What if the iPad ran iPad OS?

The Apple Watch runs WatchOS. It's a stripped down version of iOS, optimized for a much smaller screen and much smaller battery. It also has its own, distinctive look and feel, including its own take on the Home screen, its own interaction methods like the digital crown and force touch, and its own, distinctive capabilities like the Taptic engine, optimized for a wearable.

In contrast, when Apple decided to launch the iPad, they used iPhone OS. It was originally suggested they use the exact same single-column interface, but because it wouldn't make efficient use of the much larger screen, they decided to implement a dual-column interface instead. Yet the Home screen and design language remained the same as the iPhone, as did the interaction methods and capabilities.

Imagine instead, like the Apple Watch, the iPad ran its own distinct version of iOS: iPad OS. Rather than a stripped down version for smaller screens and batteries, imagine it ran an amped-up version that really took advantage of bigger screens and batteries, with a Home screen, interaction methods, and capabilities optimized for a tablet.

The original iPad was famously dismissed as being "just a big iPhone," yet that was its genius. It gave everyone for whom traditional computing was unapproachable, inaccessible, or intimidating something that comforted and empowered them. Those who tried to compete against the iPad by offering more desktop-style interfaces have, to put it mildly, failed.

To keep the iPad as a mainstream point of entry into the world of computing, its primary interface layer has to remain approachable, accessible, and friendly. Apple has been very careful to make sure that, as more "advanced" features have been added to iPad and iOS — like the app switcher, notification center, control center, and extensibility — no one ever has to see or use them unless they seek them out and want to.

Similar to how an iPhone can just be your phone, camera, and music player, if that's all you need, an iPad can just be your web browser, ebook reader, and video watcher. The latter is exactly how the iPad was originally pitched: As being better than an iPhone and MacBook at those kinds of tasks. Yet the iPad now exists in a world of big screen iPhones and lightweight, long lasting MacBooks.

The iPad has been given some distinct features beyond the split view, of course. Apple added multitouch navigation gestures and USB adapters uniquely for the iPad. Yet Apple recently duplicated the split view controller in landscape mode on the iPhone 6 Plus as well.

At the same time we now have an iPad Air 2 with and Apple A8X processor — tri-core CPU, octa-core GPU, 2GB of RAM — and technologies like Swift and Metal that make it as fast and powerful as some laptops. We have an iPad so fast and powerful it might well exceed the capabilities currently afforded it by its software.

There are remarkable apps — like Keynote and GarageBand that launched with the original iPad, and Pixelmator that launched with the iPad Air 2 — but those apps remain just that: remarkable. They've not become the norm. That might be a constraint of the market and not the system, but a distinct system could help unlock the potential of that market.

Rumors suggest Apple is already working on new capabilities — providing mechanisms for multiwindow apps, possibly with the ability to drag data between them. That would greatly increase the utility of the platform for people for whom productivity is important. There are also rumors of an iPad Pro with an Apple Pen, which some have come to hope would provide a digitizer to enable not only additional functionality for everyone from real estate agents to warehouse workers to enterprise sales teams, but creativity as well.

Those feel like first steps, though, not final ones.

Microsoft has been working on their Surface line of — tabtops? laplets? — for three generations (not counting the company's previous decade-long dalliance with Tablet PC). They include not only pen and digitizer technology, but a highly integrated, detachable keyboard. Like Google with Material Design, however, Microsoft is pursuing a one-design-to-rule-them-all strategy where the Metro/Modern language gets painted across all screens, no matter the size or capabilities.

With OS X Yosemite, Apple has maintained a separate, though related, operating system and a separate, though consistent, design language for the Mac. With Watch OS, Apple is now doing a variant operating system and design language for the Apple Watch. The company is letting each device remain distinct and true unto itself, but letting the computer and the watch work with mobile — iPhone and iPad — through technologies like iCloud and continuity.

An iMessage is an iMessage on the watch, phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, and the Messages app is broadly consistent across those devices. You might simply receive it on one, begin a response on another, finish a response or refer back to it later on yet another. The activity will be the same, the state will be the same, only the method of interaction and experience will vary.

By decoupling activity from device, we can move seamlessly through the range of screen and power sizes, from convenience to capability and back, depending on our needs. And that liberates the system behind those devices to better suit those needs as well. It lets there be cars and trucks, but it also introduces the possibility of an SUV.

