Why creative pros can’t rely on iPad Pro [Opinion]

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Is the 2018 iPad Pro or a MacBook a better option for you?
Futurists claim the iPad has already eliminated the need for a Mac. Realists say nah.
Photo: Leander Kahney/Cult of Mac

Since the new iPad Pro’s launch, debate about the powerful devices has become increasingly polarized into two opposing camps: futurists and realists.

The futurists argue that the iPad is the future computing. Apple’s tablet has eliminated the need for laptops, they say, and anyone who claims they can’t manage their workflows on iOS is living in the past (and should just get with the program).

The realists, on the other hand, retort that while the iPad may be cool, it remains limited by iOS in a lot of very important ways. Those limitations mean it is currently impossible to use the iPad as a primary workstation for pros.

So, who is right?

Would the real pros please stand up?

This argument tends to get acrimonious very quickly. So before we resort to ad hominem attacks, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

The first confusion that fans the flames of debate is the word “pro.”

There are many different kinds of pros. Some, like creative professionals, need high-end “pro” workstations.

Others, like some professional journalists, only need a low-end machine that can run a word processor and a web browser. This does not mean their work is inferior. Just that the file sizes they work with are smaller, and the computational tasks involved are less intense.

In Brooklyn last month, when Apple unveiled the new iPad Pro, Tim Cook made it clear that the event was targeting creative professionals. He introduced the presentation by saying: “Apple’s focus has always been on providing people the tools to unleash their creativity…. We’re here today to talk about our most creative products.”

For Apple, “pro” has always been shorthand for “creative professionals.” Hence “Final Cut Pro” and “Logic Pro.”

Granted, you might say I’m a little biased, because I regard myself as a creative professional. When I’m not writing for Cult of Mac, I work as a graphic designer. I’ve used Macs as my primary workstations for more than 20 years.

Apple’s high-end machines are made for creative professionals

Some people argue that this definition of “pro” represents a tiny niche of the overall computer market. And, of course, that’s true — but I think it misses the point.

Apple doesn’t target the entire computer market. Macs have always been premium products. And this skews Apple’s audience toward people (like creative professionals) who need more powerful devices. Adobe CS may be installed on less than 1 percent of PCs on earth. But I bet its penetration on MacBook Pro comes in far higher than that.

It would be hard to justify the high cost of a new iPad Pro, with its blazingly powerful A12X Bionic processor, to run apps like Salesforce that are not processor-intensive. The majority of businesses will probably choose cheaper devices more suited to their tasks, like a Chromebook or a Windows laptop.

I’d argue that the much bigger market for the iPad Pro is in fact creative professionals, who are used to regularly shelling out big bucks on high-end hardware. That is surely why Apple made a point of demoing Photoshop on the new tablet, even though Adobe won’t release the software for many months.

Why would Apple devote valuable time during its keynote to an app that is currently vaporware? It suggests Apple is aware of the software deficit for creative professionals on iOS.

The current reality: Powerful hardware running limited software

The problem is not just the lack of big-name third-party creative apps. It is a more fundamental one, concerning the lack of functionality in iOS itself, which our own Charlie Sorrel previously highlighted.

But iPad has been around for eight years now. You might wonder what Apple has been doing in all that time and why these issues have still not been addressed. I believe there are fundamental drawbacks to using iOS on a tablet that mean it may never be suitable as a primary workstation for creative professionals.

But loads of creative professionals already use iPad!

At this point, another objection tends to arise. Futurists point out that many creative professionals already use iPad. And this is true. But they use it as a complement to their Mac, not instead of it. I have an iPad Pro myself, and I love using the Apple Pencil to produce illustrations.

Photoshop for iPad marks a recent and major pivot for Adobe. Up until now, the desktop publishing specialist only made iOS apps that worked as a complements to Adobe’s Creative Suite desktop apps. And I’m still not convinced that the iOS version of Photoshop will really offer all the features I would need to switch from the Mac version. (I don’t spend much time turning layers into pretty AR woodland scenes with butterflies.)

But even supposing Adobe pulls it off, there’s still the elephant in the room holding the platform back.

This OS ain’t big enough for the both of us

That elephant in the room is the iPhone.

iOS is, first and foremost, a phone operating system. iPhone sales represent 59 percent of Apple’s revenue, whereas iPad makes up just 7 percent. For this reason, Apple prioritizes the needs of iPhone users over iPad owners. And it likely always will.

What does that mean in practice? It means iOS is very locked down.

