Why iPadOS changes everything

iPad Pro dock
iPad Pro dock (Image credit: iMore)

Back in early 2015, I asked Apple and the world a question: "What if the iPad ran iPadOS?" At the time, the iPad may not have been a big "iPod touch", but it wasn't much more than an iPod touch gone IMAX.

Rather watch than read? Hit play on the vide above!

Then, slowly, every couple of years, it started getting exclusive features like Side-by-Side apps and Picture-in-Picture video. Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Multi-window Drag-and-Drop and workspaces. But, only every couple of years. That's because the iPad didn't have its own OS like the Mac, the Watch, or even the TV. So, Apple wasn't forced to show off new features every year at WWDC. So, some years, under the crunch of iPhone or just general features, they didn't.

Now, Apple has finally made one of my longest standing dreams into reality. They've made iPadOS. And not just because it's neat or right or just for the iPad, which has long had its won experience, to have its own, named iOS variant the way most other major products do, but because of the demands that come with it having its own, named variant.

I'm going to highlight a few major trends that show why that's so important but, the first and most cirtical reason is this: From now on, whether it's just a little like tvOS or a lot like iOS — which, ironically, was originally called iPhone OS —every year, Apple is going to have to have something to say about the iPad at WWDC. Every WWDC.

1. Mouse, Keyboard, and Voice

You could always use a keyboard with the iPad. Apple shipped one for the very first iPad, an awkward little Magic Keyboard with a stand built in. But the implementation never did much and Apple killed that accessory after a year. They got serious about it with the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard, emphasizing keyboard shortcuts and adding the Mac-style task switcher.

You can also use a mouse now. It's a new accessibility feature built off Assistive Touch. Also, and something else I've been asking for for years, Voice Control. Sure, Microsoft has had a version of this on Windows for a while, but it's still relatively fresh ground on mobile and that's an area that effects a lot of lives.

What I love about all of these new features is that, taken together, Apple has effectively decoupled interface from platform. You can now get an iPad — or iPhone for that matter — and use multitouch just like always, but now you can also use a keyboard or… and… a mouse if you need to or just want to.

Feels like another step towards end-point computing. But I'll save that explainer for another video.

2. Keyboard

Not to be outdone, the QuickType Keyboard is also growing up considerably this year. First, you can float it now. Ever since Apple took the iPad to 10.5 inches but lost the engineer who'd been making the split keyboard… causing all of us to lose the split keyboard… we've all wanted something like it brought back. This is that, just better. Pinch it, place it, thumb it.

And, yeah, for the first time you can even swipe-with-an-i to type if you prefer that to tapping. Like third party keyboards have been doing for ages, the machine learning will just figure out the pattern and pop out the words.

Also, RIP magnifier. Text editing is now blissfully direct. Touch the curser and drag slowly to move letter by letter, faster to move word by word, or along the right edge to move line by line.

Double tap to select a word, triple for a sentence, quadruple for a paragraph. Or simply, directly, select text by dragging your finger over it.

Three finger pinch to cut, like you're pulling the text right off the page, and three finger spread to paste, like you're plopping it back on.

And if you don't want to shake, shake, shake it off it undo, you can now three finger swipe for the exact same effect.

It's not arcane like painting a spell on the screen, which is the problem with some complex gesture systems. And it does take some getting used to. But, Apple has stuck to gestures that feel natural and intuitive, and make the whole iPad system feel more grown up.

3. Apple Pencil

I love Apple Pencil. After a decade of using Wacom, Apple Pencil just blew it's digitizer layer, air-gap, and reticule out of the water right out of the gate. And there's been a lot of cool stuff since, including instant markup and notes, and Apple Pencil 2. But there are a couple of things in iPadOS that start to really sharpen it up. Sorry. Had too.

Markup is even better now because you can grab an entire web page, not just the screen, which is something I want to do a lot in these videos. Also, emails, documents, all of that.

They've gotten the latency down from an impressive 20 milliseconds to an astonishing 9 milliseconds through a software update alone. No new Pencil hardware needed. Just a lot of really smart, likely really intensive optimizations to the entire pipeline, from processing to prediction.

Sidecar lets you use the Apple Pencil in place of a mouse pointer in Mac apps when using your iPad as a secondary display for your Mac. Still no multitouch support for fingers, because macOS is still not a multitouch optimized operating system, something that takes a lot of new interface and likely a couple years of pain to implement, but this is sort of not the best of both worlds but a could part of each of them… maybe?

But PencilKit is what's really cool. Place it anywhere, minimize or maximize it as and when needed, and developers can put it in any app that can use the pencil. And, yeah, hell yeah, I want it everywhere.

4. Multi-Window

In the beginning, the iPad let you look at as many apps, and instances of those apps, as you wanted to at the same time. As long as that number was one. Then, half a decade or so later, we got side-by-side apps, slide over, and picture in picture. And we could run two apps persistently, three apps in and out, even four apps with a floating video layer, all at the same time. A short time later, Safari added side-by-side within the same app.

Now, with iPadOS, Apple is taking the training wheels off. You can have as many instances of as many apps as you want. Well, currently up to the same 100 arbitrary limit as multi-tasking.

Have multiple Notes windows next to each other. Have Notes next to Safari in one workspace and next to Photos in another. You can even pull messages out of mail and replies into their own windows, at least until you send them.

Basically, if you can drag it, you can drop it into its own side-by-side window. Or drop it in the middle to take over the full screen.

And to manage it all Apple has added a version of Mission Control, the Mac's multi-workspace switcher, as well as a better slide over app switcher, and even an in-line app expose to show you existing workspaces for any app you drag to the edge. I'll make a separate video on all that.

Because, yeah, that's a lot of different switching and swapping mechanics and it does create a lot of spatial, navigation, and even cognitive overhead. I've seen some Apple people who've been using it for a while already just absolutely fly with it, so I have some hope that it'll become intuitive.

5. Capability without complexity

Apple's guiding principle here is capability without complexity, and I love that anyone who doesn't and never wanted these new features will basically never see them and can keep on one-windowing on like it's 2010.

But I also love that people like me who want to finger paint with productivity can now, essentially, throw any window we want anywhere we want any when we want.

There's a ton more stuff, of course, including full desktop Safari with download manager, fonts, USB and SD card file support, and more, so I'll be spending the next little while working on my full preview. Stay tuned.

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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.