WWDC The iPad initially struggled to shake the perception that it was merely a bigger iPhone, good for bedtime Netflix binges and not much else. It was only later, with the development of a peripheral ecosystem and the release of iPadOS, that the image started to shift.
Announced yesterday, the latest version of iPadOS looks set to further that trend, adding modest features designed to improve the iPad's viability for business users, while adding visual cues that differentiate it from the mainstream iOS platform.
Thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Apple was forced to ditch the usual in-person Worldwide Developer Conference, instead broadcasting its latest wares with a series of presumably pre-recorded videos. iPadOS was something of a bootnote compared to the long-awaited announcement of Apple's switch to Arm processors on its Mac lineup. But nonetheless, if you look closely, there's obvious signs that the iPad is maturing.
Firstly: visuals. Many of Apple's stock apps now present differently on iPad, with navigation pushed to a sidebar designed to make better use of the display real estate on offer. Given that the largest iPad display measures 12.9 inches across, that design schism starts to make sense.
The most exciting aesthetic adjustments were unveiled by Apple software engineering veep Craig Federighi (below at 31:55).
In a video where he gesticulated so enthusiastically, he almost looked like he was trying to catch a future criminal in Minority Report, Federighi announced that phone calls and Siri will no longer take up the entirety of the iPad's display.
Less intrusive notifications, he argued, will allow users to more effectively multitask. This feature will also make its way to the standard spin of iOS, although its impact will be most keenly felt on the work-oriented tablet version.
Similarly, the iPad's search tool has been made smaller, and now more closely emulates the functionality of the macOS equivalent, bringing up locally stored documents in addition to online results.
These tweaks start to paint a picture of a deepening experiential schism between the iPhone version of iOS, as noted by PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore.
"Ultimately the iPad is a different form factor to the iPhone," he said. "The move to a specific iPadOS last year allows Apple to differentiate the iPad further while maintaining some of the similar features to the iPhone.
"The iPad is starting to feel like a traditional computer. This will broaden the appeal beyond consumers into new segments including enterprises."
Eat Up Martha
Apple's relationship with handwriting recognition tech dates back to the heady days of the short-lived Newton handheld, which was famously lampooned by The Simpsons for the questionable accuracy with which it translated user-generated squiggles into legible text.
With Android and Windows 10 both supporting handwriting recognition, the absence of a similar feature on iPadOS felt like a major oversight considering that the Apple Pencil launched in 2015.
iPadOS 14 rectifies this with a new handwriting interpretation system called Scribble, which lets users copy handwritten text between apps. This feature works with both Latin and Chinese characters. Similarly, if you write a phone number, Scribble will prompt you to save it to your contacts. Scribble can also perform minor adjustments to drawings, so if you draw a shape that's slightly askew, it'll automatically correct.
"Having extensive Pencil support suggests Apple also sees a market niche for users who still like to take notes with a pen – this is clearly a very different use case compared to iOS," said CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood.
One can't help but escape the feeling that iPadOS is metamorphosing into a more corporate-oriented platform. In particular, Scribble elevates the Apple Pencil from the preserve of artists and designers into a tool for more conventional work.
When you look at the wider development of the iPad ecosystem, that progression looks even more apparent.
"The latest iPad Pro signals Apple's desire to take on two-in-one PCs – particularly the addition of a trackpad," Wood told The Reg. "This builds on business features added in iPadOS 13 which included support for USB memory sticks and other accessories.
"The iPad is more viable for business users than ever before, other than the price, but there seem plenty of people happy to pay the premium." ®