iPad Pro: Don’t call it a climbdown

iPad Pro
iPad Pro. (Image: Apple)

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14 September 2015 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitOne of the funnier moments on the Twittersphere during Apple’s big reveal on Wednesday was the number of people posting excerpts from Steve Jobs’ original iPhone and iPad demonstrations in 2007 and 2010 and how they both completely contradicted the feature set and usage model of the iPad Pro.

Oh the hilarity. That Apple would dare release a mobile device that a) is designed to be used with peripherals and b) looks to compete with desktop PCs. Has Apple gone mad? Even Adobe and Microsoft were on stage praising how well productivity apps like Office and Photoshop run on the iPad Pro. Cynics even predicted that Google would have a rep introducing a dual-booting fork of Android to let you run iOS on non-Apple devices. I think that’s a sweet idea but have already made my peace with it never happening. Then there were the obvious digs: this device already exists and it’s called the Surface Pro. Only it doesn’t, and they’re wrong. But it is a close run thing.

Why you shouldn’t be interested in seeing a Surface Pro/iPad Pro face-off comes down the same reason we didn’t see a similar competition in previous generations of both devices: positioning.

When Microsoft made a tablet OS for the tablet space in Windows RT the project tanked. On its own the Surface RT was a decent product and the idea of using energy efficient ARM processors was sound. Creating a product that looked and felt like a PC but couldn’t work like a PC frustrated consumers and turned off OEMs.

The concept of the PC desktop in a tablet form factor remains the Surface’s strongest selling point but providing a diluted user experience guaranteed Microsoft would not gain a chunk of the tablet space, where only Samsung could be considered a legitimate competitor for Apple’s iPad dominance*.

In quality terms Microsoft has bounced back with the Surface Pro, a device that can act like a desktop or a tablet and makes a decent fist at both. My first generation Surface Pro is more BlackBerry Playbook than iPad Air but what it lacks in style and battery life it makes up for in a full fat operating system. I’m running Windows 10 on mine and we’re all happy together. The pitch of ‘the tablet that’s as good as a PC’ is accurate and – flappy keyboard aside – the user experience is pleasant.

The product is the message
In contrast, the iPad Pro is a higher specced tablet running a mobile operating system that wants to be a device for business users. It’s as much intended for Joe and Josephine Soap’s front room as the Mac Pro is for their desk. If you’re a consumer looking to buy a tablet and put the iPad Pro at the top of your wish list, you’re doing it wrong.

If you want to hark back to the original iPad presentation, Steve Jobs laid out the device’s use model in a brilliant moment of theatre where he sat in an armchair and had it sitting on his lap: a mobile device (with a mobile operating system) designed for content consumption.

The iPad Pro retains the agility of a mobile operating system and portability of a laptop with enterprise quality apps from Microsoft and Adobe. This is a productivity device for mobile professionals reliant on graphics-heavy applications.

But isn’t that what the Surface Pro is? A productivity device? The comparison is entirely apt had the iPad Pro come with OS X and you would accurately say both devices are vying for the same space in the same price range. Keeping iOS over OS X makes the comparison redundant. Apple says the iPad Pro delivers “desktop-class performance in a tablet” not “your desktop on a tablet”. Put both ‘Pros’ side-by-side and the difference is obvious.

So, if the iPad Pro doesn’t play in the same parts of the tablet market as we know it, how can it be gauged as a success? This won’t be a multi-million selling monster. Its purpose far removed from the iPad Air or mini. Will we see a similar range of Android tablets? If the apps aren’t there to make use of increased screen resolution and screen size there’s no point in bothering. I’ve seen Sharp try this with a 15” model at IFA some years ago that looked like everything a mobile device shouldn’t be – ie middling functionality with apps designed for much smaller screens.

Microsoft shouldn’t be concerned about having the Surface Pro usurped by a larger iPad. The only thing they compete over is the name. And a stylus. And a soft keyboard. Otherwise they’re completely different. Trust me.

*According to figures from IDC Apple had a 24.5% market share for the second quarter of 2015, versus 17% for Samsung over the same period. Lenovo came in third position with a 5.7% share.

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