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An argument that Apple’s failure isn’t with the iPad; it’s with the Mac.

The ARM Mac

There’s been much consternation amongst Apple watchers for the past week about the iPad. It’s ten years old and while everyone was singing the praises of the most recent iPad Pro when it was released in 2018, there’s been a growing sense of frustration with the way iOS works on it. Apple renamed the iPad version iPadOS last year and sought to introduce new features to better unlock the device’s power for power users but it hasn’t resulted in what many commentators wanted.

Except what do they want? Amidst the gnashing of metaphorical teeth and rending of… hopefully metaphorical garments, there’s not been much in the way of specifics. The user interface of the iPad is opaque it seems and the simplicity that was once hailed is now viewed as an impediment. But what exactly could Apple do?

Technology analyst Ben Thompson was on last week’s episode of The Talk Show podcast and his take was refreshingly contrarian. Thompson argued1 that Apple’s mistake was not in keeping power users from exploiting their iPads to the fullest, it was—in so many words—in trying to give them turbo mode. To paraphrase, the iPad was not designed to be a complicated multitasking device and would never succeed at that.2

That’s very different from the chorus of takes doing the rounds about the iPad’s user interface lacking the affordances that would make it truly useful as a content creation dynamo. How to square this circle? The people who say they want the iPad to quote-unquote ‘be more powerful’ really do seem to want the iPad to expose more of its complexity; they just want it to be done in a more coherent way. Is this merely a case of people not knowing what they want?

In a sense, yes. But it’s not because iPad power users don’t want more complexity. They do. What they don’t really want is the iPad. What they want is an ARM-based Mac.

Complexity is a solved problem on the Mac. Indeed, it is central to its design. It is a machine and an operating system built around the inherently complex concept of the virtual ‘document’: a concept that is both deeply weird and utterly taken for granted. iOS is built around the concept of apps. And really ‘app’ because as Thompson explained, the iPad (and the iPhone that came before it) were always about giving over the entire device to one app at one time. Everything that pretends otherwise grates.

And yet we have no ARM-based Mac. Apple refuses to build it. Or rather while they most likely have built it, they refuse to build them. They’ve told us it’s because it’s not ergonomic to have to reach up to touch the screen even as they now sell iPads with an ad campaign built around a keyboard that you use while reaching up to touch the screen.

When I mused about this on social media, the response was vociferous:3 iPad users do not want this. Strong evidence that this diagnosis is mistaken. I think the difference is due to a lack of effective terminology. I don’t mean a MacBook with an ARM processor in place of the Intel one. I mean an ARM-based device running macOS and all that that would make possible. A device with the weight to power ratio that resets our current conception of a notebook computer. Still disagree? ✺

  1. It’s a long episode but I’m thinking particularly of the discussion around 2 hours and 11 minutes in.

  2. To be fair to Thompson, the major thrust of his argument was about developer business models and the extent to which Apple has failed to support them. This is an important point but I think the argument about the iPad being overly complicated in the most recent releases is insightful and can stand on its own.

  3. OK, so there were two people. But that’s a lot for me!