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Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets

Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets

The iPad Pro now looks even more like a Surface Pro

By Tom Warren

Apple has spent the past 10 years trying to convince everyone that the iPad and its vision of touch-friendly computing is the future. The iPad rejected the idea of a keyboard, a trackpad, or even a stylus, and Apple mocked Microsoft for taking that exact approach with the Surface. “Our competition is different, they’re confused,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook as he stood on stage to introduce the new Macs and iPads six years ago. “They chased after netbooks, now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs. Who knows what they will do next?”

Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets

Every iPad has transformed into a Surface in recent years, and as of this week, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro look even more alike. Both have detachable keyboards, adjustable stands, trackpads, and styluses. With iPadOS getting cursor and mouse support this week, Apple has finally admitted that Microsoft was right about tablets. Let me explain why.

Microsoft’s return to tablets was a rough ride and far from perfect. Bill Gates tried to convince the world that tablets would be a thing all the way back in 2002, but the hardware and software were far too primitive back then. The software maker eventually introduced the Surface RT alongside Windows 8 in 2012 as a clear response to the iPad, but it had an ARM-powered desktop operating system that didn’t support your favorite apps. It was slightly confused, but Microsoft’s tablet principles were clear at the time.

Microsoft Surface RT pictures
Microsoft’s original Surface RT tablet.

“Something is different about tablets, people still do desire a physical keyboard,” wrote former Windows chief Steven Sinofsky in a detailed blog post about Windows 8 back in 2012. “Even in the absence of software like Microsoft Office, the reality is that when you need to write more than a few quick lines of text, you yearn for something better than on-screen typing … People benefit from the highly accurate, reliable, and fast user input enabled by a physical keyboard, and we think an OS and its apps should not compromise when one is available.”

The message was clear: touch-based computing would be a first-class input for Windows 8 but not the only way to use the operating system. Microsoft insisted you needed a mouse for precision, a keyboard for typing, and a stylus for taking notes or drawing. These basic foundations led to the Surface Pro, with its variety of inputs to suit different needs.

Microsoft also mastered the ability to use a tablet at a desk or on a couch, thanks to its Surface kickstand and hinge designs. It was a key differentiator against devices like the iPad, and Microsoft and Intel now license out the design for other PC makers to use. It didn’t take long for everyone to start copying Microsoft’s Surface design.

surface pro 3
The Surface Pro 3 really defined the Surface design.

Even Apple moved quickly to respond to the Surface, a year after Microsoft released a stunning new design with the Surface Pro 3. Apple’s first iPad Pro debuted in 2015 with support for the Apple Pencil stylus and a smart keyboard. It arrived just as iPad sales had declined to the point where Apple was making more money on Macs instead. The iPad Pro keyboard magnetically attached to the iPad Pro, just like the Surface Pro, but Apple claimed it was “unlike any keyboard you’ve ever used before.”

It marked a big shift for the iPad, and every big iPad now supports a keyboard and stylus. Despite the hardware additions, Apple persisted with its touch-first vision for the iPad. Using a keyboard with the iPad was an ergonomic disaster. You’d have to lift your hands away from the keyboard to touch the screen and adjust text or simply navigate around the OS. It didn’t feel natural, and the large touch targets meant there was no precision for more desktop-like apps. Alongside Apple’s refusal to bring touchscreen support to the Mac, it was clear something had to change.

The first signs of a new direction for the iPad arrived with iPadOS and the hints at cursor support last year. Apple is now introducing trackpad and mouse support fully in iPadOS, and you can use an existing Bluetooth device. Unlike pointer support you’d find in Windows or macOS, Apple has taken a clever approach to bringing it to a touch-friendly OS like iPadOS. The pointer only appears when you need it, and it’s a circular dot that can change its shape based on what you’re pointing at. That means you can use it for precision tasks like spreadsheets or simply use multitouch gestures on a trackpad to navigate around iPadOS.

It’s far more than most people were expecting at this stage, and Apple has importantly kept its touch-friendly iPad principles intact. Right now, you still can’t use this mouse support to drag and drop windows on top of each other freely like you might on Windows or macOS. Nor is it there to do everything you’d typically do with a mouse on a desktop operating system. Apple has adapted a legacy input and modernized it for iPadOS.

This careful and considered approach explains why it took Apple so long to bring cursor support to iPadOS. Tim Cook has previously discussed product trade-offs and the idea of converging PCs and tablets. “Anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left doesn’t please anyone,” Cook said on an earnings call nearly eight years ago. He famously added: “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user.”

Cook was also adamant that Apple wouldn’t converge the MacBook Air and an iPad. “The compromise of convergence — we’re not going to that party,” he said. Cook has stayed true to that vision. Apple hasn’t converged macOS and iPadOS to bring trackpad and mouse support to the iPad. Instead, the message for the iPad now is that it can adapt to be more like a laptop or remain just like a tablet.

That message sounds similar to Microsoft’s Surface Pro, but what’s now at play is a battle of ecosystems, apps, and operating systems. Microsoft has persisted with Windows and walked back many of its touch-friendly tablet changes. The software maker is even diverging Windows further into a Windows 10X operating system for dual-screen devices this year.

The new iPad Pro keyboard with a trackpad.

Meanwhile, Apple is hoping that iPadOS could be enough for people who want some laptop familiarity. With the essential trackpad support and improvements to the Safari web browser, the iPad is starting to look like a much more viable option for both a tablet and a laptop for many. That’s a big change from just a few years ago.

Now that Apple and Microsoft are aligned on what a tablet can offer in terms of hardware, the battle between PC and iPad will shift toward what both do in software. Apple has shown that it’s willing to adapt, and we’ll likely see a lot more desktop-like apps for the iPad as a result. Mouse support for the iPad is a significant game-changer, and the iPad has now moved well beyond a third category of device for browsing, email, photos, video, music, games, and ebooks.

That will unnerve Microsoft and its PC partners, but it doesn’t mean it’s an immediate death sentence for the PC just yet. Just as it has taken Apple 10 years to get to this point on the hardware and software sides, there will be many years ahead of experimentation from app developers to adjust to mouse support in iPadOS. Windows and macOS won’t stand still, either, and they’re still far more powerful for multitasking and running complicated desktop apps.

Apple has painted a line in the sand here, though. The iPad is changing rapidly, even if Apple’s new iPad tagline is “your next computer is not a computer.” The next 10 years will truly define exactly what kind of computer Apple wants the iPad to be.