The iPad running iPhone OS made sense in a world before iCloud and Continuity, before Yosemite and Apple Watch. It kept everything compatible and consistent across mobile. Now, however, we have all those things. Compatibility and consistency have, in large part, been abstracted. Mobile can now be more than one thing.

What could iPad do if, like the Apple Watch, it had its own variant of iOS with interfaces, interaction methods, design language, and capabilities even more optimized for its size and power? What could the iPad do if it had its own iPadOS?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • For me, if I could use my iPad like a laptop (complete with Bluetooth keyboard AND pointer support so i could use an Apple Magic Mouse or something like that) then my prayers literally would be answered!! That's the only real draw/appeal for me using my Windows 8.1 touchscreen ultrabook - I have the choice of touch input for scrolling or using the Metro-style UI and then a mouse/pointer for document editing etc I feel for typing out documents or even doing large amounts of emails then the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard would be best and then touch input for navigation of menus etc Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I've thought about that a lot, and while it has some appeal, it also feels like a step backwards. It makes the iPad into what was, not what will be. The Mac still has the commandline terminal, so it would be analogous to that. But what more could it be? Sent from the iMore App
  • Very interesting thoughts Renee. I for one would love to see split screen and active digitizer. Samsung has proven that there is a market for such things, and I think that Apple would implement it even better. The only concern I have about a special OS for iPad is the current development landscape, particularly in regards to universal apps. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah, that's a tough nut to crack, though less so with responsive design layouts. Instead of having to build separate assets, developers have more freedom for developing assets that stretch and move around (much like the responsive web), so it may be less of an issue than we all fear.
  • Adaptive UI in iOS 8 cracked that wide open, I think. Screen size won't be an issue, and capability can fall back gracefully.
  • iPad OS sounds good, Apple will probably do something like that later on sometime and then say they revolutionized the way the iPad can be used
  • Imagine 3 half baked os's to maintain instead of two. You think the bugs are bad now.... Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm suggesting something like WatchOS, which is based on iOS, no something separate. Re-read the article and tell me what you think!
  • Nothing genius about being a big iPhone. The iPad isn't a bit iPhone. It's a bit iPod Touch, which is even worse.
  • iPad sales numbers beg to differ :)
  • iPad sales numbers are also on a downward trajectory, so I guess it depends on how you look at it, right?
  • Downward trajectory to more than 12 million units in a quarter. Yes it's no iPhone, but it outsells all Macs combined by almost 3 to 1.
  • This is a great idea in a vacuum but I'm not sure how well it could be implemented in the real world. It would make app development more difficult, OS development more difficult and testing more difficult. If they can figure out a way to somehow streamline these three issues then it's a good idea and a great way to ease/trickle down OS features to the smaller devices and certainly will increase productivity for ipad users especially those that use them as a laptop replacement.
  • How would it make development more difficult?
  • 3 different tweaked versions of iOS targeting 3 different devices with pressure (by media or consumers) to bring new and different feature sets optimized for each device yearly to continue to appear either competitive or fresh with the same amount of engineering/development staff...
    How could it?
  • I think it would be the right thing to do and it could help with iPad sales. Features such as split screen and or larger screens would empower users to do more with iPads. Two programs come to mind that could benefit from improved input devices and larger screens are Photoshop or similar programs where a user might be trying to work in a very small portion of the screen or need to cover larger areas with "brushes". Design programs such as AutoCad 360 could benefit from larger iPad screens and additional input devices. These devices would need to be much more precise that standard styluses.
    The drawbacks would be the need for additional learning curves to benefit from the new features and the OS would need to remain intuitive or else you have the Windows Surface issues.
  • Can the current ipad air 2 run autocad 360 ?
  • Yes. I'm running it on an iPad 3. It's not very feature rich even with paid upgrades but it's useful for something's like small drawings of quick edits.
  • I do high-definition video work. I would KILL to have an iPad I could mount to my camera, plug in an HD-SDI cable from the HD camera, use the iPad as a full-resolution Retina view-finder and simultaneously record HD video from my camera directly onto the iPad in Apple ProRes format. Have an iPad on each camera in a multi-camera shoot, and afterward, dock the iPads in a multi-slot Thunderbolt dock and instantly start editing multicam video in Final Cut on my Retina iMac?! Oooh! I think a little pee came out.
