Unifying iPadOS and macOS

Around every single WWDC or major OS release the question if macOS and iPadOS will be merged comes up. There are usually enough signs that might suggest this as a possibility - the design language is slowly converging, the iPad is now running on the same hardware as the new Macs and cross platform development is an important part of their announcements recently. Apple was pretty clear so far that there are no efforts to merge the two operating systems, but as we know Apple changes their opinion from time to time.

If you ask anyone who grew up with Windows or macOS and got sufficiently proficient in using one of those systems, they will be quick to dismiss the idea as one of the worst once you can have. Look at how unproductive working on iPadOS is! Multitasking is nearly impossible. File management? Good joke. Poweruser or not, if you are used to moving files around and having multiple windows open, mobile device operating systems are not the most easy interface to use.

But what about the rest of Apples potential userbase? What about people who grew up with touch devices? What about people who never learned how to use many of the features a computer offers?

Let us talk about three different people in my life.

First we got my wife's little sister. Around three or four years old she snatched an old iPad and clicked on YouTube videos. It did not take long for her to figure out how to unlock it, open YouTube and watch a cartoon. It is the little red-white icon. It shows a fun picture you tap on. Pretty intuitive for her. If and when kids should starting using technology is something I leave up to you to decide - not my kids not my problem, but she helps making my point, so who am I to judge.

We got my... actually I got no idea - a girl around 13, who is somehow related to me. Her mother decided to move 400km away from where they lived, closer to us. And she had literally nothing she could bring, all tech was her dads. Luckily I got some spare hardware for emergencies and we equipped her with a MacBook, an iPad and a small TV with an AppleTV. When I handed her the iPad she clicked on Settings and set up wifi. AppleTV? She could identify the icon easily and setup wifi. MacBook? Blank stares and most likely questioning what she is supposed to do with this thing. She knows how to use touch interfaces and how to read app names displayed on her home screen - she was already using a smartphone. But a computer? Not so much.

My dad was never interested in computers, but got a lot better with age. He can find his way around his Mac and a Windows VM he has for bookkeeping software. I would call it "the bare miniumum knowledge" for email, video calls, bookkeeping and writing some documents. But on his iPad he runs multiple windows, annotates photos or screenshots, figured out how to capture audio and much more. He started using the Mac and an iPad roughly at the same time.

All three of them have something in common - no prior disposition on a specific workflow or operating system.

What iPadOS achieved is delivering an intuitive user interface, which is mostly self-explanatory. Obviously not all of it, there are advanced user features like multi tasking you simply cannot discover if you do not read the manual. But you can get things done fairly quickly still. And sometimes you accidentally discover them, and then have to consult the manual how to get rid of them.

There are a lot of people who primarily browse the web, chat and write or work with spreadsheets in a very "single task - single document" way. Now guess what the iPad is really good at. (Especially when paired with a keyboard.) They usually do not care about organising files. If they want to send one, they click a button and use the file picker. Mission accomplished. The way iPadOS works is intuitive for people. They can translate things they learned on smartphones. The chances of messing up your device or running in hard to recover errors are far smaller than on any desktop operating system. I would even go so far and say you have to actively try to mess up iPadOS to get to a point where you cannot get it back into a working state.

As a power user, software engineer or any form of professional user with more sophisticated workflows, this most likely sounds far from optimal to you - and I agree. I tried using the iPad for software development and gave up. It kind of works, but it feels like forcing the square piece into the round hole.

The iPad would be the perfect device for me if I could force it into a more macOS like mode. Multiple windows, smaller interactions targets suitable for a mouse and running dekstop apps like JetBrains IDEs.

MacOS would be far easier for beginners and newcomers to use if it would borrow more ideas from iPadOS - like presenting Launchpad instead of a regular desktop as "default homescreen".

But in the end, both ideas are arguably bad - because these platforms are not meant to be the same thing. They both go against anything the respective platform is as of today, and undermine the appeal the respective platform has for their users. Generally, you can play this out the exact same way with every single argument for unifying those platforms.

While the iPad is getting more powerful for no apparent reason, it does not change the fact that it is an iPad. Single, maybe double window workflows, focusing on one task. MacOS is borrowing some ideas that worked really well on the iPad (like control center), but it sticks true to its origins of a mouse and keyboard driven device.

When people talk about Apple unifying both systems, it is often in the context of the design language getting closer with every release. Which makes a lot of sense, you want to enable people transitioning to a new device class and being productive immediately. To have a familiar interface and a kind of "fells like home" moment helps to keep the entry barrier as low as possible. But this is happening on a very high level, it does not change the underlying complexity of using the system. As long as iPads are not marketed to be the only daily driver someone is using, you have to make transitioning easy. It helps you sell more devices.

Having said all this: Unifying both systems is not the solution. But having the majority of users understand that the iPad is all they need, and having macOS designed for power users seems like a far better idea to me.

One argument usually mentioned against merging both operating system is the loss in revenue, if people would do all their work on an 600€ iPad instead of an 1400€ MacBook. With its last incarnation there is no loss in revenue anymore. An iPad Pro with the M1 chip and Magic Keyboard is actually more expensive than a MacBook. There is even a chance they would make more by selling additional accessories, like the Apple Pencil.

As good as the hardware is, iPads are not there yet. Try attaching an external screen and you will immediately understand what I mean. And with small annoyances - like external screens only mirroring the iPads display in an aspect ratio that does not make sense for the screen attached, or the completely unusable multi tasking - it will take a few more iPadOS iterations before people will perceive the iPad as a solid primary / only daily driver.

But we will get there. Remember the little ones in my extended family I mentioned earlier. They grow up on touch devices. They find macOS strange and hard to use. They are being trained on iOS and Android. Guess why Google is so eager to get Chromebooks in the hands of children for school work? They grow up and know how to use Google Docs and Sheets and that they can do all their work on a Chromebook. Once they enter the workforce, they want a device they know. They want software they know how to use. This is a really long game they are playing.

I believe Apple when they say they are not planning to unify their operating systems. If I would have to make a long term prediction, I would say they are actively working on getting the majority of customers to go iPad only, while reducing their computer offering to a few systems for power users.

We can spin this further into an intersting thought experiment. What could the end game of such a strategy look like? Transition out of the computer market purely into mobile devices? Move everything requiring lots of hardware resources to the cloud as Chromebooks do? Simplified app development? Automatically iPadOS-ify macOS apps as shared frameworks increase and you can simply swap out the UI layer? Forcing the hand of companies to ship iPadOS software equal to their Mac offering? There are possible ways to make any of those scenarios happen. But they would all cannibalise the really high budget hardware market which means a drop in hardware revenue - something not many companies try to actively pursue, except they can replace lost hardware margins with service subscriptions.

Update1: Some good discussion with interesting points on HackerNews

>> posted on Aug. 14, 2021, midnight in apple, ios, ipados, usability