Image Courtesy Apple, Inc.
macOS On iPad Pro? It’s Complicated.
How Apple will (and won’t) bring macOS to the M1 iPad Pro.
It’s been a year since I wrote a story about WWDC 21 and how Apple lost a new M1-based iPad sale due to mismanaged expectations.
To put it bluntly, iPad OS 15 wasn’t the OS upgrade I was looking for, and so I moved along.
What I wanted, you see, was the ability to run professional apps on the recently announced M1-based iPad Pro, especially when paired with the Magic Keyboard and trackpad. With an 8 or 16 GB M1 chip onboard, I wanted the ability to run Xcode, or Final Cut Pro.
I wanted something that would utilize the power and promise of that M1 chip. I dreamed of being able to run the same tools and applications I could run on a 13″ MacBook Pro or MacBook Air that had the same exact processor and capabilities.
But when the iPad OS announcements rolled around, what Apple gave us instead were better, more “discoverable” tile-based multitasking modes. No Xcode, although Playgrounds was beefed up a bit. Definitely no Final Cut Pro. And definitely nothing that looked like macOS.
So, order cancelled.
Now a new Apple patent has appeared and it looks like my wish is about to be granted. Or will it?
Let’s get into it, starting with the patent.
In short, it appears as if we could be getting a new Microsoft Surface-style keyboard for the iPad Pro. But what set speculation ablaze across the internet was the second illustration, which showed the interface that a tablet-based system might display when connected to that keyboard.
A menu bar. Windows. Is this it? Is macOS coming to the iPad? Are we finally getting a touchscreen-based Mac?
Well, like I said before, I think the answer is… complicated.
At first glance, it all seems simple enough. Attach a keyboard with a trackpad to an M1-based iPad Pro and boom! Magic happens! The system reconfigures and we get to run applications with windows. We get menus. We get fine-grained controls. We get applications, not just apps.
Wonderful! But think about that for a second. Because there’s a rather significant question that remains to be answered: Just what happens to those apps when the keyboard is disconnected?
What happens when the docked iPad becomes an iPad once more?
Does all of your work just vanish?
That would be a terrible experience, would it not? In fact, it’s a “solution” that’s so bad I could hardly see Apple condoning it. So… what? Just let the formerly windowed applications go full-screen?
That could work, but then we’re left with the issue that’s plagued full-fledged tablet-based applications from day one.
Namely that most desktop application interfaces are designed to be used with cursors and mice and trackpads. Interfaces that require a much, much finer element of manipulation and control than that afforded by humans with fat-tipped fingers. It’s one of the major, fundamental reasons why the iPad succeeded, and previous Microsoft Windows-based tablets failed.
So, what happens? Do we get some sort of touch-based magnifying glass monstrosity? Don’t see that happening either. But maybe…
Bingo. The Apple Pencil. That’s the ticket.
After all, fine grained drawing, manipulation, and selection is exactly what the Pencil is designed to accomplish. Just use your Apple Pencil to touch and hit those itty-bity little icons!
Wait. You do have an Apple Pencil, don’t you? Charged? And with you at all times? Ready to pick up the slack when you disconnect that keyboard?
Hmmm. What happens when we don’t have a pencil?
It appears that all we’ve done is kick the can a bit further down the road, after all.
How does a macOS-based application behave when it runs on an iPad?
I want you to stare at that question for a moment. Think about it.
Now reverse the question.
How does an iPad-based application behave when it runs on macOS?
Apple introduced Catalyst during WWDC 2019.
At that time, Craig Federighi, SVP of Software Engineering for Apple, said, “One development team for the first time can build a single app that can span iPhone to iPad to Mac.”
Just check a box in Xcode, he said, to automatically create fundamental features such as cursor controls or password autofill. With Catalyst, Mac desktop features like windowing and cursor support are automatically added to the app, and it’s ready to roll as a macOS program.
Couple that with interface-agnostic code written with SwiftUI, and it becomes easy to support multiple platforms from a single code base.
With Catalyst, any iPhone or iPad app could run on macOS.
And that, I think, is the hidden-in-plain-sight answer to our riddle.
How do you get a macOS application to behave like an application written for the iPad? You can’t.
But you can get iPad applications to run correctly on macOS. Or, perhaps more to the point, in a macOS-like environment.
Catalyst allows apps that already know how to run on an iPad to run on macOS. Apps that are iPad-based apps first and foremost. Apps that already know exactly how to behave without a keyboard or trackpad, and when run fullscreen.
Apps that could automatically reconfigure themselves when the keyboard and trackpad or pencil is disconnected and no longer present.
Given all of the above, I think it’s highly unlikely that we’re getting a version of macOS for the iPad.
We will, however, get macOS-style features on the iPad. We will get windows and menus and cursors. We will get a much better user experience on the iPad Pro.
We might even get something worthy of being called a Pro application.
But macOS? Doubtful.
So, we reversed the question earlier. Can we do it again? Apple introduced Catalyst in order to provide iPad apps the tools needed to run successfully under macOS.
WWDC is coming. Could Apple provide a new toolkit for macOS-based applications so that they could run successfully on an iPad? Just tweak a few things here and there and you’re good to go?
Again… doubtful. Think of interface-heavy applications like Xcode or Final Cut Pro. It’s much, much easier to wrap windows around a fundamentally iPad-based experience than it would be attempting to scale up toolbars and dialogs and controls to work well on an iPad.
Not saying it’s impossible, you understand. But I’m not holding my breath, either.
So that’s my take on the matter.
In June, Apple will announce macOS-style features on the iPad Pro. But we’re not going to get macOS applications.
Adding features from macOS could definitely make the iPad Pro more useful in many workflows.
But one also needs to keep in mind that the iPad Pro is also an expensive solution. At over $2,300 for a well-equipped iPad Pro with its associated Magic Keyboard, we could basically buy a 14″ MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro chip for the same amount of money.
So, one final question remains. Will that be enough? iPad sales declined during the last quarter, while sales of iPhones and Macs and Watches and other devices continued to climb.
Could “macOS” on the iPad reverse that trend? What would it take for you to consider using an iPad Pro as your daily driver?
Are windows and menus enough?
Or does a Pro machine still need Pro applications?
As always, leave your thoughts and comments below.
I write about Apple, Swift, and technology. I’m a Lead iOS engineer at CRi Solutions, a leader in cutting edge mobile corporate and financial applications.