The iPad’s Land of Confusion

Last week brought the 'finally' updates to Apple's iPad line. And in a world where products are supposed to have purpose, use, and a fit in our everyday lives, I continue to lose faith that Apple knows what it's doing.

First, the updates. Apple has kept it's "Good, Better, Best" lineup. They rolled out an updated iPad Air ("Better"), a new M4-debuted chip powering the new iPad Pro ("Best")... and told everyone the iPad without-a-suffix ("Good") still exists at a lower price. Oh and there's the iPad Mini too, which is just there.

This updated lineup is the longest Apple has ever gone between hardware refreshes. It was a mystery before last week, especially when its annual developer conference is only a month away. But given Apple likely needed to finish up the M4 processor to power the iPad Pro, it makes sense. Apple keeps harware announcements at WWDC to a minimum, if not completely off the table. It's a software-centric event. To announce a full product line update plus new processor would take away from an event that has to promote updates to five platforms.

Even so, Apple has continued to muddy the waters. Software on iPad is one thing (more on that in a moment) but they've gone full "WTF are they thinking" by introducing an Apple Pencil Pro. This new pencil is a fancy stylus. They all are. I'm not saying they're not useful, but the pencil is an input device, plain and simple. The WTF part is Apple has not discontinued or cleared up its Pencil offerings. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but Apple sells FOUR different Pencils: Pencil 1st generation, Pencil USB-C, Pencil 2nd generation, and now Pencil Pro. And NONE of them are compatible across the iPad lineup.

If you spring for that new iPad Pro, you need a new Pencil. The one you had before is simply not compatible. Apple literally has a four column compatibility chart on the Pencil's landing page showing you which you need to buy. And none, I repeat NONE of these pencils have an 'eraser' on the top which would at least make it a bit more fancy.

Throw in the fact that the 9th generation iPad was quietly killed in lieu of the 10th gen without a headphone jack and that mmWave 5G was also quietly removed, it's hard to know just what is going on.

Then we get to iPad OS.

Great for some, terrible for others, and exists in the most limbo of limbos of all software. For the life of me, I'd put money on the fact that Apple simply cannot figure out what it should be anymore.

Now that I think of it, the iPad may reak of aborted decisions too late in a process that are now permanent 'features'. Should the iPad be a tablet? Yes. Should it be a pseudo-laptop? Yes. Should it do both? Maybe?

The iPad entered a "could be a laptop" zone a few years ago. USB-C and the abilty to connect drives was a start. Keyboard and weird mouse support native to the OS showed that direction. Then Stage Manager last year came along for other window management (side note: I LOVE Stage Manager on the Mac). But the core OS is still a "big iPhone" with an App Store, workflows that differ per app because you can't build a touch-first device to be a pure laptop, and the fact that the iPad can be anything to anyone.

The use cases for the iPad are so numerous that it seems impossible to nail it down. That used to be its strength. It was a portable TV, magazine, web browser, gaming console, light work, media consumption, drawing machine. It's fallen into the jack of all trades, master of non territory.

And that's where iPadOS and the timing of this announcement comes into play. Apple went through the time and effort to record a 38-minute product debut and hold multiple hands-on events for media across the world. All within a month of WWDC. The timing is weird. Why now? The iPad isn't a "back to school" device parents will buy. We're six plus months away from holiday shopping. My hope is the revamped update is the first of a one-two punch where all the hardware is thinner, lighter, more powerful but then complimented by a revolutionary update to its software.

For years the consensus is "it's an iPad, just get it" combined with "I have all this power and can't take advantage of it". Does Apple finally relent and let everyone choose to run macOS on it? Do they scrap the entire OS and debut a new built from the ground up system that addresses everything in a way that makes sense?

I don't know, but that is my last hope for the iPad. It's an incredible piece of hardware hobbled over and over again by its software. Why buy it (and accessories and one of four pencils) when you can get a MacBook that does everything for the same price? Or get a better phone that does nearly everything and is a lot more portable.

The software is the key. Apple has to know this. It's not dumb. I personally don't know what the solution is to this problem, but I think a few hundred engineers in Cupertino are sure as hell smart enough to figure it out. June's announcements will be the perfect place to show that happening.

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