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As posted on The iPad is almost good enough for doing real work now. Almost.

Remember when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, back in 2010?

He said the iPad is not only a new device — it’s a new category of devices, right in the middle between the smartphone and the laptop. And to live up to that promise, it had to be better at certain tasks than either the laptop or the smartphone. Jobs then listed these tasks: browsing the web; reading emails; enjoying photos, videos, and music; playing games; and reading ebooks. 

In a word, Jobs defined the iPad as a device for consuming content, with some light productivity on the side. 

“Otherwise, it has no reason for being,” Jobs said during his keynote. 

Fast forward seven years in the future, to Monday’s WWDC 2017 keynote, and Apple sings a very different tune. The main focus of nearly all the iPad-related announcements was productivity. We were, for example, shown how you can create a professional-looking poster on a shiny new 10.5-inch iPad Pro in minutes. The iPad now has Files, its Finder equivalent, which is hugely important for productivity. We got better multitasking and drag-and-drop. In short, we are now supposed to do real work on the iPad, using its powerful processor, beautiful touchscreen, and a host of accessories including a keyboard and a stylus. 

It’s a reasonable course of action. The tablet market is not in very good shape, and Apple is trying to move forward. My guess is that everyone who wanted an iPad bought one and doesn’t need a new one every year. My iPad mini 2 still works reasonably well, even though it’s four years old. It’s not as intense a device as the smartphone, where every little detail counts. Browsing the web or enjoying a movie while laid back on the sofa? You can do that on an old iPad. So Apple had apparently decided that positioning the iPad as a productivity device is the way to go. And some of the updates on the new iPad will surely help owners do more real work on iPads. 

The way we interact with computers hasn’t fundamentally changed in seven years. 

The problem is, the way we interact with computers hasn’t fundamentally changed in those seven years since Jobs had shown the original iPad. 

There were changes, yes: The smartphone has gotten bigger and better and has cannibalized the small tablet market. And with its Surface lineup of devices, Microsoft has pushed hard to make the laptop essentially become the tablet. 

But if you’re inside Apple’s ecosystem, you still do real work on the Mac. There’s just no comparison. The MacBook keyboard is better. The processor is far more powerful. The connectivity options are vastly better. You can’t open your iPad at home, connect it to a 4K monitor and a few terabytes of external storage, connect an external keyboard and mouse to it, and start working.

Even if you’re OK with a more modest iPad-based office setup, you’ll hit a wall now and then. The iPad still shares the iPhone’s DNA. It doesn’t run desktop apps. Many web apps won’t work properly on it. For the majority of users, the iPad just doesn’t have the chops to be the primary productivity machine. 

My guess? Apple’s new 10.5-inch iPad Pro and the new features for iPads in iOS 11 won’t boost iPad sales. Users who need something for work will again opt for a MacBook. 

New multitasking on the iPad looks great, but it would be even better if I could do it with a mouse.

New multitasking on the iPad looks great, but it would be even better if I could do it with a mouse.

To truly make the iPad a productivity device, Apple will need to do something radical. Change the operating system. It can be an iOS/macOS hybrid. It can be a touch-friendly version of macOS (something Apple has been adamantly against so far). It can be an iOS variant that plays well with the mouse. It can be anything, as long as it behaves more like a desktop OS. In short, Apple will have to take a cue from Microsoft, who’d decided a long time ago that the tablet is the brother of the laptop and not the smartphone. 

The way Windows does touchscreen is not ideal. I understand why Apple is reluctant to mix mouse-based operation with a touchscreen; it’s clunky and it’s tough to make it work right. But the tablet’s touchscreen does not work well in 9-hours-per-day, sitting-in-your-office scenario. You’re not going to lean over all the time to touch things. You need a mouse or a trackpad. And a bigger screen. And a lot of other things the iPad doesn’t support. 

This may never happen. Apple might be perfectly content to wrestle with Surface-style hybrids with two separate devices, the iPad and the MacBook, until a new paradigm shows up and shakes up the way we do things on our computer. But the iPad is so close to a real laptop, it just needs a little push to become a useful replacement. 

While Apple ponders this, the world will continue to use iPads primarily for consuming content with a little work on the side. We’ll live, either way. 

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