WWDC Wish List: iPadOS 15

We’re exactly three weeks away from the start of WWDC 2021 where Apple will unveil the future of their software platforms: iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, and tvOS. Though Apple hasn’t officially confirmed the date and time for their traditional opening keynote, based on established patterns I’ve marked Monday, June 7th at 10am Pacific / 1pm Eastern on my calendar. We should look forward to the kind of well-produced video presentation we’ve come to expect from Apple during the pandemic, filled with dizzying drone shots of Apple Park and a cast of diverse, familiar faces. (Odds that Craig will spawn another new meme this year?)

As for what we can expect from Apple’s latest software updates, it’s been fairly quiet on the rumour front so far though I expect we’ll hear more from the usual suspects before the month is out. In the meantime, I decided to share some of my own hopes and dreams for the future of Apple’s operating systems, starting with the one that’s got the highest expectations this year: iPadOS.

It’s been over eleven years since the first iPad was released in 2010, five and a half years since Apple launched the first iPad Pro in November 2015, and two years since it was given its own operating system with the introduction of iPadOS at WWDC 2019. Yet the iPad Pro’s story remains muddled by the disconnect between its best-in-class hardware and its software, hamstrung by limitations inherited from iOS.

Just last month Apple put their M1 processor – the same one that powers Mac notebooks and desktops – inside the new iPad Pro, sending expectations for iPadOS 15 sky high. Will Apple finally unlock the iPad Pro’s software potential to take advantage of all that silicon power packed inside? Will the iPad Pro finally become as capable and flexible as a Mac?

I was all-in on the 2018 iPad Pro as my primary computer for two years. It was great at most things, and the addition of the Magic Keyboard and cursor support last year was a game-changer; the trackpad became my primary input and I rarely removed the iPad from the keyboard or used the touchscreen in day-to-day use. But there remain a few major sources of frustration that sent me back to the Mac earlier this year amidst the hype of the M1 MacBook Air.

Improved multitasking and external display support

Split view multitasking on iPadOS is very nice, and it can be a great way to focus on your work without the distraction of other windows and apps in your sight. It’s also a very limiting way to work when you need to cross-reference or move content between more than two apps or windows at once.

Apple brought external display support to iPadOS last year but it can only mirror the iPad’s display or extend the app already open on your iPad. iPadOS 15 should introduce true external display support with the ability to run more than two apps at once and have different apps open the iPad’s display and external display. I’m not necessarily saying iPadOS should adopt draggable, resizable windows like macOS. I don’t know if that’s the right option. It probably isn’t. Maybe Apple could re-imagine windowing for a touch-first, cursor-capable device in a way that would surprise and delight us all?

A simpler, more likely option is an expansion of the existing split view framework. At the very least users should be able to open one app on their iPad and a different app on an external display. Take it a step further and allow two apps to run in split view on the iPad and another two in split view on the external display for a total of four apps visible at once. Depending on the size of the external display Apple could even allow new split view options like a three-column layout or a 4×4 grid.

I would also love to see improvements to iPadOS’s multitasking system to make it easier to view and manage app windows/workspaces; create, manage, and save app pairs; and a better way to switch apps in split view rather than only being able to drag apps from the dock.

A more reliable Finder

I was thrilled when iPadOS gained a Files app in 2019, and extatic that it could access external storage devices via USB-C on the iPad Pro. Files has certainly made file management a better experience on iPad Pro, but it’s still not as easy or straightforward as Finder on a Mac.

Last year I spent a few days setting up a new folder structure in iCloud Drive to become my primary file system. I had a bunch of files in Dropbox that I needed to move to iCloud, and existing folders in iCloud that I wanted to move around. I opened two Files windows in split view so I could drag-and-drop things into their new homes but quickly ran into trouble. Files crashed multiple times mid-transfer forcing me to start over. Files doesn’t display a progress bar when copying or moving files so I had no idea how far along a transfer was or when it had been completed. Sometimes files wouldn’t disappear from the first window after being moved to the second, leaving me to wonder if Files had created duplicates. Closing the folder and opening it up again would sometimes refresh and remove those “stuck” files. Third-party file locations like Dropbox remain buggy within the Files app, often causing the whole thing to crash as soon as I tried to drag-and-drop files into iCloud Drive.

Other annoyances: there’s no proper “Open In” menu in Files, instead relying on an obscure and invisible defaulting system that makes it near impossible to predict which app is going to open when you tap a file. There’s no way to change the extension of a file on iPadOS or mark a folder to always be stored offline on your device. I hope to see Apple address all these shortcomings to make Files on iPadOS feel more like a true Finder equivalent.

To coincide with a better Finder for iPad, I’d love to see more enhancements to drag-and-drop as well. As Federico Viticci imagined back in 2017, I think a “shelf” you could drag-and-drop files into to be pulled out later in another app would be a great addition to iPadOS. A shelf would make moving files around between different apps, folders, or third-party storage services a much less cumbersome experience.

Pro apps

I can’t believe I’m still writing this in the year 2021, but it’s beyond time for Apple to bring their pro apps – Final Cut, Logic, and Xcode – to the iPad. Between Catalyst, SwiftUI, M1 in the iPad Pro, and cursor support, the pieces are all there and there’s no technological reason these applications can’t be optimized with touch-friendly UIs to run on iPads Pro.

I have to assume the only reason Apple hasn’t introduced these apps for iPad is their apparent fear of making the iPad too Mac-like and potentially cannibalizing Mac sales. However it’s time to put that fear aside and walk the walk. If you’re going to sell an iPad Pro with a keyboard and mouse that costs more than most Macs, it’s time that iPad Pro can run the same apps a Mac can.

Apps like Ferrite, LumaFusion, and the Affinity suite prove that powerful, professional tools for video editing, graphic design, photo manipulation, and audio editing can run extremely fast on iPad and be thoughtfully designed for touch input. Apple should be the leader in this space, setting an example for what a touch-first pro app can be, and it’s embarrassing that they still haven’t committed to iPadOS in that way. What’s more, iPad apps still have to be written and developed using Xcode on a Mac. This makes sense for the iPhone, Apple Watch, and Apple TV, but if the iPad is to be a serious computing platform as Apple markets it, developers should be able to write apps for iPad on the device itself just as Mac developers do.

Those of us in the Apple community have been banging the “pro apps on iPad” drum for as many years as the iPad has existed, and I hope 2021 is the year Apple finally delivers.

There are other features I’m looking forward to in iPadOS 15, the most exciting of which is the potential for a redesigned Home Screen with the ability to place widgets anywhere. On the whole I hope to see Apple really commit to iPadOS in ways they haven’t so far. Prove to us that iPadOS is worthy of the silicon it runs on and the iPad Pro is worth it’s ballooning price tag by giving us ways to be even more productive and creative on a touchscreen.