This week, Apple’s keynote at WWDC21 showcased a wide array of iterative and innovative software enhancements to its ecosystem of digital devices. The iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac are all becoming better, yet there are signs of feature creep. If true, it’s unsurprising and unfortunate, but I’m excited for some of the new and improved things. Apple’s overall focus and purpose, perhaps the theme of WWDC21, is privacy; the company wants your personal data to remain private. While overall this is a good thing, my focus is iPad.
Apple announced a tall and wide stack of stuff in the opening keynote. A big question and expectation going into the keynote concerned the evolving stance of iPad. Would Apple finally remove the training wheels of restriction from iPadOS and let it ride freely as a “real computer?” Many tech geeks, like me, had waited and wondered. Answer: it depends on who you ask.
I saw promising upgrades to iPad that I’m happy for, and if it persists as more of a tablet computer and less of a “real” computer, that’s fine with me — Apple, and others, still sell real laptops and desktop machines too. The most important changes to iPad affect its multitasking system; it’s being somewhat simplified with visible buttons in addition to its invisible gestures. Users can see windowing options (they’re discoverable) via a new button and choose one with a simple tap. No longer must normal people become power users and memorize a convoluted bunch of finger gymnastics to invoke multi-window layouts.
That said, since the previous multi-tasking methods remain intact, the new button set-up, though simpler in itself, is an addition atop an already complex system of windowing on iPad. This is construed as feature creep and upsets the balance between simplicity and capability. Such imbalance introduces complexity, antithetical to iPad, which threatens to become more convoluted and less elegant. Apple continues to slowly yet steadily evolve iPad to become “more” or “better” yet keeping its position between a smartphone and a laptop. Adopting the best of both ends of the mobile computing spectrum while mitigating compromise is a tricky endeavor. Failure incurs disdain with labels for iPad like, “just a big phone” or “not a laptop replacement.” Conversely, the better Apple succeeds, the more magical iPad becomes.
iPad has other new tricks up its sleeve. Like on iPhone, one welcome change lets widgets be placed anywhere. There’s also a new bigger sized widget that makes better use of iPad’s large display, letting users see more content at a glance. How useful this is remains to be seen, but I think it will aid productivity. iPad now has the App Library too. Like its phone cousin, the auto-categorized groups of apps appear in a full screen array when a user swipes past the last homepage. The App Library can also be quickly accessed from any homepage via the Dock, which is great for easily selecting any additional app for multitasking.
Other new features coming to iPad match those new to iOS 15 for iPhone. Some faves I’m excited for are: tags with custom smart folders in the Notes app, EXIF metadata in the Photos app, live locations of family in the Find My app, and tab groups in Safari to name a few. Inexplicably, the Weather app and the Calculator app remain missing from iPad, as if to offset feature creep with feature disparity.
The popular tablet designed in California is getting incremental updates this year, which isn’t half bad, considering it’s already a fantastic computing device. Prior upgrades gave iPad full mouse and cursor control, making it more computer-like than ever. Apple’s ongoing progress with iPad while maneuvering it along the mobile computing midline is laudable. Though imperfect or slightly disappointing to some tech enthusiasts, Apple’s overall strategy is sound and admirable. I miss my iPad Air 2 and plan to buy a new iPad later this Summer.