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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPadOS 13: The wish list meets reality

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

My initial thought, when sitting in the audience at Apple’s WWDC keynote, was that iPadOS 13 was going to present me with a remarkable number of items from my iPad wish list. And that’s not wrong—it looks like this release is going to check a lot of boxes—but the keynote never tells the whole story. Some features are omitted from the keynote but end up being huge in my overall estimation of a new release. And of course, some wished-for features are never mentioned because, after scouring feature-list web pages and installing developer betas, you hit the inescapable realization that they just aren’t there.

In the bubble of the convention center, you only hear what Apple wants to communicate. Once you leave the bubble, you begin to process what’s real and what’s not. Reality begins to set in. It’s a good thing—reality is where we (well, most of us) live. And reality, not the stuff of wish lists, is where new software releases run.

Let iPad be iPad

It’s fitting that the iPad’s operating system has now been given its own name, because this release feels like Apple’s final acceptance that reality—there’s that word again—sometimes gets in the way of its own idealism. The iPad (and iOS in general) was meant to be a clean break from old Personal Computer metaphors, but it turned out that some people in the real world still need to exchange files, log into servers, and open multiple document windows.

Rather than replicating the Mac, Apple has—as Federico Viticci puts it—taken some cues from the Mac’s solutions while implementing them in ways more appropriate for the iPad.

Take Files. This app started life as an iCloud Drive app, one that was invisible until you summoned it(!) because Apple was so afraid of confusing people with a file browser. But look at it now—in iPadOS 13 Apple has finally dropped all pretense of living in a post-PC world where file servers and thumb drives have been replaced by rainbows and butterflies. No, the iPad doesn’t have its own Finder, but if you need to work with files, iPadOS 13 will let you get the job done. Plug in a USB drive? It shows up in Files. Connect to an SMB server at your office? No extra software required.

Insert a USB drive or SD card and it appears!

Apple’s acceptance of people using an iPad with a keyboard also seems to have reached a new level. First there was that weird keyboard dock for the original iPad—but it was a one-off and Apple never seemed to be convinced it was a good idea. Still, iOS supported external Bluetooth keyboards, and that was something. Then with the iPad Pro, Apple actually offered its own keyboard case, and things got interesting. In iPadOS 13, though, it feels like there’s been a sea change. Apple has added lots of keyboard shortcuts to apps like Files and Safari and is now evangelizing developers to support iPad keyboards as a key step on the way to making good MacOS Catalina apps via Catalyst.

Unfortunately, there’s still more to do on this front. Users can’t assign systemwide keyboard shortcuts—not even to Shortcuts via one of its new automation triggers. Arbitrating keyboard shortcuts between the system and individual apps is hard, I know, but the Mac seems to manage—and it could unlock even more iPad productivity potential. There’s always next year.

Another Mac feature since the early days that never quite made the jump to iOS is third-party typefaces. Though you can install fonts using a weird workaround, it’s not remotely user friendly. With iPadOS 13, Apple is providing two different paths to adding typefaces. First, you can buy them on the App Store, which is probably a win-win for both Apple and type foundries who are undoubtedly plagued with font piracy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, apps can share their typefaces via an API, which should mean that all the fonts that come bundled with Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud should be available across all your iPad apps.

Browse like nobody’s tapping

Google Sheets is more functional in iPadOS 13 Safari than in the app.

One of the more revolutionary changes in iPadOS 13 will be Safari’s support for desktop-class browsing. While most websites work fine on the iPad, there are those that simply don’t work right—either because they force the iPad to view a simplified version for smartphones, because they were designed for devices without touchscreens, or both.

Owing to the fact that I still post stories using a CMS from the previous decade, I deal with this issue every day. Movable Type 4 has a series of drop-down menus that just don’t work with my iPad unless I tap really fast. In iPadOS 13, however, my first tap on those menus drops them down, and the second tap clicks through. Just like it works on my Mac.

