The iPad at ten — success or failure?

iPad and Smart Keyboard. Much has been said recently about the iPad in the wake of its tenth birthday. It has received criticism in some quarters and praise in others. The idea of the iPad, though, had been roundly appreciated and most of the criticism I've read has related to its development over the years with some people feeling it has not reached its potential.

I don't know how far ahead Apple were thinking when they came up with the idea of touch device to sit between a phone and a desktop or laptop computer. It was perhaps initially pitched at light-use consumers, perhaps for people who wanted a touch-screen device mainly to read their emails and browse the web. In that respect it has been an enormous success and I know many people whose only computer (other than their phone, perhaps) is an iPad. For them it has been a direct replacement for a desktop or laptop.

But the iPad has evolved and more technically minded users started to use it for entire workflows. I believe Apple recognised this, as the release of the iPad Pro and the continuing development of iOS and now iPadOS demonstrates.

I consider myself a reasonably technical user in the sense that software was my profession and I still tinker with software today. Writing software is probably the only thing I need a macOS computer for these days. Sure, there are times when I prefer to use macOS for something else too but that's due to 35+ years of keyboard and mouse operation. I am a dinosaur in that respect and some of my ingrained computing habits are yet to become fully comfortable with iOS/iPadOS. I can nevertheless do everything I need to — except for software development — via an iPad. I'd say my time is spent roughly 50-50 between my iPad Pro and my MacBook Pro.

If you're not a coder an iPad is all you need. I think it's the best value, most useful computer you can get. Sure, they're still quite expensive but a high-spec iPad is nowhere near the price of a high-spec MacBook, iMac or Mac Pro. They're portable, you can draw on them and, with a stand and a keyboard, they can be a genuine replacement for a laptop or desktop (for anyone who isn't a coder — that will have to go without saying for now).

A lot of the criticism I've read comes from technical users and I understand that to a certain extent. I am frequently frustrated by the iPad's closed file system. I'd prefer to work directly with files rather than having to 'share' them between apps. I'd like to be able to install my Javascript blogging software onto my iPad's filesystem, then install Node around that and access things directly from an iPadOS equivalent of macOS's Terminal app. As it stands, if I want to share my Jekyll-like build environment between my iPad and MacBook, I have to run the build on the server.

I'd like to see the iPad Pro diverge from its base model and give me more of the technical whistles and bells I desire. I'm not sure if that's what the iPad is meant to be, though. I don't know what Apple perceives as the final destination of the iPad and I understand these are just my desires from a fairly technical standpoint. Most iPad users have no interest in these sorts of things and for them the device is a major success. No longer do they need to do their computing from a static desk, they can do it in the bedroom, the loo or from a coffee shop. For most users, it's way more portable than a laptop and it satisfies their needs perfectly. I think this is what a lot of the technical critics miss.

Us technical users are a particular subset of iPad users with high demands. Yet the entire workflow for this article will be run from an iPad. It is written on an iPad and it will be published directly from the iPad. Sure, it'll be compiled on a server, but I'll be doing that via the iPad.

I've read some critique of the iOS app store and how it's not conducive to encouraging high quality, professional apps. Some commentators believe the perceived price point of iOS apps is restrictive in that respect, as are some of the licensing options available to iOS developers. This is true to a certain extent and it probably has to do with the iPad's origins, when its ambitions were more modest than they are today, and that it shares an app store with the iPhone. I think a lot of developers of the more complex iPad apps survive because they release apps for both macOS, where the perception of prices is higher, and iOS, assuming that the users of those apps will require both versions. I think the separation of iOS and iPadOS might help in this respect and people will eventually move away from the self-perpetuating impression of what iPad apps are likely to cost. I think the best thing Apple could do to change perceptions is to separate iPadOS apps into their own app store.

There is a perception that an iPad is a large phone and its iOS origins could certainly give that impression. But it's not, if anything it's a compact laptop. Nobody replaces their phone with an iPad but a lot of people have replaced their laptop with an iPad, certainly amongst the people I know, anyway.

If I'm honest, if someone held me at gunpoint and told me I had lose either my iPad or my MacBook, I'd choose to lose my iPad, but that's only because I need the development environment macOS offers. If I didn't need that I would, without a doubt, choose to keep my iPad. I'm sorry, though, I'd have to keep my Magic Keyboard too. I'm still a computing dinosaur and really can't be doing with on-screen keyboards.

So, in summary, I can see where some of the criticism from technical bloggers is coming from, but for most users I think the iPad has comfortably reached its potential and has been a remarkable success. For technical users there is perhaps more potential to realise and there's no reason why it shouldn't fulfil that over time.