Essays on Technology and Culture

The iPad of 2015 is the Mac of 1990

The release of the iPad Pro has rekindled the endless debate that has plagued Apple discussion over the last five years. No, not the “Is Apple doomed?” debate. That one is older than five years. It’s the “Can you do real work on an iPad?” debate. We’ve gone around and around in circles on this. One side cites the limits of the iPad hardware, the limits of iOS, and the limits of the App Store against doing “real” work. The other side cites the expansion of “power user” features in iOS, the massive computing power of the latest generation of iPads, and the few standouts who get by with an iPad as their primary computer. And then another major iteration happens, and we all start writing think-pieces again.

Seriously, if I see another tweet about how the iPad is only useful for writing 30,000 word iPad reviews, I will scream.

I have to draw comparisons to the original Macintosh. When it dropped in 1984, the attitude from many tech people was that it was a toy, not something you can do real work on. Macs had limited software support, no PC compatibility, a tiny black and white display, no command line, no multitasking… I’m only a fairly recent Mac convert, switching in 2005, but I recall this “Macs are toys” attitude persisting among PC users until the 2000s, long after many of these issues were resolved. The tide might have turned around OS X 10.3, which came out in 2003. In other words, it took nearly twenty years for attitudes to change around the Macintosh and deem it worthy for doing “real” work.

The iPad as a platform is five years old, iOS is eight years old. They’ve changed a lot in that time span, and not just visually. There are still limitations to both, but a lot fewer than there were even a year ago. There were professionals using Macintoshes to do all their work in the 1990s, but they were a rare breed. We’re approaching the iPad equivalent of the 1990s now, and the iPad Pro is equivalent to the beloved Macintosh II. Will it be enough to turn the tide and make iPads the computer for everyone?

No. At least, not yet.

Ten years from now, iPad and iOS will have another decade of development under its belt. The limitations that make the platform unsuitable for whatever you do that makes you stick to a Mac will almost certainly be gone by then. Likely, they’ll be gone sooner. Ask yourself if you can do all your work on a Macintosh II, or even a Mac 512k. The answer is probably going to be no, but that’s fine—they don’t make those anymore. Now ask yourself if you think you’ll be able to do all your work on the iPad of 2025. The answer to that is almost certainly yes. We just have to wait until then.