There’s a lot of engineering going on behind the scenes to get to that “it just works” moment. Safari is viewing the JavaScript on the page and playing it forward, essentially peering into the future to recognize the context of each tap and decide if it’s better to emulate moving the mouse over the element or clicking through. The app is choosing the best behavior on a per-page basis—presumably with some strong hints here and there for compatibility with the most popular sites. (This is an area where this summer’s beta process might dramatically benefit the final product, as users test out Safari on all sorts of websites that Apple’s Safari engineers haven’t seen.)

And of course, the new download manager will mean you never have to tap on a link and instantly regret not using a Mac. In its tenth year of existence, the iPad can finally download files properly from the Internet. (Something it really couldn’t have done until the Files app was properly functional.)

I contain multitudes

It’s been four years since shared-screen multitasking first appeared in iOS 9, and iPadOS 13 moves the feature ahead in some fundamental ways. The big conceptual change is that now individual apps can appear multiple times, each one of them in a different state. It’s basically the iPad take on apps with multiple windows, and it’s got the potential to be both powerful and powerfully confusing.

As someone who works a lot on my iPad, I’m excited by the prospect of being able to open two app windows side by side, and even more by not being limited to a single instance of an app in multitasking situations. (I frequently want to run an app next to another app, and separately run it in full screen or next to an entirely different app. iPadOS 13 makes this possible.)

Expose for app windows will take some getting used to.

I am a little worried about how regular users will react to it, though. Not conceptually—dragging around a message in Mail seems perfectly reasonable—but in terms of housekeeping. What happens if you find yourself jumping around between different instances of Notes? Apple’s got something called App Exposé to help you track all those windows, but even on the Mac, Exposé is more of a power user feature. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m going to watch this one carefully to see if Apple can thread the needle in making power user features that don’t hopelessly confuse everyone else.

I’m also very excited about the changes Apple has made to Slide Over, which threaten to make it far more useful than ever before by adding iPhone X-style multitasking. In the past Slide Over has been a bear to use because only one app could live in it and getting an app out of it was way too fiddly a process. With this new approach, it’s like a virtual iPhone floating above your iPad screen, with all sort of different apps accessible with a swipe. We’ll see how much I use it in practice (Slide Over is not my primary method of iPad multitasking), but in principle it seems solid.

Three notes at once.

My disappointment, then, is that Split View multitasking doesn’t appear to have gotten any tweaks in iPadOS 13. This is the form of multitasking I use the most, and one of the great frustrations of using it is that it’s unclear at a glance which app is “frontmost” and therefore receiving keyboard input. Nor is there any way to toggle that state via the keyboard, so far as I can tell. I didn’t need a completely redesigned Split View experience, but I also see no evidence of Apple tightening a few screws here and there to make the existing experience better, and that’s disappointing.

Bullseye! It’s a cursor

Though it didn’t make the keynote, I’m enthusiastic about the fact that Apple has now added official support for external pointing devices to the iPad via the Assistive Touch feature in Accessibility settings. This site has been an advocate for iOS pointing devices since shortly after we arrived on the scene in 2014, and nearly five years later, the request has been fulfilled!

Yep, that round thing is a cursor.

Using an iPad with an external pointing device has the interesting effect of making you realize just how good Apple’s touch interface really is. A Mac cursor is so small and requires precision. Our fingertips are much larger and can’t provide that level of precision, so the interface has to be much more forgiving. If you use your Mac cursor-driving skills in iPadOS 13 you will immediately be frustrated by the giant cursor’s lack of precision… only to discover that if you click in more or less the right place, the iPad will somehow do the right thing.

That said, there’s an awful lot of room for improvement. That cursor’s smallest size is still too big, and doesn’t fade away when you’re actively using another input method (like touching the screen or using the keyboard), a classic personal-computer feature that helps keep the interface clean. It also doesn’t transform into the text-editing cursor when iPadOS is in text-editing mode.