  • I think iPad OS sounds good because as it is right now apart from a few minor differences it's pretty much the insane as the iPhone's home screen say for the phone app for example and apps adapt to take advantage of the iPad's larger screen. Sent from the iMore App
  • I been thinking of this for a while now. Macs have their own OS IPhones and IPads should have separate OS. Sent from the iMore App
  • That would be an interesting idea, but I think one of the key selling points (for me at least) of the iOS ecosystem is that there are universal apps that I can purchase once and use them on both an iPhone and an iPad. It's one of the main reasons I switched from Android to iPhone. Android tablets and their apps are still nowhere near as polished as the iPad experience and I wanted a more unified experience across my mobile devices. If Apple made it so I would now need to purchase the same application for iPhone and again for iPad (which they used to do anyway), I'd be less compelled to stick with Apple for both my smartphone and tablet.
  • it wouldn't have an affect on universal apps. Devs would just have to tweak the iPad version of their apps to take advantage of iPad-specific features. Universal apps between iPhone and iPad can still remain. It's no different than what MS is doing with Windows 10.
  • At the risk of sounding like I am on the Microsoft bandwagon, which I definitely am not, I do think they are on the right track with the Surface Pro 3 if maybe a little misguided in their approach. I think they have the right hardware but the software that works on all the things is the problem. Though it works, it works more towards the PC end. Maybe Microsoft finally figured that much out and maybe that's why they are pitting it against the MacBook Air instead of the iPad. The iPad is more on the touch side of things with the software and the mindset of pushing app developers into making apps and even mobile web sites that run for the mobile end which always seem too watered down. The iPad has the internals to meet in the middle but iOS is what keeps it on one side of the fence. I'm not saying the iPad needs OS X but something has to change in the interface architecture to get to that middle ground. I've got an iPad Air 2 and honestly it feels like a bad ass Ferrari when it comes to the chipset and RAM but iOS feels too much like a governor keeping it under 60 mph. That's depressing!
  • The iPad definitely needs to do more to justify its existence (and costs) in my life. I still enjoy my Mini w/ Retina for certain niche tasks like VSCO Cam photo editing, Netflixing around the house, and couch browsing. But I find myself increasingly loathe to sync, charge, and carry it around with me when my MacBook Pro and iPhone cover so much of its territory. I thought I'd like reading books on it, but I find myself distracted and worried about dropping the thing. And soon an Apple Watch will be my FOURTH thing to charge?
  • As a developer I would hate to have yet another library of calls to learn. It is bad enough we have to learn Swift. Talk about fragmentation.....
  • Updated the conclusion to give a specific example and better explain why now vs. then.
  • "...Jobs said the company actually was working on a touch-screen tablet – the iPad – but decided to first apply the technology to the mobile phone market, and so launched the iPhone first." It's hard to tell what happened behind the scenes developmentally, considering the iPhone was developed after the iPad and brought to market before the iPad. To the core, differientating a possible iPad OS to the present iOS doesn't seem weighty enough, except for features catered to bigger screens (see meager Reachability mode of iPhone 6/6+) and different use cases given the bigger screen sizes. Keep in mind that although new, the Apple Watch OS is what it is because it is a new device located on the wrist with a new use case for interaction. It is a markedly unique beast, considering its own method of survival is to tone down battery life by existing symbiotically attached to an iPhone. It's not fair to introduce a new OS to the iPad when clearly the Apple Watch is the odd one out of the three mobile devices. I would rather dream about battery and screen technology, iPad stands and cases that exemplify the proposed iPad Pro screen size. And if you are going to dream about software, the new Photos apps is an excellent example of how merging mobile and desktop software development, bringing 64-bit OS X caliber , software TO the iPad rather than forking a mobile OS into another mobile OS with split screen capabilities and stylus support.
  • To me the iPad is just a big gaming device. I would love to use it for more but it is like apple intentionally makes that difficult. I think a great place for iPad to be would be the digital artist realm. Give it an active digitizer and encourage things like anime studio, toon boom, mudbox, and z-brush to make full featured apps for it. Allow all of the projects created to be exported to your Mac Pro or MacBook Pro for final renderings and animations. Adding an active digitizer also gives the iPad more usefulness in the classroom as well as the boardroom. Not having to use a half baked Bluetooth stylus that only sometimes works or that only works with some apps would be awesome. The lack of stylus is why I have an iPad mini and a surface pro. Sadly, the iPad is mainly for consumption, while the surface is for creation. Sent from the iMore App
