect.

To get around this a lot of people have started using a physical keyboard with their iPad, especially if they have a lot of typing to do.

So now we have an iPad with a keyboard, and it’s starting to look a little more like a Mac, in size, weight, and shape. This is especially true when you compare it to the new Macbook.

We’ve done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical.

It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. it doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Touch surfaces want to be horizontal, hence pads. — Steve Jobs, 2010.

Yup, Steve Jobs knew what was up way back in 2010. This is why the iPad was marketed as a consumption device.

This is still one of the fundamental problems with having the iPad attached to a keyboard — when you need to interact with the screen, you have to raise your arm out in front of you to interact with apps, it’s cumbersome and gets tiring very quickly.

iPads are great to use while you’re lounging on the couch. However, they are not so great to use for extended periods of time at a desk. Even after 6 years the iPad is still not up to the task of replacing a Mac.

Maybe iOS needs mouse support

I know this sounds crazy and it might be a little controversial, but I’d actually like to see mouse support in iOS. That way I could sit down at a desk with a keyboard and a mouse and use the iPad more effectively. I think the pencil is part way towards this, but it’s not the real deal. I like using the pencil to interact with the iPad. It might be because it’s more comfortable, as well as the fact the pencil gets in the way less. It’s perfect for scrolling lists and tapping buttons. I’ve heard other people say this too, so I know it’s not just me.

Maybe the answer is native iOS app support in OS X. If Apple swap to ARM based processors on the Macs at some point (and I think they will) this could become a reality.

This kind of setup is already available on Android and it looks like it works pretty well.

Final thoughts

Every year the iPad is looking more like the Mac, and OS X is looking more like iOS, so you gotta ask yourself, what’s the point?

Why do we need two different platforms, and why would Apple want to maintain two very similar OS’s that share the same features but look and work slightly differently? Designing, building, and supporting two systems is double the work. Imagine if all this time and energy was put into one unified system.

Maybe Apple are not sure what form the future of computing should take, maybe they are just hedging their bets. And hey, if this iPad thing doesn’t pan out they still have the iPhone and Mac.

Dan Counsell @dancounsell