You can assign mouse buttons to all sorts of actions, including Shortcuts, which is pretty amazing—but I’m surprised that (at least in this first beta) Apple’s own pointing devices aren’t better supported. The Magic Trackpad is built for multitouch gestures, but iPadOS 13 doesn’t seem to support them. I should be able to use a scroll wheel or two-finger scroll to scroll through documents on the iPad, but it’s just not there.

Fortunately, this is just the first developer beta, so I have a little hope that with a few tweaks this feature can be made much more usable than it is at present. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not nearly as good as it should be.

Dragging and dropping some text with the cursor.

Speaking of cursors and insertion points, Apple has done a re-think of text editing in iPadOS 13. On the keynote stage this looked fantastic. In real-world use… we’ll have to see. I’m encouraged by Apple’s embrace of direct selection of text, something I’ve been doing on my Kindle for a while now. Putting your finger down and sliding it to highlight or select text is really the most natural gesture available. I’ll need to see how the cut/copy/paste gestures fit into my brain, but I imagine I will adapt to them in no time.

I do wonder about that whole “drag the insertion point around with your finger” concept, though. In trying the new text-selection interface out, the only stumble I’ve had involved picking up the insertion point and sliding it around when what I really wanted to do was select some text. I’ve always been quite satisfied by tapping on text in order to make the insertion point jump around; I get that Apple needs a new gesture for precision placement, but it’s possible this feature needs a bit of tweaking this summer before it’s ready to be loosed on the world.

So many shortcuts, so little time

With iPadOS 13, Shortcuts has really made its transition from a third-party app acquired by Apple to an Apple-authored app that’s got the power of the whole operating system behind it. The addition of automation is huge, with an enormous number of triggers, allowing system integration of shortcuts far beyond what has ever existed before.

Still, there will undoubtedly be situations that can’t be covered by even the massive number of triggers now offered by Shortcuts. I mentioned keyboard shortcuts earlier, but I’m sure there will be more. And while I’m impressed with the new powers Shortcuts has added in the last year, this is one app that’s got an enormous backlog of to-do items for future releases, including adding better organization of individual shortcuts (via folders or a tagging interface), adding copy and paste of shortcuts blocks, and doing even more to make Shortcuts run behind the scenes rather than by launching and displaying all the steps of a shortcut.

Shortcuts has so much potential, but I have to keep reminding myself that there’s only so much one small team at Apple can accomplish in a year. There’s a lot of incredible stuff in Shortcuts for iPadOS 13, and I’m looking forward to digging into it. As for the rest of the stuff on my list… I look forward to iPad OS 14.

Reality hits back

As a podcaster I’m keenly interested in how Apple approaches audio on iOS, and change seems to be happening, but I’m not sure what it means. Inter-app audio is being deprecated in favor of Audio Units v3. My hope is that this means Apple has a larger vision for audio on iOS, which might one day lead to better support for multiple input and output devices, per-app audio routing, and support for utilities such as Audio Hijack that can record audio from different apps and input devices while they’re running. This is a key part of my Mac workflow and it’s a place where iOS still feels primitive.

And then there’s Photos. I have been writing a book about the Photos app every year since its release, and some updates are more eventful than others. This update is pretty enormous, as Apple seems to have chucked out its entire concept of events (again) in favor of a different machine-learning-driven approach to days, months, and years.

I am going to have to spend the summer digging into it, but what I’m encouraged by is that Apple knows their approach to photo libraries isn’t good enough (and that the competition in this area, especially from Google Photos, is stiff). There’s a whole article, and then some, about what Apple’s doing with Photos. And I’ll write that… later.

There’s so much more, and it will take the whole summer to digest it all. Overall, I’m excited by iPadOS and where Apple is taking the iPad. But it wouldn’t be the post-WWDC hangover period if I weren’t also realizing that some of my most wished-for items just didn’t make it, or didn’t manifest themselves in the way I’d hoped. But that’s okay—this is natural any time fantasy crashes into cold, hard reality.

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