  • I think I'm going to side with Gruber on this one. I don't see that the software needs to be differentiated in any significant way at all, rather I'd prefer it if it were more unified across the devices. Right now there are some few, arbitrary distinctions software wise that make no sense at all. On the other hand, what I'd like to see and what I think would make our lives a lot better, is more *hardware* differentiation. The key to making the iPad able to replace a laptop is making iPads with greater (hardware) capabilities, and with hardware "tuned" to different activities. An iPad that's completely focussed on being a writing device (stylus, better ergonomics for thumb-typing etc.), for instance would be most welcome. Right now, the design of iOS devices is hampered by the seeming need Apple has to make each device work for a zillion different people in a zillion different circumstances. Although much less of a failure, the situation reminds me of kind what happened with Google Glass. It was a product that could have been extremely useful for some segments of society, but Google foolishly positioned it as "something for everyone," when it was clearly not. As long as iPads are designed to be useful to everyone for everything, they will never really be useful for particular jobs or actual work. They will always languish as mere media players, web browsers, and game playing machines. Perhaps this is all Apple has in mind for iOS, but at the beginning, they seemed to be focussed on making something that could actually replace a PC instead.
  • Personally, I love this idea. More specifically, I can see a future where Apple has one OS—let's call it OS (due to their recent infatuation with replacing "i" with the Apple symbol)—with different "sub-OSes". A WatchOS, PhoneOS, PadOS, MacOS, and TVOS. Different, distinct instances of the same OS designed specifically for the device they run on. This would also open up a terrific possibility: Developers could make truly universal apps across all the platforms, similar to how universal apps in Windows 10 will work. Currently iOS and OS X apps can only share very little code. If the devices were unified under OS, then an app for PhoneOS and MacOS could share the same codebase and the only thing a developer would have to change is the UI to fit on the device it would be deployed to. I was already thinking that Apple should introduce some method to do this after listening to The Talk Show Ep. 108. John and Ben were discussing how Marco Arment had to make a decision on whether to bring Overcast to the Mac or not. They remarked that on Windows 10, he wouldn’t have to make that decision since he could reuse all of the code he already had and just create a desktop UI. The other fantastic benefit I could see from combining the underpinnings of the OS and differentiating features and UI by device is that every year all devices would get the same update. We could debate about what kind of impact this would have on the already struggling OS updates (perhaps it would be better because the codebase is shared or worse because they would be making separate UIs and apps for all of the different devices) but it would provide feature parity to the OSes and make updates for security and code-level bug fixes and much easier than making those updates for two separate OSes.
  • +1 for  OS. That would tie and separate the iOS variants. I just wish I could search by device compatibility, but that's getting off topic.
  • "iPad OS" is what I wanted from the very beginning, and was a little disappointed that it didn't do all that much more than my iPhone. These days I like to look at the iPad with the perspective of the original Mac... The original Mac was great because it radically simplified computer-y stuff in a nicely designed all-in-one package. Power users bemoaned that it wasn't as good as this or that — it was great right away for creating text, but that's one of the simplest things you can do with a computer. Over the years the Mac developed a reputation for having 'nice' software, and eventually paved the way for new kinds of software not previously possible. It took time for it to become a powerhouse machine that was great at many things. Fast forward 25 years:
    The original iPad was great because it radically simplified computer-y stuff in a nicely designed all-in-one package. Power users bemoaned that it wasn't as good as this or that — it was great right away for creating text, but that's one of the simplest things you can do with a computer. Over the years the iPad has been developing a reputation for having 'nice' software. It will eventually pave the way for new kinds of software not previously possible. It'll take time for it to become a powerhouse machine that's great at many things. It stands to reason that the OS will continue to evolve and become more suited to each screen size now that Apple is encouraging adaptive UI layouts.  I'm being patient. While the Surface is compelling for a lot of reasons, it's also supremely confused and lacking in 'nice' software (optimized for that kind of device). Apps like Pixelmator show a lot of promise, but from my view (as a designer) Apple needs to make a few key steps in order to transform it into a powerhouse machine great at many things: Input. iPad is great for writing, especially once you connect a keyboard. This is obviously because a keyboard is optimized for text entry. Precise pen input would optimize input from a fine point (far more than a fake-finger "stylus"). Force touch could be a great addition too. 
