Saving the iPad
What follows is a very brief summary of what I believe are the biggest obstacles holding back the iPad and the App Store, and what I believe Apple can do to improve things.
Three Big Problems
The App Store Strangles Pro Apps at Birth
The App Store is designed, from what it features to what it permits, to promote cheap, shallow, candy apps. It discourages developers from ever starting ambitious apps, both passively and actively. Instead apps are trending towards ever cheaper prices. Serious damage is being done to customer expectations about the value of a piece of software.
The iPad is a Mystery
The iPad was marketed as a third category of device, neither a phone nor a PC, but Apple has never managed to articulate what that third category really is. Instead the iPad has drifted along in the sucking wind the iPhone leaves in its wake. Meanwhile the Mac, which was designed with rigorous intention since its earliest days in the 1980s, is selling at record levels. Let that sink in.
iOS Was Not Designed for Multi-Tasking
iOS user interface paradigms are not suited to using more than one app at a time. iOS was designed almost a decade ago for a phone whose screen is smaller than the gap between the iPad Pro’s app icons. Recent additions like iOS 8’s app extensions or iOS 9’s split-screen multi-tasking are essentially bolted-on, aftermarket parts.
How Apple’s Problems Affect Developers
Because of the three big problems above, developers are confused and disheartened:
- The App Store discourages developers from ever starting complex projects. It would be like trying to help your date with his taxes in a dance club on New Years Eve. Instead they’re caught in a prisoners dilemma, selling underpowered apps for free or worse.
- The iPad doesn’t make sense to consumers, which means it also doesn’t make sense to developers. Until something changes, the primary use case for the iPad will be writing reviews about the iPad. For any other serious work, you will be more competently helped by a Mac.
- Apple’s public APIs and human interface guidelines encourage developers to use scaled-up versions of iPhone layouts on the iPad. The result is an awkard mess of usability issues, instead of the rigorous simplicity of the earliest Macs. Developers depend upon Apple to establish appropriate idioms to imitate. Apple has failed to provide meaningful idioms worth imitating.
My proposed solutions are really hand-wavy, because a) this is a blog post, b) my kid has finally fallen asleep and I want to watch something stupid on TV before I fall asleep, and c) these are really hard problems that deserve top-notch thinking. For what they’re worth, here’s what I think Apple should do to improve the iPad’s chances:
Gatekeeper for iOS
Apple should expand the Gatekeeper program to iOS.1 Developers should be allowed to sell Gatekeeper-signed apps directly to customers outside of the App Store.
These apps would be just as secure as apps published on the App Store. I recommend that Gatekeeper iOS apps be subject to the same API restrictions, privacy permissions, and sandboxing as apps distributed on the iOS App Store. Apple would retain the ability to nuke an app at will in the case of a catastrophic breach (which to my knowledge has never happened on the Mac’s Gatekeeper program).
The only difference would be that Apple no longer mediates the developer/customer relationship. Developers would be able to use all of the business techniques that have been practiced by software businesses on the Mac: trial versions, paid upgrades, special licensing, etc.
The point of this is not to use Gatekeeper per se, but to remove Apple as an obstacle to common business practices. No one believes that after all these years Apple will suddenly do everything developers want. It’s more realistic to suggest that Apple simply expand an existing program to another platform, and call it a day.
if developers can’t make money selling iOS productivity apps via Gatekeeper, then their failures can no longer be blamed on Apple.
Position the iPad as a Mac-Killer
Apple is confusing themselves and everyone else by positioning the iPad as a third category of device. No one can figure out what that means, least of all Apple. Instead the iPad should be positioned as an unapologetic replacement for a Mac. The iPad should be to the Mac what the Mac was to the PCs it destroyed. If Apple wants people to strap a hardware keyboard onto their iPad Pro, put it on a desk, and use more than one app at a time, then goddammit that is a replacement for a Mac. Imagine if back in 2009 at the unveiling of the first iPad, Steve Jobs had said something along the lines of, “Why iPad? Well, because we think in a few years you’re not gonna want a Mac anymore.”
Release a “padOS”
The iPad is walking backwards into all the use-cases for which the Mac was designed with deliberate intention from the Mac’s earliest days. But because of Apples bolted-on approach, tacking features onto a decade-old smartphone OS, the result is far removed from Apple’s best work. The design principles of an iPhone simply don’t scale up to an iPad, in the same way that the design principles of an iMac don’t scale up to an Apple TV. The iPad should be rebooted with a set of fresh design principles that are aimed at answering the question: How can a multi-tasking touchscreen device fully replace a Mac? These principles would guide both Apple and third-party developers, and in turn would spur a desire in customers to leave behind a PC for an iPad without looking back.
Credit where credit is due: I first encountered the idea of expanding Gatekeeper to iOS from Pieter Omvlee, founder of Bohemian Coding. ↩