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By Jason Snell

iPadOS approaches the edge of desktop computing

An iPad Pro attached to a Pro Display XDR, in an Apple promotional video.

For a few years now, it’s seemed like the iPad has been on the precipice of a huge change. It can drive external displays, accept input via keyboard, and (as of a year ago) even has a pointer that can be driven by an external trackpad or mouse.

That’s the thing about precipices, though: beyond them is the chasm. On the other side is a very different place, occupied by very different creatures—it’s the realm of the personal computer. Sometimes it feels like the iPad is standing on the edge like a kid who has walked out all the way to the end of the diving board. You’ve come all this way, kid, and I know it’s scary, but at some point you have to summon your courage and make the leap.

I used to doubt Apple’s commitment to taking the iPad across the chasm. The introduction of the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro softened my doubt, but it’s this week’s arrival of the new iPad Pro—complete with a Thunderbolt port that can drive Apple’s huge Pro Display XDR at full resolution—that has eroded it completely: The iPad is about to take a leap into desktop computing.

With support for large external monitors and pointing devices added to iPadOS, all the pieces are finally there. What’s missing is the software. And I can see why it’s the final missing piece—because in many ways, it requires the biggest conceptual leap iOS and iPadOS have ever had to take.

macOS has a full-screen mode for its apps, but with a few exceptions it’s absolutely ridiculous to try to stretch a single app window across a 27-inch iMac, let alone the Pro Display XDR. But that’s the beauty of macOS: Full Screen and Split View are modes you can enter if you want to, but you can also opt to have a bunch of different floating windows of various sizes, organized as you like.

iPadOS doesn’t have that concept. Everything’s full screen, or split between two apps. That concept originated on the iPhone, where it made a lot of sense. On the iPad, it still works—though some apps do feel a bit sparse when stretched to fit on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen. But iPadOS needs the same option as macOS—the option to let the user arrange apps as desired, at sizes that make sense. It’s vitally important when you consider an enormous desktop display, but I’d take it on the iPad Pro screen too—I have a 13-inch MacBook Air and I rarely use it in full-screen, one-app-at-a-time mode either. There’s room for multilayering and multitasking.

The thought hit me this week as I was considering one of the arguments for the new 24-inch iMac in a world of laptops, iPads, and smartphones, namely that the big screen is better for multitasking. Not in the computery sense of multitasking, but in a simpler sense—keeping multiple windows open, whether they’re part of the same app or from different apps. From a Mac user’s perspective, this is obvious. But it’s a place the iPad has never gone before.

Apple’s been inching toward this technically—sticking its toes over the precipice—in a lot of subtle ways recently. iPadOS apps can run multiple windows now! But currently they only appear in full-screen, Split View, or Slide Over views, because that’s how iPadOS multitasking works.

On the Mac, though, iPad apps show what they’re capable of. Whether it’s iPad apps converted to the Mac via Catalyst, or iPad apps running directly in macOS on an M1 Mac, you can generally resize those app windows to different sizes, just as you could for any Mac app. Over the years, iOS apps have had to become adaptable, changing size and shape based on the size and shape of the device they’re running on. It’s an ability that also works pretty well if you’re in a context where every app lives inside a resizable frame floating over a desktop.

Another technical change that enables a new world for iPad apps is the addition of RAM. Up until this month, the most memory ever in an iPad was 6GB. Now the iPad Pro has 8GB standard, and the 1TB and 2TB storage models have twice that—16GB. These are the same RAM options as on all M1-based Macs.

The iPad Pro having more memory is important because it allows more apps to run at once. In the current iPadOS model, only a couple of apps are visible at a time—so memory is less of an issue. But if I can hook up an iPad to a 4K display and open a bunch of windows, each of which represents a different app, those apps will need memory so that they can keep running—just like on the Mac.

I really believe this is a direction Apple is going to take the iPad. But the devil is in the details, as always. This is a very hard problem, with a lot of ramifications that will cause major changes in how people use iPads. How do you offer multiple windows for users who want them, while keeping it simple for those who don’t? I think this is why we still haven’t seen proper support for running whole apps on external displays so far. If Apple’s going to do this, it needs to do it right—and doing it right really does necessitate a complete rethink of how apps work on iPadOS.

But all the pieces are there, now. I would be shocked—and a little disappointed—if Apple doesn’t deliver on this feature when it announces the next version of iPadOS at the WWDC keynote on June 7.

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