At its launch back in 2010, the iPad was heavily criticized for being a big iPhone. iOS 11 and the iPad Pro proved that wasn’t the case. Things further diverged with the introduction of the iPhone X, which has led to some confusion for anyone who regularly uses an iPad. I’ve been using an iPhone X and iPad Pro together for nearly six months now, and I often feel lost when moving back and forth between the devices — one with a physical home button, the other with webOS-like gestures. The result is a vastly different user experience, even though they run the same version of iOS on large rectangles of glass.
Now, Apple is rumored to be ditching the home button on the iPad Pro in favor of Face ID. It’s a move that makes sense, and it will present Apple with an opportunity to more closely align its tablet with the iPhone X gestures or to further differentiate the iPad as an entirely different computing platform (one that’s wholly separate from the iPhone, in the same way that the iPhone is distinct from the Mac, Apple TV, and Apple Watch). Either way, Apple is facing an iPad gesture dilemma.
Let’s look at the home gesture, for example. For the longest time, pressing the home button on an iPad or iPhone was the fail-safe way to take you back to Apple’s grid of iOS apps. That changed with the all-screen iPhone X. A swipe up from the bottom is the new home gesture (which also unlocks the device) on Apple’s flagship phone, but that same gesture brings up the dock on the iPad. If, like me, you switch between the two devices fairly regularly throughout the day, then it takes a few minutes to adjust your muscle memory each time you switch. Instead of hitting the home button, I constantly swipe up on the iPad thinking I’ll go home; instead, I’m greeted by a docked row of apps.
Here are the same swipe-up gestures side by side:
However, swiping up further in a more deliberate fashion brings up the app switcher on both devices, along with the Control Center on the more spacious iPad. To get to the Control Center on the iPhone X, you have to swipe down from the top-right corner:
So what happens when Apple introduces the iPad Pro with Face ID? Will it return to a common home gesture for both the iPad and iPhone, or will they diverge even further? Whatever Apple decides will be a strong signal for how it sees the relationship between the two devices moving forward.
In addition to the home button, Apple also has a five-finger pinch gesture (dating back to iOS 4.3 in 2011) that lets you go home on an iPad. It’s a gesture we’ve seen Apple promote more and more since the launch of the iPad Pro and its associated how-to videos. It was again on display in the ad for the new iPad, which launched last week as part of Apple’s education push. In the same commercial, another student can be seen using an obscure swipe gesture that lets you switch between apps with four fingers, similar to the single-finger swipe along the bottom that achieves the same result on the iPhone X. Not once does anyone use the traditional home button. Will Apple continue to promote these somewhat obscure gestures on the next generation of button-less iPads with Face ID, or will it adopt the same gestures as the iPhone X? Something has to give.
While the iPhone X gestures feel natural and easy to use, Apple’s iPad multitasking gestures can be messy and confusing, especially if you’re trying to use them to window apps side by side. Apple’s new drag-and-drop feature is part of this multitasking, but it works best on the iPad’s large display. (It has a very limited implementation on the iPhone.)
iOS 11 marked a big departure from the familiar interfaces shared by the iPhone and iPad, and that gap could widen or close when iOS 12 makes its expected debut later this year. Widening the user experience gap isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the iPad, as it will likely help Apple define it as a totally different device in the future. If you’re an iPhone X user, though, then that gap could become more confusing if Apple doesn’t bridge the experience and user interface in an intuitive way.
I don’t get confused when I switch between a MacBook and my iPhone X because the software and hardware are so different. There are rumors that Apple may combine iOS and Mac apps this year so that developers can create universal apps that will adjust to whichever platform they’re running on. iOS apps running on a traditional MacBook would create new gesture dilemmas (likely translating them to the trackpad) for Macs that don’t have touchscreens. These universal apps will present even more challenges if Apple wants to keep iOS familiar on both the iPad and iPhone, and it could push Apple to further differentiate the experience between the two.
Apple is positioning the iPad as the future of personal computing. The company further cemented the idea by featuring the iPad — not the MacBook — at its education event. Nevertheless, Apple is falling behind both Google and Microsoft in US classrooms, and most schools are using Chromebook laptops instead of tablets. The iPad Pro has already become more laptop-like, thanks to keyboard and stylus support. But Apple has refused to implement mouse support, forcing users to move their hands from the keyboard to the touchscreen to navigate. That has led some to question who the iPad Pro is for as Apple continues to push the device as a computer replacement.
How Apple solves its cross-device user experience challenge will be interesting to watch in the years ahead, especially now that Apple is rumored to start ditching Intel chips in Macs as early as 2020. Apple will reportedly replace Intel’s processors with the company’s own ARM-based chips that are used in the iPhone and iPad. This could eventually lead to the vast majority of Apple laptops (or something that looks like them) running iOS instead of macOS.
Until then, the inevitable discussion around an iPad “replacing” a laptop will continue, all while the iPad continues to be a viable alternative for many professionals. The iPad doesn’t need to replace a laptop to fit into the broader aspect of personal computing — it has already done so by just being a great tablet — but it feels like the iPad and iOS are at a significant inflection point, and Apple’s decisions over small things like gestures will provide early hints at the iPad’s future. The iPad is changing, albeit slowly and with some inconveniences for iPhone users, and it’s now up to Apple to really show us what both devices are capable of.