Imagining external touchscreen support on the iPad Pro

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Ever since rumors first surfaced of USB-C support in the forthcoming iPad Pros, I’ve wondered about what that means for the iPad’s future.

Most likely, this riddle has a simple (and somewhat disappointing) answer: the new iPad Pros will allow screen-mirroring to 4K displays over the USB connection. (The current Lightning AV adapter only supports mirroring at 1080p).

But what if “external display support on iPad” represented something more interesting? Something like… this?

iPad Pro touchscreen concept

(Excuse my crude drawing!) To summarize what I’m proposing here, I’d like to see the iPad Pro support external touchscreen displays—effectively turning a touch monitor into a giant iOS device.

The basic form factor would resemble Microsoft’s Surface Studio—especially its sweet tilting hinge, which swings the display from a traditional, perpendicular alignment down to a drafting table angle, right at your fingertips.

Unlike the Studio, my imagined setup would put the “brains” of the operation into the iPad (rather than into a weighted base). Another change from the Studio: =Apple could take advantage of the “docked” iPad to display a virtual touchpad and/or some accessory controls (like Photoshop palettes or a zoom dial).

Questions

Do you really think Apple’s ready to debut something like this?

Nope. But wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?

Why not just buy a Surface Studio?

Well, for one, the Studio starts at $3,500. That’s awfully steep.

Even if it were cheaper, I’m still not convinced that porting touch support to a legacy OS was such a great idea. Check out this preview of the brand-new Surface Studio 2; I can’t help but notice the jittery scrolling and laggy stylus support. And, while Windows grows more touch-friendly with each release, you don’t have to dig very far to find decades-old cruft that’s ill-suited for finger manipulation.

Would this external iPad display require touchscreen control—or would iOS also gain support for external pointing devices—mice and trackpads?

Who knows? A few months ago, I might have guessed that Apple would never add a legit mouse cursor to iOS. But the UIKit-based “Marzipan” apps in macOS Mojave prove that Apple’s not above allowing iOS(ish) apps to be controlled with a mouse. Plus, as many others have observed, iOS already supports a “cursor mode” in text fields; this could simply be expanded to allow clicking and dragging across the entire UI.

Finally, there’s that enigmatic reference to a “Puck” input method unearthed by (who else?) Guilherme Rambo a few weeks back. Could “Puck” be a tongue-in-cheek reference to iPad mouse support?

Even if iOS does add mouse support, I expect that it would be a secondary input method—an addition to touch (rather than an alternative). That’s why I would bet on external touchscreen support happening before (or alongside) mouse support. For a different take on the “external touchscreen or mouse” question, though, listen to the last few minutes of Matt Birchler’s most recent podcast episode.

Why not just build a bigger iPad?

I struggled with this. Apple’s already proven its preference for self-contained systems, from the original Mac to the iMac to the iPad itself. They like to own the whole widget, so why not build a really big iPad widget, with the “guts” of the computer embedded behind the screen (or in the base, a la the Surface Studio)? No wires, no dongles—no muss, no fuss.

That’s possible, of course. But my gut tells me that the iPad should remain a portable device. There’s real value in being able to disconnect your accessories and carry your computer with you. After all, isn’t that a major reason the laptop has hung around so long? It’s convenient to have one device that fits in your backpack and can drive big screens. Why wouldn’t that be true for the iPad, too?

It’s also probably easier to convince customers to buy an iPad accessory (that would work with future iPad purchases) than to sell a “desktop iPad” (that would be outdated within two or three years).

What about an iPad “extended desktop”?

Power users of macOS (and Windows) rely on the platform’s support for multiple monitors, side by side. But on a touch-first OS, such a setup presents a problem: how do you deal with the physical separation of the two screens? How, for example, would you drag and drop a file from one display to the other with your finger? You’d hit one screen’s bezel and be left with no way to “bridge the gap.”

In my sketch above, the iPad itself becomes an accessory to the external display. iOS might use the smaller device to display app-specific controls or a virtual touchpad. This side-steps the “gap” problem while still making some use of the “docked” iPad.

What about ergonomics? Wouldn’t this “drafting table” design wreak havoc on users’ backs?

I’m not sure! But artists and architects have used these sorts of desks for many decades. It’s a proven design, and it answers the “gorilla arms” objection Apple has raised about PC touchscreens in the past.

How much would this thing cost?

A lot—more than the iPad itself, I would guess. The Apple Cinema Display was listed at $899 in 2010. Given that my hypothetical device would include capacitive touch, Pencil support, and maybe a Face ID sensor, I would think it might cost at least that much.

Final thoughts

Again, this is wish-casting to the nth degree. We haven’t heard any rumblings from the supply chain that would point to such a device, and I wouldn’t bet on seeing its debut at Apple’s October 30 event.

But something like this seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. Until the iPad can drive big, honking, external displays, iOS will struggle to supplant its older sibling as Apple’s primary pro computing platform. ■