iPad Pro: A professional tablet with a phone operating system and an everything for $1 store?

Steve Jobs never understood “business“. Don’t get me wrong: he did understood how to make money. He did understand how to run a company (kind of). Most of all he very much understood consumers.. but he never understood organisations; least of all how to sell to them. I’m not sure I cared then or now.

The iPad Pro brings us a decent stylus, something that was anathema to Jobs, but in many other ways Tim Cook’s Apple seems little different from Jobs’ Apple when it comes to understanding the “Pro” crowd.

The stylus (sorry “Apple Pencil”) is a great step in the right direction for both Apple and for the iPad.  It shows that Apple is capable of listening to reason and putting out-dated home-brew memes behind itself. It is a long due improvement for iPad users in the creative fields, as well as for people who like taking hand-written notes or just like doodling; I’ve gone through a host of really crappy slightly-better-than-meat-pencils accessories and I’ve been lusting after a Wacom Cintiq Companion for ages. I even own a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and a Live Scribe Sky Wifi Pen, so I’m clearly desperate.

It’s a few years late because Steve carefully crafted the meme that styluses are bad at everything just to rubbish Microsoft’s earlier attempts at creating tablets. I doubt he even really believed it himself, but it did make a great one-liner and for years Apple devotees could finish every conversation about styluses with a superior “you have no taste”.. unless they themselves owned a bunch of rubbish styluses just like me..

The new iPad Pro keyboard is a pure Microsoft Surface rip-off even though they changed the hinge to make it much less practical. Quite probably this was done to make it a little different from the Surface’s and quite definitely because Johnny Ive had a stroke when somebody suggested putting a stand at the back of his iPad.

What’s a real shame is that they didn’t put 3D Touch on the iPad Pro. A standardized right-click tap would have made the iPad much more productive than the tap-and-hold right-click. Once again Apple deliberately makes a product worse than it has to be, just so that they can upgrade all the iPads to 3D Touch in its next iteration. It’s not a winning strategy unless you can afford it.

Another omission is that of a trackpad on the keyboard. You’ll probably say “just tap the screen dummy!“, but once you’ve used a Microsoft Surface you realise that having a trackpad on the keyboard is essential. It makes “mousing” around the screen much more efficient (because of the up-scaling of the motion), avoids awkward reaching motions and plain “puts you in command”.

None of this really matters though. The iPad Pro won’t take business users by storm anyway. It’s not going to be a complete dud, but it’s not going to make the iPad into a serious productivity tool either.

The reasons for this are (almost) too many to mention. The two that are going to kill it are the App Store ecosystem and the operating system, but there are plenty more besides.

iOS is a smartphone operating system designed for quick, simple, casual interactions on a small touch screen. It’s been conceived for the iPhone form factor. It has been scaled up to the iPad, but the iPad was and remains a big phone without the phone features. iOS never really embraced the larger screen. In recent years Apple has almost completely ignored the iPad in its iOS revisions. iOS 7 pretty much forgot about it altogether. On the rare occasions that Apple does bother to demo iPads at all, it’s always to showcase some game or other.

iOS is rubbish at supporting keyboards. Yet the keyboard is a crucial part of what makes people productive on a Mac or a PC for that matter. Any experienced computer user knows how to zip around the screen using a combination of the arrow, tab and escape keys and keyboard shortcuts. Command-C and Command-V sound familiar? In many respects, Windows is still much superior to even Mac OS X when it comes to keyboard navigation. You can get quickly into any menu and select any option, whereas on the Mac you can do this but it’s really just for masochists (Command-F2 is it?).

All this keyboard navigation magic requires an infrastructure in the operating system. In Windows much of it is automatic, on the Mac it’s a lot of hard work in most cases. On iOS.. well even if there was a decent infrastructure, no developer would ever paid any attention to it. Even in Apple’s own apps a simple thing like the arrow and tab keys working is by no means a sure thing. More often than not when you connect a third party keyboard to an iPad, you are enter a world of frustration. Nothing works. Half the time you need to tap around the screen at arms length to perform even the most basic editing tasks. In fact, writing on the iPad is not half as frustrating as editing on the iPad.. in that way it is very similar to dictation features.

The video with the iPad Pro sitting flat on the desk with its full-size on-screen keyboard was hilarious. Who could type like that for more than a few minutes at most? How many hours of chiropractor’s work is involved in undoing the neck strain that you’d get after a mere hour of sitting like that?

So in practice, if you’re going to be typing long articles on the iPad Pro and you don’t have the keyboard cover, you’ll have it propped up on something. It might as well be the keyboard cover. In fact is there even a non-keyboard cover for the iPad Pro?

Again the much maligned Microsoft Surface is much more practical in that respect. It has a great built-in kickstand that means you can angle it even if you don’t have the keyboard cover on it. Great idea me thinks!

