19, Mar, 2020
The iPad Pro is ready to supplant the Mac just as the MacBook Air is great again
I felt personally attacked by Apple yesterday, specifically by the marketing copy is used to promote the new iPad Pro: “Your next computer is not a computer.” This newsletter, Processor, is also (and originally) the name for the tech-focused video essays that I sometimes make. The very first one kicked off by asking the same question Apple did with an iPad Pro back in 2018: “What’s a computer?”
Now, apparently, Apple has decided that the iPad Pro “is not a computer.” Okay.
Of course, the whole idea here isn’t actually to define “computer,” in a strict sense, but instead to play with the concept of what we expect a computer to be and do. I’m obsessed with the evolution of big-screened computers over the past few years because it’s become the locus of so much experimentation.
Apple, Microsoft, and Google have each taken multiple shots at repeating the revolutionary change the iPhone effected on the phone world, but doing so with tablets. None have managed to pull it off, and so watching their iterative attempts every year is interesting primarily because they have to keep trying new things.
An iPhone-sized revolution isn’t in the offing, but the same-old laptops feel increasingly disconnected from the way we actually do our most important computer tasks — on our phones.
And so: the new thing Apple is finally coming around on is putting real trackpad support on the iPad. There’s a whole riff here about how it’s a vindication of Microsoft’s original concept for the Surface line, but I’ll leave that for another day or another writer. I also have many emotions about how the new trackpad and mouse support work on iPad, but I’ll weigh in after I’ve spent some time using them.
Instead, I’m fascinated by how the new iPad Pro and new MacBook Air are directly competing with each other.
Apple disagrees, for the record. On a call yesterday with journalists, an Apple representative said that very few person who are going out to buy a device are actually confused about which one they want to get. I think that’s right, honestly, but that it won’t be right forever.
Will the iPad cannibalize the Mac? In some ways, this question has become boring even as it continues to be vital. There are lots of questions like this in tech, and answering them requires cleaving a Gordian knot rather than trying to untie it. For Google, it’s “will Android and Chrome OS merge?” For Microsoft, it’s “can Windows stay relevant in the age of smartphones?”
The fact that these questions become tiresome doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be vital. For Apple, the problem is that the obvious trajectory the iPad is on right now runs smack into MacBook territory. Making two directly competitive products is a recipe for one of them to stagnate.
It doesn’t help that the Mac has had a bad few years — bad keyboards, bad pro machines, and most recently a pretty big whiff on Catalyst apps. So it’s tempting to say that the Mac is stagnating and it’s only a matter of time until the only people that buy Macs are pros who need to do very crunchy computing tasks like modeling molecules and rendering video and animation.
I don’t think that’s inevitable, but I do think it’s more likely than not on a long enough timescale if current trends continue. Until last year, that felt like a nightmare scenario to me, because until last year the iPad was radically locked down. I still think it’s too locked down to be a great general computing device, but it’s heading in a more open direction at least.
The irony of all this is that on paper, the new MacBook Air is a stupendous every personal computer. Apple got it down under the $1,000 mark while simultaneously fixing most of the big problems with the last model. The keyboard is fixed. The processor is fast enough for most people now instead of being a modest compromise. The default storage is reasonable.
All of which is to say that at the precise moment Apple finally shipped a great MacBook Air again, the iPad Pro looks poised to supplant it.
I take my job as a reviewer of consumer technology seriously, which means that I bounce between lots of different computing platforms. In a given week I’ll use a MacBook, a Surface Pro, an Android phone, an iPhone, a Pixelbook, and an iPad Pro. It’s weird and I don’t recommend it, but it lets me see the strengths and weaknesses of each platform very clearly.
And here’s what I see, at least from Apple’s computers. The MacBook Air is the MacBook that Apple should have been shipping for the past five years. If I had to recommend one Apple computer to somebody without knowing anything about their needs, I’d almost surely pick the new Air. But if I had to guess what my default recommendation would be in a few years, I’d say it will be the iPad Pro.
The irony, of course, is that I still haven’t figured out a reliable way to create this newsletter using only an iPad Pro. I can do it on a Mac, a Chromebook, or a Windows PC easily, but the iPad is too locked down to run the tools I need.