Sure, Wednesday's Apple media event featured the latest editions of the most successful smartphone on the planet, plus a new attempt by Apple to take over the living room, but most of the post-event chatter I've seen has been about the iPad Pro, a new 13-inch tablet with optional magnetically-attached keyboard cover.
Sound a lot like Microsoft Surface? It sure does. And yet, despite the superficial similarities, the differences between the Surface and the iPad Pro expose the different paths Apple and Microsoft have taken for the past few years.
In 2010, Apple released the original iPad to a lot of acclaim, but also criticism that it was just a big iPhone. It was more than that, but Apple's decision to use the same operating system on the iPad as on the iPhone set that device on a very specific path. For years, there had been rumors that Apple was working on a Mac that was also a tablet, just as Microsoft spent the better part of a decade showing off various tablet PCs that never really took off.
Apple decided to ditch the mouse-and-keyboard interfaces of the past and go all in on three-year-old iOS. While iOS is based on the same core as Mac OS X, it's an entirely different beast, a touch-based interface for the 21st Century.
Then a year later, at the D9 conference, Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky unveiled Windows 8. I was in the audience for the presentation, and it was the biggest whiplash I have experienced in my career covering technology products. The new "Metro" interface looked great, a creative and different take on a touch interface. And then Sinofsky undermined the whole thing by flipping a switch and revealing that underneath it all was the classic Windows dekstop interface, and that if you wanted to use Office you'd basically need to plug in a mouse and a keyboard.
Microsoft has come a long way since then. Windows 10 integrates and separates the tablet and PC metaphors in appropriate ways. There are also great Microsoft Office apps for iOS--and they were, in fact, shown off on stage during the iPad Pro announcement. Today's Surface tablets, and other convertible PC/tablet hybrids, essentially behave like tablets when you're using them as tablets, and as PCs when you're using them as PCs.
Back in 2011, Microsoft's chocolate-in-your-peanut-butter approach seemed fundamentally flawed when compared to the iPad. And in the long run, that might be the case. By running only iOS and eschewing any mouse-and-keyboard nonsense, the iPad is certainly a purer product than a PC tablet.
But when you look at the iPad Pro--a $799 tablet with PC-level specs and an optional keyboard--it's also easy to see the advantages of Microsoft's approach. Touch interfaces, whether they're running iOS or Android or Windows, aren't always the most efficient way to get work done. (As a podcast producer, I've tried editing audio using iOS tools, and while I could get the job done, it would take me something like five times as long to do that job.) What the Surface offers is the ability to switch from that tablet interface to a traditional PC interface when you need to get work done.
Apple, in contrast, has insisted that never the twain shall meet--that Macs are Macs and iOS devices are their own thing, and users should pick the right tool for the job. I agree with this philosophically, but the iPad Pro is such an impressive piece of hardware that it exposes how far behind iOS development is in terms of PC-level productivity.
Yes, you can be productive with iOS devices. I know people who do most of their work on iPads, in fact. But until the release of iOS 9, most of the advances in iOS productivity were happening despite Apple, not because of it. Third-party app developers created automation apps, embedded scripting languages, and generated an entire lexicon of callback URL structures in order to make deep links into other apps. With iOS 9, Apple's finally joined the party--but it's got a lot of ground to make up.
For evidence, look no further than Microsoft's demo at Apple's event on Wednesday. In Split View mode, Word was on the left side and Excel on the right. The idea was to show the apps working together, so you could put a chart from Excel into your Word document. How to perform this task? Copy and paste. Dragging and dropping, which might be an even easier (and touch-friendlier!) way to do it, isn't an option--cross-app drag-and-drop isn't supported in iOS 9. (Office is also backed by paid Office 365 subscriptions, while indie iOS developers struggle to make money in Apple's current App Store model.)
There are lots of small examples like this. Even with iOS 9, getting work done sometimes requires going through a few steps to perform what requires a click or two in Mac OS X or Windows. If Apple wants to prove that its approach of separating iOS and Mac OS X is the correct one, it needs to make sure that iOS can stand on its own as an operating system for $800-plus, PC caliber hardware. iOS 9 is a step in the right direction, but there's a whole lot more that needs to be done.
Sure, it might be a compromise to switch a Surface from tablet mode into PC mode in order to get certain tasks done--but is being forced to bring both a MacBook and an iPad with you everywhere you go any less of a compromise?