Apps can only communicate with each other in limited ways. They can’t get a full view of the device’s file system. They can only operate in the background in very narrowly defined ways.

Users can’t mount external volumes, or create aliases or share points. Nor can you edit the permissions on a file or access a shell. You can’t even browse your own home folder. Plus, iOS lacks support for multiple users.

With great power comes great responsibility

These limitations make perfect sense on a phone. It is a device that should be pretty much stateless. The user should not be able to break it. It should always work. And it should be ultra-secure, because it is a potential eavesdropping device you take everywhere with you. In some cases, it even holds sensitive medical data gathered from a sensor you wear on your body (your Apple Watch).

None of this is true with iPad. There’s no Health app on iPad. You might carry the tablet around with you sometimes, but no more so than the laptop it is replacing. Sure, it needs to be secure, but then so does your Mac, which already has a pretty great track record in that area while offering a lot more flexibility to pro users.

Of course, the disadvantage of all this flexibility is that it is possible for users to break their Macs by straying into a folder they shouldn’t be looking at and deleting a file they have no business knowing about. But this is basically the tradeoff you make when you choose to use a Mac instead of an iOS device.

With great power comes great responsibility, as Peter Parker’s uncle once said.

Why can’t I just get with the program?

At this point, the futurists will be wringing their hands in despair and saying stuff like: You don’t need to mount external volumes any more. You don’t need a home folder. Cloud drives are the future. Get with the program!

Let me give you a real-world example of why creative pros can’t rely on cloud storage alone. I often design annual reports for clients. These multipage documents can contain hundreds of high-resolution Photoshop assets linked from an InDesign file. The project folder for such a document could easily come in at over 30GB.

Even supposing that there was an app like InDesign on iPad (which there isn’t), does anyone seriously believe it would make sense to store this project on iCloud Drive? Would you really prefer to trust Apple to sync it back and forth to the cloud, randomly deleting local copies of assets when it thinks your device needs more space?

That’s preposterous.

Take another example. When I’m working in Photoshop, I often open multiple images side by side and drag and drop layers between them. This is a routine thing you’ll see designers doing all the time in any studio, anywhere in the world. But, since there is no support for opening more than one document at a time within a single app on iOS, that’s just not going to be possible on Photoshop for iPad.

It’s time to split iOS in two

As long as the iPad shares the same OS as iPhone, I would argue it can never achieve its true potential. It will always be too constrained by the security requirements of a mobile phone, so it can’t give creative professionals the flexibility they need.

The solution, in my opinion, is clear: Apple needs to branch off the iPad operating system from iOS.

Cupertino could call it “padOS,” and the two operating systems could still have a lot in common. As with tvOS and watchOS, all the relevant iOS advances could merge back into padOS. But by setting padOS free in this way, the iPad could finally become the master of its own destiny. Apple could add all the essential features (like multi-user support) to padOS that are never going to be relevant for a phone operating system.

iOS doesn’t have a pointer. That’s the point.

Having said all that, there is one “missing” feature that some realists continue to clamor for that I don’t think makes sense for iPad: support for trackpads and mice.

If you want a mouse or a trackpad, why not use a Mac instead? The fundamental difference between iOS and macOS is precisely that: One is for touch, the other is for a pointer.

The real reason people want to plug a mouse into an iPad Pro is because the hardware is just so damn sexy, and so much nicer than today’s Macs. However, if the rumors are true, we don’t have to wait long for a solution to this. Apple looks set to abandon Intel in favor of its own A-series chips for Mac in 2020, meaning the possibility of an iPad-like device with a mouse (running macOS) becomes a very real possibility.

The futurists and realists are both right

In reality, the iPad futurists and the iPad realists are both right.

When you see how kids love using their iPads, and consider that they are the next generation of computer users, it seems pretty obvious that iPads are the future of computing. And if you use the word “pro” to mean any professional, then sure, iOS is already plenty powerful enough.

But if you define “pro” to mean creative professionals, then the realists are also right. Currently, iOS does not provide an adequate platform for their needs. New features can always be added, so that could change in the future. But right now, which device is right for you depends entirely on what features you need — and which ones you can live without. (Check out our indispensable guide to help you work out whether an iPad Pro or MacBook is best for you.)

Personally, I suspect that if and when macOS makes the switch from Intel to Apple’s own A-series processors, a faster, lighter, quieter, less-expensive Mac with better battery life might continue to give iOS a run for its money for the foreseeable future. And I think this will help to secure the Mac’s crown as the go-to platform for a new generation of creative professionals.