WWDC is Apple’s annual developer conference, which is fairly similar to Google I/O that we cover every year. It’s a multi-day event with one big keynote where Apple goes over tons of developer-related material and showcases upcoming software and changes, and very occasionally we get to see new hardware, too.
This year was one of those occasional years where Apple showed several new pieces of hardware. Refreshed MacBooks, a stupidly expensive iMac that won’t be out until the end of 2017, and Apple’s answer to Google Home and Amazon Echo, the HomePod. All of that was expected, but it was just more of the same. Slight tweaks to existing products, and a foray into a market that other manufacturers have been investing in for years.
For many of us, those products are pretty boring. They don’t offer anything new, and they don’t move technology forward in a meaningful way. But Apple’s new iPad Pro and iOS 11? That single-handedly put every single Android manufacturer, and Google, to shame.
I’m sure you’re thinking “oh, it’s just another tablet, and we’ve got plenty of those on the Android side of the fence.” You wouldn’t be wrong, technically, but the hardware on the iPad Pro 10.5 is light years ahead of, well, everything. It has an extremely color accurate, 120Hz screen that no Android device has an answer for, and Apple’s custom in-house processors run circles around everything. Google’s trying to catch up there, but right now there’s simply no match for that A10X processor.
Hardware aside, what makes the iPad Pro so innovative is the accompanying software. At least the software that’s going to accompany it later this year with iOS 11. Right now, yes, it’s still using iOS 10, which basically just means it’s a gigantic iPhone with overkill hardware, but what Apple showed off with iOS 11 is exactly what the industry needed to push the envelope forward.
Let’s look at the current state of laptops and tablets and just how meh they’ve been for the past few years.
For laptops, we’ve seen the form factor grow from clunky, slow machines to slick, slow machines in netbooks. Processors caught up and manufacturers tried to testing different form factors, like 2-in-1 designs that tried to combine the tablet and laptop form factors, and ultrabooks, which are the de facto high-end devices for laptops. In 2017, we got some great devices in both forms, especially from Microsoft’s Surface line, but they haven’t really given us much functional innovation. Windows still sucks as a touchscreen-ready operating system, and slim ultrabooks, while pretty and efficient in the battery department, don’t fundamentally do anything that your old laptop didn’t do. They just do it faster.
Tablets, on the other hand, have always been pretty weird. Apple popularized the form factor with the original iPad, offering a device that kind of wanted to be a typical computer but also didn’t have the productivity chops to actually replace your current workstation. We’ve seen big services like Adobe’s Creative Suite and Microsoft Office make their way to the iPad, but even with the apps the form factor wasn’t quite there. You’d still need a functional laptop to get that professional work done.
That left tablets in an awkward position. They’re like your phone but bigger. They’re like your laptop but couldn’t do as much. That pretty much means your tablet is only good for playing games and watching Netflix, which isn’t too inaccurate. Microsoft tried their hand at Windows RT to give tablets a good productivity operating system, and that bombed hard. Android partners, and even Google, have tried to create solid productivity machines, but Android on tablets is a horrible experience that no one wants to fix, and not even the bolted-on enhancements from companies like Samsung can help that.
So that leaves tablets relegated to Netflix, Pinterest, web browsing, and the like. Stuff your phone could do, but things that were better with a bigger screen. Not necessarily a bad setup, especially if you’re not a content creator or if you don’t need any productivity tools. I really liked Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S3, for example, but as much as I loved the design and phenomenal screen, I couldn’t imagine doing much more than watching Netflix and maybe typing some brief documents on it.
Let’s fast forward to 2017, and Apple’s iPad Pro 10.5 with iOS 11 announcement, which looks like it’s going to solve just about every complaint about tablets while keeping the productivity features that we need from traditional laptops. As a tablet, it’s going to work really well for Netflix and Facebook, but it’s also going to give you an alternative to your current clunky laptop. There’s a floating app dock for quick access to programs you need, there’s an insane amount of split-screen and floating app support for multitasking, and there’s even a file manager, which is a huge deal for Apple.
Don’t worry, I hear you. These aren’t all magical features that Apple invented.
You can have a floating app dock with a third-party launcher! Sure, if you can find one that scales up well for Android tablets and isn’t feature gimped in every other category.
Samsung has been doing multi-view for years, and Google implemented it into Android! Yep, and the feature is mostly wasted on 5-inch phones because Android tablet apps are awful.
Android has had a file manager since it started! You’re actually right about that one, but we need all the ingredients to bake a cake, not just the eggs.
This isn’t about Apple doing any one of these features first, it’s about tying all of them together in the best possible package, polishing them up, and releasing a killer product. The iPad Pro can realistically replace a tablet, laptop, and even phone, if you like Apple’s iMessage platform, with a single device for many, many users. It’s a toy and a workhorse, and it’s the first time we’ve seen a mobile computer offer something so complete without tons of drawbacks. Screen? Check. Battery life? Check. Ecosystem of apps and services, processor performance, optimized operating system? Check.
The iPad Pro is innovative because it finally marries tablets and laptops successfully, something everyone else has been trying, and failing, to do for years. Sure, it’ll probably start to eat Apple’s MacBook market, but I’d bet Microsoft and Windows partners are probably much more worried about that than Apple is.
And really, when’s the last time we’ve any Android device that made your jaw drop and changed how future devices are created? Even the most highly praised devices, like the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy S8, just continue to refine a format that we’re all familiar with. Faster processor, better camera, better screen, etc. etc. That’s all great, but what does the Galaxy S8 do that the Galaxy S7 can’t do? Bixby? That might make my jaw drop if Samsung could actually launch the damn thing.
Maybe it’ll light a fire under other manufacturers to create a hybrid device that doesn’t suck, but ultimately it’s up to Google and Microsoft to flesh out their platforms to support it. Android has many of the tools in place, but the tablet app support really, really hurts, and bringing Android apps to Chromebooks is not a perfect solution. Microsoft has some advantages with Windows, but it’s still a terrible touch operating system, which is why we saw the Surface Laptop instead of anything really innovative.
They’re both fighting over where the ball is, while Apple’s walking at a leisurely pace to where the ball’s going to be, because at this point, it doesn’t seem like anyone is interested in covering them.