Categories
apple

Imagining external touchscreen support on the iPad Pro

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. ■

Categories
technology Uncategorized

Microsoft’s Surface Studio

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

Panos Panay, who runs Microsoft’s hardware team, has earned a reputation as the “M. Night Shyamalan” of tech presenters; there’s always a twist. Last year, the Surface Book’s detachable screen wasn’t unveiled until halfway through his explanation. This year, Panay introduced the Studio as an industrial-looking iMac competitor, then pivoted and revealed how the machine converts into a digital creator’s easel, controlled via touch, pen and an intriguing new accessory called the Surface Dial.

I could quibble (the event ran a half-hour too long), but it’s hard not to be impressed with the device and its carefully-orchestrated introduction. In the video above, when the music paused and the artist placed the Dial on the screen, my jaw dropped. I felt it in a visceral way.

Others seem to agree; Microsoft ruled nerd Twitter this afternoon.

Categories
technology Uncategorized

The Pixel C’s intriguing keyboard case

Walt Mossberg on the $149 keyboard accessory for Google’s new Pixel C tablet:

It’s sturdy and heavy enough to form a fair base for lap typing. And it has a very clever, very strong, magnetic hinge, which allows you to tilt the screen smoothly but confidently at a wide variety of angles. Not only that, but, while the keyboard is Bluetooth, it charges inductively from the tablet, so you never have to plug it in.

Reviewers have panned the Pixel C’s software, but I’m more interested in its primary accessory: a premium keyboard that attaches via dedicated magnets housed in the tablet’s case.

After a few weeks with a keyboard cover for the iPad Air 2, I’ve grown bullish on the tablet-with-keyboard trend. But for tablets to truly replace laptops as our workhorse machines, we need more keyboard designs like the Pixel C’s[1]—and fewer like the iPad Pro’s “Smart” Keyboard. Apple’s fabricky cover relies on goofy origami folds to prop up the iPad. Like the Microsoft Surface’s Type Cover, this design proves top-heavy and unstable when used on your lap.

The iPad Pro and iOS 9 seem to indicate that Apple now takes tablet productivity more seriously. To keep the ball rolling, next year’s iPads should make keyboard support a primary hardware feature, rather rather than an accessorized afterthought.

Step one? Steal that nifty magnetic hinge.


  1. The Pixel C’s keyboard isn’t perfect. There are no dedicated function keys for things like volume controls or screen brightness.  ↩

Categories
technology Uncategorized

Microsoft’s “convergence” vs. Apple’s “supersession”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook made headlines this week when he spurned suggestions that his company might merge its mobile and desktop operating systems:

We feel strongly that customers are not really looking for a converged Mac and iPad. … Neither experience would be as good as the customer wants. So we want to make the best tablet in the world and the best Mac in the world. And putting those two together would not achieve either. You’d begin to compromise in different ways.

Cook’s comments indirectly belittle Microsoft’s Surface line, which combines a mouse-first desktop environment with more touch-friendly elements.

To be fair, Windows 10 is a solid effort, the fullest expression yet of Microsoft’s computing vision. Unlike Windows 8’s ill-conceived “Frankenstein experiment,” Windows 10 converges interaction paradigms with a tempered, desktop-anchored approach.

Use the OS for long, however, and you’ll see the seams: legacy UI that can’t be easily navigated via touch. For example, the new, finger-friendly Settings app in Windows 10 almost (but not quite) replaces the legacy Control Panel, which demands a mouse cursor. Presumably, over time, Microsoft plans to root out such vestiges of the desktop era, replacing them with more consistent, touchable UI.


Tim Cook rejects Microsoft’s strategy, in which computing’s past slowly transforms into its future. By contrast, Apple started fresh when it launched the iPhone and its touch-friendly interface eight years ago.

If we call Microsoft’s approach “convergence”, we might label Apple’s strategy as “supersession.” Over time, the replacement platform (i.e., iOS) matures to the point that it can replace the legacy alternatives (including Mac OS) altogether—or, at least, for the vast majority of users.[1]

I had my doubts about supersession’s viability up till now. iOS felt too small, too hampered, too limited to ever replace a laptop. I’d often feel as if I were wrestling with iOS rather than hitting my “productivity zone.” Drafting a tablet to fight a PC’s battle felt silly. And the market seemed to agree; the iPad’s cratering sales—along with the Mac’s continued growth—cast doubt on Steve Job’s assertion that the “post-PC era” had arrived.

But more recently, Apple’s mobile platform has taken strides that make supersession more viable. iOS 9—with its improved keyboard shortcuts and multitasking support—makes it much easier to do work on the iPad. In fact, I now write most blog posts (including this one) on my iPad Air 2. I’ve enjoyed the experience enough that I just purchased a premium keyboard dock.

The iPad Pro, released just a few weeks ago, further demonstrates Apple’s commitment to mobile productivity. The Pro offers an improved typing experience (via an optional hardware keyboard), vast screen real estate (another mainstay of desktop machines) and a pressure-sensitive stylus (replacing PC drawing tablets). Can the iPad Pro replace your laptop now? For most power users, the answer is “No.” But suddenly it’s much easier to see how that might happen in the not-too-distant future.


Regardless of whether mobile OSes “converge” with the desktop or “supersede” it, one thing seems clear: most people will buy just one non-smartphone computer. It won’t make sense to own both a desktop-class computer (whether a Mac or a touchless Windows PC) and a tablet (whether an iPad, an Android slate, or a touch-enabled Windows option).


  1. In adopting these strategies, both Apple and Microsoft are constrained by their current market positions. It makes sense for Apple to pivot its popular mobile platform into a productivity powerhouse. The Mac, despite its recent growth, remains a minority desktop player. Meanwhile, Windows Phone has struggled to earn market share and developer support, Microsoft would be ill-advised to bet big on that platform. Desktop Windows remains dominant (at least in sheer number of users); it makes sense to start there instead.  ↩