Article: Defensive

by on July 9, 2016

Ever since the iPad was introduced, it has been dismissed as a content consumption device. Part of that seems to be that its initial sales were very good, and Steve Jobs introduced it as a device between your iPhone and a computer. Even some six years later, there is a large chunk of the technology-using population that is very vocal about what an iPad should be used for and its overall value. Most of these are negative comments, further complaining about the idea of content consumption, arguing that such a device could never be used for "real" productivity work or that the iPad is a useless device because it can't do a specific task that they arbitrarily picked out.

I think these people should shut up.

Just because an iPad cannot serve a purpose for you, doesn't mean that it's a useless product. My day job requires a few tasks that an iPad cannot complete right now, so I use a MacBook Air. I have colleagues that prefer Windows and they've used a mix of traditional PC laptops and Microsoft Surface Pros. While we could rehash the Mac-versus-PC debates and turn it into some worn out argument, we use the machines that allow us to be most productive and get on with our lives. That concept has pretty much been solved, except when it comes to the iPad. Even now, I hear little jabs that the iPad is lacking, and that seems to echo the sentiment that are on various discussion boards and technology columnists. Some of the common reasons why it's dismissed include:

  • You cannot work with disks or access a file system.
  • You cannot use an (micro) SD card with it.
  • There is no USB port.
  • It's running a phone operating system, so it's not as powerful as a real computer.
  • Why can't you use a mouse with it?
  • It would be nice if it could run OS X.
  • Apple is dumb for not supporting Flash.
  • …and the list goes on from there, but much of the same type of complaining.

The funny part for me is, outside of IT/geek circles, a number of these become non-issues. Besides that, I'm sure you could make a comparable "failure" list thirty years ago with the earliest of Macs, when contrasted with the IBM PC, its clones, and the Apple II series.

Never Enough

Therein lies the problem. The iPad sold well initially because it was new, lightweight, and interesting. Many were put into use for various tasks, namely content-consumption, that everyone forgot about the fact that the iPad is still a computer and relies on quality software to empower users. Once hardware and apps matured, users could create all sorts of things, often just as efficiently as their Windows- or Mac-using counterparts.

There's often the "that requires extra steps" argument when it comes to iPad productivity, and that sometimes is the case. On the other hand, what is often overlooked is that sometimes iOS requires fewer steps or just is less cumbersome, especially when content manipulation works better with your hands, such as on-screen virtual controls, or artistic projects.

I almost get a sense of fear from those that are quick to dismiss iOS as a place to do real work, as though Apple is going to go iOS-only and take away their Macs. If your work flow is better on a Mac, there are plenty of excellent machines available. The argument that the iPad would be better with OS X also irks me, mostly because that seems to defeat the purpose of a touch-based device—I've used OS X through Screens and Windows 7, 8, and 10 through Microsoft Remote Desktop on my iPad Pro and found that none of those operating systems feel as natural in-hand.

Apple is partly to blame for the negative attitudes towards iPads as primary computers, as, from an iPad perspective, the company seemed to mostly rest on their laurels with iOS 6, 7, and 8. Features that certainly were added, but it wasn't until things like split-screen multitasking, picture-in-picture, and the extra on-screen keyboard functions in iOS 9 that the iPad got some much-needed attention. I hope that with iOS 10, Apple continues to add capabilities to make the iPad stand out and not just have the same interface as a blown up iPhone.

Still, let's take a minute to just reflect than even the 12.9" iPad Pro, the biggest and most powerful iOS device yet, still only weighs a pound and a half, is about 7mm thick, and runs for ten hours on a charge. Have we gotten so spoiled that something powerful, thin, and lightweight, with all-day battery life isn't amazing?


In some ways, where the iPad supposedly fails, the Surface family seem to be the darling of the tech press, and rightfully so. Microsoft has made a pretty nice product and they have brought a new form factor to an old idea. However, almost all Surfaces I've seen in use quickly revert to being used like traditional PCs, based around the keyboard and trackpad. Obviously, by being able to rip the Type Cover off, there is a bit more flexibility, often in favor of a desktop keyboard and mouse.

The idea of an interesting new form factor for something much of the same is what has me so against the idea of OS X on an iPad. While I own and use a Mac personally, it's mostly for a few specific tasks, and spends a lot of time asleep. If something terrible were to happen where I'd have to start from scratch with both my data and computing hardware, I'm not so sure I would need or want to replace my Mac—it's mostly a security blanket and link to a few hard drives with archived content.

It's easy to come up with a list of things my Mac can do that my iPad Pro cannot, but for my use, I find myself caring less. When was the last time I ripped a DVD? When was the last time I messed with disk images? When was the last time I used some oddball tool that required Java? Heck, when was the last time I recorded or edited a podcast? (Okay, that's mostly due to laziness, and doable on an iPad now with Ferrite.) There's less I could do, but the gap between what I'm able to actually do is quite small. The number of steps to complete tasks is also comparable.

Besides that, I find iOS to be more enjoyable. It's hard to pinpoint, but I'm willing to trade the ability to customize every aspect of my system with a pleasant user experience seems well thought-out. Much as OS X was a fresh start in the age of the Internet, as compared to Mac OS 9's 1984 lineage, iOS started when Wi-Fi was ubiquitous, computers connected to cloud services, and social media reigned supreme.

Sure, until we get to the day that Xcode (or its equivalent) runs on iOS, the Mac's future is safe. I recognize the limitations of iOS and the iPad's hardware, but I also see it much in the same light as the original Mac's limitations in the age of MS-DOS, BASIC, and ProDOS.

I'm guessing if you were to somehow time travel with a more primitive iPad (iPad 2?) loaded with a range of productivity tools, folks in the 1980s or early 1990s would be amazed at the options for getting work done. Obviously, there's the issue of connectivity (which would happen with a current Mac or PC, too), but looking at the iPad on its own, rather than through the lens of OS X or Windows tasks will yield a perfectly capable computer.

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