Over the past thirty days, there has been a lot of talk in the media about how COVID-19 has affected technology trends—creating new ones, or altering or hastening those that were already in progress. On the usage model front, there have been two very notable movements: first, the “work from home” phenomenon, spurred by companies of all sizes closing their offices and encouraging their employees to continue work from home, and second, the considerable growth in remote learning as schools across America closed their doors to contain the spread of the virus. I’ve dived into these trends in several podcasts over the past few weeks, covering technology leaders like HP, Netgear and Logitech. I’m convinced that even when the country gets past COVID-19 and returns to some semblance of normalcy, these developments will stay with us for the long term.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, tech hardware has flown off the retailer shelves. Notebooks, discrete high-def webcams, and noise-canceling headphones are now out-of-stock at most retailers across the United States, a situation rivaling the more publicized toilet paper and paper towel shortages. In this mad consumer rush to procure hardware for this extended work from home period, it appears that many are showing a renewed interest in the iPad as a primary productivity device.
In this column, I want to drill down on the iPad’s evolving role as a more than acceptable alternative to the traditional personal computer for productivity. While COVID-19 is unquestionably the driving force behind consumers’ interest in this option, Apple has long crafted its iPad hardware and iPadOS (formerly iOS) to be a compelling substitute to a Windows-based PC. Here’s the top 5 reasons why I believe this trend will continue through the time of coronavirus and onwards.
Reason #1: Steve Jobs was right all along
While numerous PC manufacturers ignored (or pretended to ignore) the threat of the iPad when it launched in 2010, Steve Jobs was very clear about his expectations for the device. In a famous interview with journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher in 2010, Jobs predicted that over the long term, traditional Windows and Mac systems would become “big rigs” that would be primarily used for high-power tasks like CAD and high-end video management. Meanwhile, Jobs predicted that smartphones and tablets would become the “cars” of the tech business. His vision has mostly been borne out—smartphones are practically ubiquitous, and the iPad has quickly become a compelling alternative to the traditional PC for productivity and content creation tasks (albeit with some caveats).
Since Jobs’ death in 2011, iPad hardware has become thinner, dramatically faster and more powerful. Additionally, they are available with larger displays and, crucially, at the forefront of excellent all-day battery life. Apple’s decision many years ago to design its own processors allowed the company to optimize the design of its hardware and software in a way that the infamous Wintel model in the PC space has never been able to achieve. iPad hardware is no slouch in the performance department, compared to the latest notebook models with Intel or AMD processors. This allowed Apple to create an overall ecosystem and user experience that the smartphone, tablet and desktop that PC manufacturers can only dream of.
Reason #2: It’s all about the trackpad
Apple’s Magic Keyboard
Though it took some time, Apple has slowly but strategically realized that the venerable mouse and trackpad support is a “must-have” for a powerful productivity and content creation experience. Up to a few years ago, this experience could only be achieved on a Windows-based PC.
In 2019, iPadOS introduced both USB and Bluetooth mouse support. This announcement was significant, even though it was initially positioned as an “accessibility feature” (buried deep in Settings), with a cursor that looked like a traditional touch target you’d find in iOS. It was an excellent first step, but many iPad users had been asking for some type of cursor support for years. Apple finally delivered that with the most recent iteration of iOS 13.4 that was released in March, which provided substantial support enhancements for both trackpads, USB and wireless mice.
Apple’s iOS 13.4 update received rave reviews from the media for its robust mouse and trackpad support. Notably, since Apple can control the user experience in its operating systems, the cursor morphs, depending on the content, in a truly useful manner. In parallel, Apple’s recently announced Magic Keyboard, which features an integrated trackpad, could bolster the argument for using the iPad over a conventional laptop. Unfortunately, the accessory is expensive—it’s priced at a hefty $399 for the 12.9” iPad Pro when it ships in May. The good news is that Logitech already announced less expensive alternatives that should be available in the not too distant future.
Reason #3: It’s ahead of PCs with cellular connectivity
Another tailwind that I believe aids the iPad is the availability of cellular connectivity. When the iPad launched in 2010, Apple included both AT&T and Verizon cellular connectivity models. This gives users tremendous, affordable roaming capabilities when WiFi access is unavailable. One can see why this might appeal to someone looking for a productivity device.
