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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

WWDC 2022: “desktop-class” iPad apps

Editable toolbars come to the iPad.

Lost in the excitement about Apple finally breaking the iOS multitasking paradigm and introducing overlapping windows and support for external displays with Stage Manager was something that will probably have an even greater impact on users. Apple’s referring to it by the catch-all title of “Desktop-Class Apps”, but it’s a collection of feature updates and app updates in iPadOS 16 that should make using an iPad for productivity, especially with a keyboard and trackpad, a lot better.

Apple seems to have instructed everyone at Apple who’s building system iPad apps to take a hard look at their apps and ask, “Is there something this app can do on the Mac that it should be able to do on the iPad?” The answer isn’t necessarily going to be yes. Still, I suspect that it highlighted many features that only don’t appear on iPad because they were deemed too complicated to be used on the iPhone… and after that decision was made, it was never revisited.

(I’ve run up against this very problem myself, most notably in Numbers, where things would go swimmingly until I reached for a Mac feature and just couldn’t find it on the iPad. It’s frustrating, to say the least.)

The result should be nice improvements in stock Apple apps, including Calendar, Mail, Contacts, Safari, and Files. In particular, I noticed that Apple’s list of “desktop-class” features includes a bunch of printing-related features—unsurprising since printing has always been an afterthought on iOS.

A File menu, of a sort.

Apple’s also making changes to iPadOS 16 that will allow non-Apple apps to become more capable, too. Most notable is the addition of a much more complex, flexible set of toolbar styles. There are default toolbars in three different styles, based on the kind of app being built, each with specific defaults. Document-centric apps will get to populate a new menu next to the document’s name with document-related features, including renaming the file in place. (Think of it as… the File menu.)

But the big news here is that Apple is trying to get features out of the “more” button in the corner of the screen and display them front and center as toolbar icons. App developers can place a default set of toolbar icons, but—as has been on the Mac since the early days of OS X—they’re now editable, so users can customize their iPad app toolbars to make them fit the way they work.

The edit menu—that little floating lozenge that you see when you tap on an item or select text—has also been rejiggered. If you’ve got a pointer attached to your iPad, that menu becomes a vertical contextual menu similar to what you might see on macOS.

iPadOS 16 also rethinks the concept of making multiple selections. Owing to iOS’s history with touch-based devices, making multiple selections involved entering a selection mode and choosing items by tapping on them. (You can use the pointer to select multiple items, but they trigger the same multiple-selection mode.)

In iPadOS 16, you can use a cursor to select items by dragging around them or by holding down Shift or Command and clicking as you would do on the Mac—all without entering that multiple-selection mode. You’ll also be able to perform a secondary click1 to bring up a context menu full of actions to perform on the selected items. This will be an enormous productivity boost for certain apps in certain contexts.

Performing a search.

Another feature that always seemed to lag behind on iOS is search (and, perhaps more pointedly, search-and-replace). iPadOS 16 introduces a more advanced search feature systemwide that appears above the software keyboard—or, if you’ve got a keyboard attached, as a floating lozenge at the bottom of the screen. This is a productivity necessity, and it’s been frustratingly complex and inconsistent on the iPad for a long time.

iPadOS 16 also introduces a sortable table format that developers can use to display data. It’s got column headers that—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—you can click or tap on to sort the items in the table. This will be great in Files, or any app that displays a file browser. Shortcuts is also getting a new table view, complete with sorting.

Of course, all of these features have a second purpose: they will also make these iPad apps better citizens on the Mac when brought over via Mac Catalyst. Apple continues to push the iPad and Mac closer together, and as someone who uses both platforms to get work done, I’m happy to see it.

  1. I keep wanting to call this a “right-click” but of course it’s also a Control-click or, for most of us, a two-finger click. 

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