So you’re there, doing your “Pro” work on your iPad Pro in landscape mode, with the device propped up on its keyboard cover, seething at the fact that keyboard don’t work properly. Now, you’re faced with the biggest question of all: where’s the productivity software?

Well, Microsoft to the rescue: they have Office on the iPad. It’s probably not anything near as good as Office on the Mac or on a PC, but it looks like they’ve put a lot of effort in. The keyboard seems to be functional for navigation as well as for plain old typing. You still don’t have a file system, so you’ll have to use some kind of cloud service (surely not iCloud), but you can get some work done that way.

Beyond Office, however, you’ll soon fall into the abyss and then on your way down you’ll find it’s a bottom-less pit.. at least you won’t die since it’s not the falling that kills you. There is very little serious business-minded productivity software on the iPad and there quite possibly will never be. The reason for this is that nobody writes productivity business software for fun. Serious people write serious (aka boring) software for profit and there is none to be made on the iPad.

Apple’s App Store has long been a particular gripe of mine. Its business model encourages throw-away getting-rich-quickly software (games) and free (aka get-big-quick venture capital funded) software but nothing in between. Professional grade productivity is sold on a pay-up-front basis and relies on a constant upgrade revenue stream.

The solution so far has been for companies like Adobe or Microsoft to make the software free on the iPad and require an out-of-App Store subscription to a “service” like Office 360 or Creative Cloud. This gets around the 30% Apple share of anything sold on the App Store and its lack of upgrade options. This option is, however, neither available to most App Store developers, nor practical for most software.

The current state of the App Store is not tenable for Pro-level productivity software. About the only people making any serious money with productivity apps on the App Store is the OmniGroup. They prove that it is at least possible, but they benefit from intense promotion though Apple. Without that constant promotion of their products on the App Store one doubts  that they would be able to sustain their business.

This also shows the fragility of making software for the App Store: Make fun of Eddie Cue’s shirt while he’s standing next to you at the bar and your company is finished. More seriously, you are putting the fate of your company into Apple’s hands and Apple is not known for taking good care of its partners (developers included) and very well known for brusque unapologetic changes of direction that put people out of business.

The worst thing about the App Store is, however, the pricing. It takes a lot of time to make professional level software. Porting Adobe Photoshop to iOS would consume more than a man-lifetime; probably very much more. God only knows how much the Office port has cost Microsoft and they are still a long way from having parity with their PC versions.

You can’t expect anybody to put in that much time and money for a small and shrinking market where everything is $0.99 (or I guess $1.99 if you have an iPad, iPad Pro, iPhone, Apple Watch & Apple TV universal app).

The once vibrant Mac productivity software market shows that a marketplace where the majority of users are prepared to pay a fair price for high-quality software is possible, but even the Mac market is suffering through a combination of unsustainable race-to-the-bottom pricing and the other ill-effects of the Mac App Store with its stifling rules and arbitrarily enforced “guidelines”.

There are products on the Mac App Store that are doing very well, but it’s only the ones that get promoted by Apple. Apple tends to promote software that looks nice and/or is cheap and/or is written by people with a strong voice in the Mac community. You can’t rely on that.

Where in my opinion does this leave the iPad Pro? Between a rock and a hard place.

Apple is used to having people queue up to write software for their devices no matter what. The early days mobile gold rush is, however, slowly coming to a halt. There are today many more developers who have tried and failed to make money from the App Store than those who have had positive experience (the stats suggest something like 10,000 to 1). As a result, most developers have grown more cautious on how they spend their time. iPad sales are faltering. Many developers already regard the iPad market as “dead” with no money to be made; they are probably right.

It is hard to see who is going to be willing to invest much more time and effort to make much more complex and feature rich applications for a new niche within a shrinking market. Worse yet, because Apple is hiding the true cost of the iPad Pro by making keyboard and pencil optional extras, developers won’t even be able to rely on these accessories being present. How many iPhone developers are going to be spending $1,000+ to test their software on a huge iPad? Not many. This makes me believe that main-stream support for adequate keyboard navigation and pen input is going to be very slow in coming, if it is coming at all.

For the foreseeable future then, the iPad Pro is destined to be no more than a curiosity and its users will be just as frustrated as Microsoft Surface users are today. The hardware is there, but the software isn’t and probably won’t ever be.

Changing this will require a change of heart from Apple and Apple, regrettably, has become too big to be nimble, too successful to be humble, too set in its ways to welcome change.. and I suspect too afraid to change a winning formula.

After all that moaning: Will I get one? Hell, YES!

I’ve been waiting for an iPad with a decent stylus since it first came out. I’ve been wanting a bigger iPad to read my Magazines (I’m 43 and my eyes could be better) and Comics (I’m still young damn it) on for just as long. So count me in.

Will I be writing long blog posts on it? No. That might be a good thing 🙂