In typical Apple fashion, the integration of cellular connectivity was done simply and seamlessly. The iPad allows users to float back and forth between WiFi and cellular connectivity without worrying about changing settings when they were on the move. Additionally, these cellular plan subscriptions were crafted so that they can be turned off for some time and resumed without penalty.
This is not to say that cellular connectivity is completely absent in traditional laptops. But with a few notable exceptions (the Microsoft Surface Pro LTE, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Dell Latitude 7490, and HP Elitebook 1040, to name a few), it is often an after-market hardware and software offering. The rollout of 5G will presumably make cellular connectivity even more popular at the laptop level over the next couple of years. In the meantime, Apple’s iPad lineup features optional cellular connectivity in an embedded manner that, in my opinion, enhances the overall user experience.
Reason #4: Productivity apps for the iPad continue to become more robust
The availability of robust productivity and content creation apps is a crucial consideration when considering an iPad (or any other device) as your core work from home system. At its original launch, the iPad was little more than a supersized iPhone—it couldn’t be used for much more than email, surfing the Web and using iPhone apps that were not yet optimized for the iPad’s larger screen size.
Flash forward to 2020: Microsoft’s adaptation of its popular Office suite for the iPad can make most users forget that they’re not using a traditional desktop or laptop PC. The new Office mobile app combines Word, Excel and PowerPoint into a single app and introduces new mobile-centric features that make it a terrific go-to productivity app. One of the big benefits of this single app approach is that users can view, edit and share files without needing to switch between multiple apps. Secondly, it simplifies document creation with its ability to instantly transform pictures into editable Word and Excel files with the press of a button. Finally, everyday mobile tasks with integrated actions allow users to create PDFs, sign PDFs and create “Sticky Notes” that can be easily transferred between devices.
On the content creation side, iPad versions of apps like Adobe Illustrator and Premiere Pro rival the power and breadth of features of their desktop versions—something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. And because the iPad typically has better and more powerful camera technology than most laptops, it’s a much better alternative for video conferencing.
In short, the iPad has no shortage of great productivity and content creation apps—for most users, it should more than suffice as their primary work from home system.
Some closing thoughts
With all of this in mind, the iPad is not perfect. For starters, the goodness outlined above comes at a price premium that some users are not comfortable paying. One of my ongoing gripes with Apple is its well-established pricing strategy, which makes it difficult to configure its devices in a way that is equivalent to a comparable Windows solution from a features standpoint. Users will generally pay 20% or more with an Apple solution, and, adding insult to injury, iPads (and most Apple laptops) can’t be upgraded with additional memory or storage once purchased. While this is not necessarily a dealbreaker for the iPad, it is not pleasant in the Apple laptop realm. Apple doesn’t strictly follow Intel’s processor announcement cadence (unlike brands like Dell, HP, and Lenovo), so be prepared to pay a premium for an Apple laptop that probably won’t even have the latest and greatest Intel processor. Of course, this entire dyamic could all change should Apple start utilizing its own in-house designed processors (or even ARM-based solutions) in their MacBooks and iMacs given the ongoing rumors circulating around what Apple do might next year.
While robust productivity and content creation app support has grown exponentially for the iPad over the past few years, I will say that legacy Windows users (and I include myself in this group) find the iPad versions of popular Windows apps to be a bit difficult to adjust to. For me, this is particularly noticeable in Microsoft Outlook—the Windows version has a few quirky features I’ve come to value over the years, which are not available in the iPadOS version.
Finally, I wouldn’t count Microsoft out of the battle to win the hearts and minds of work from home users. I’m intrigued by the company’s upcoming release of Windows 10X, purportedly built from the ground up for “foldable” PC experiences. This could be truly exciting for dual-screen and single-screen applications. While Windows 10 made 2-in-1 laptops very popular, many users tend to use their Windows laptop in a traditional trackpad or external mouse orientation. If Windows 10X delivers a better user interface experience and leverages the appeal of a foldable design, this could be a worthy alternative to the Apple iPad. Unfortunately, perhaps due to pandemic-related development delays, Windows 10X will not be launching in 2020.
As the pandemic recedes and the country (and world) hopefully returns to some sense of normalcy, there is no question in my mind that the work from home shift will remain quasi-permanently for many companies. While this might be jarring for some, I believe the economy will be more robust for it. I expect overall productivity will increase, team collaboration will become more durable and labor costs will decline. It could be one of the few silver linings that emerge from this terrible period in world history.