  • Fyi, bad link above on mention of pixelmator => http://www.imore.com/ios/pixelmator
  • Nice piece. Here's my take.. In tennis, we have a term called "no-man's land." It lies in the middle of the tennis court, in-between the baseline and the net. A tennis player should not be in no-man's land for too long. It's a transitional space and if you stay there, you're bound to be put away by any worthy opponent. The iPad is in no-man's land. It's in-between the iPhone and the Mac. Browsing the web or watching video is not enough reason for most people to want a third (or now fourth) leg. In order for the iPad to prosper, it needs to find it's place. I'd be so preposterous to say that in order to find it's place, it has to ultimately replace the Mac. The Mac is turning into an outlier in the Apple eco-system. It's a completely different paradigm, and in my view, outdated, in comparison to the iPad, iPhone and Apple Watch. It's based on the assumption that the keyboard and mouse are central and optimal for heavy-duty computing. I think the iPad can go further. I can see "the pen" complimenting "touch" to extend the capabilities of software on the device. One clear area where the mouse and keyboard can't compete with a pen is in photo-editing. Imagine being able to manipulate pixels directly, and precisely, to control exposure in specific areas of a photograph. Imagine being able to zoom into the iris of the eye by directly double tapping on it. Give the iPad the processing power of the mac, add usb-c, and imagine connecting it to an external display to enable advanced usability possibilities for the graphic designer or video editor that would never be possible with a Mac. That's just scratching the surface. What about different form factors? Imagine a solid state keyboard with taptic feel and a swivel like that on the Newton 110. It could act as a cover, a laptop, and a slate. Yes, this has been done before and the usability simply sucks. But it hasn't been done right. With a solid state keyboard, for example, the presses could be disabled and not interfere with a natural tablet use. Better yet, perhaps Apple is inventing a better input method than the old-fashioned keyboard. I've been waiting for the keyboard to die for the last 15 years - but nothing better has come to replace it. I still have hope - with new computers like the Macbook, it's just asking to be knifed. The traditional laptop layout is not even optimal from an ergonomic viewpoint. It's archaic. Imagine Apple being able to abandon the intel processor to better unify the experiences between the watch, the phone and the computer without having a shocking digression that we get when switching between an iPhone and a Mac. Yes, each device should have their unique user interface that is optimal for the use of the device - but they shouldn't be so different as to feel alien from each other. As a bonus, it would be much easier for app developers to make software for the watch, the iPhone, and the iPad, and have them work seamlessly with each other. The iPad isn't declining because of the user cycles of updating to newer models. It's stuck in the mud because it hasn't found it's place. It's in no-man's land. That's not a bad thing - there's no need for Apple to rush to have it cannibalize it's Mac. The competition isn't there. Here's where I put my feet down - the iPad's time is coming - and it will come when the pros start to use it for professional work in place of a Mac. i think the iPad will eventually replace the Mac like the Mac replaced the Apple. Maybe it won't be called the iPad, but it will be based from the iPad. I currently use the iPad as my main computer but I have a macbook pro for purely video and photo-editing.
  • Yes! I want the home screen of the iPad to give me more information than the simple grid of icons. Also a files.app would make a lot of sense for an iPad. I find myself wanting to choose the content then the app I want to edit/work in.
  • I'd like to see better Keyboard support. The biggest thing I'm missing is apps like OmniFocus where I'd like to tab between fields when completing new actions. Some option around a quick entry option after pressing some sort of keyboard shortcut. Actually keyboard short cuts to start apps etc would be great as well. Unfortunately I can't see it happening and using the iPad as a productivity device won't happen. The iPad will just continue to be a reading and game device. Nothing more. I'd like to see a separate OS. If the watch can have one then why not the iPad.
  • I see your point. Sadly, I see the opposite happening. Take the Control Center. It's now a giant waste of space on the iPad. The buttons are huge and only partial fills the screen. Wasted space is a constant problem. Its in the home screen, widgets, notifications, Safari bookmark manager. They really need to do some iPad first iterations. They don't have to change the name outright, but they do need differentiation.