Now that Apple’s released a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro with a faster stylus and prettier screen, comparisons to the Microsoft Surface are going to be impossible to avoid. They’re two radically different visions of the future of computing from two very different companies, after all, and it makes sense to argue about which will succeed.
But they don’t need to be two competing products. Sure, no one is going to own a Surface Pro and an iPad Pro. But they’re meant to do very different things at very different price points, and in a lot of ways, I think the iPad is going to win this round.
The big thing about the new iPad Pro isn’t going to be the hardware. It’s the features that Apple is adding in iOS 11 that make it a big deal. With iOS 11, Apple is adding a much bigger app dock for better multitasking, better split-screen views, more annotations, and drag-and-drop features.
None of these are new ideas. In fact, they’re stolen from the best desktop operating systems from the last decade (and Windows 8). Drag-and-drop has been a staple of Windows and OS X for the last 10 years, the notion of a dock came about with Windows 95, and even the ill-fated Windows 8 introduced native split-screen viewing.
But forget where they came from, and remember that they’re now seamlessly executed on the iPad. Multitasking is now less of an afterthought and something that’s central to the entire experience.
Sure, you might not quite have the depth of apps or capabilities that you do with a MacBook, but the new iPad Pro range looks a lot more like a portable computer that has limited functionality, but is faster and easier to use than a fully-fledged Windows notebook.
Know what else does exactly that? The new breed of mid-range Chromebooks that companies have been pumping out. Right now, $500 buys you a Chromebook with 10-hour battery life, a touchscreen, and enough power to handle browsing, document editing and some light photography stuff.
Try as Apple might, the iPad Pro still does the same kind of thing. Apps still aren’t quite ready to kill all the established desktop software out there, so functionality will still be limited. But juggling those limited tasks — email, browsing, pictures, Netflix — is actually better on a Chromebook than on a $1,500 Surface Book laptop. I’m willing to bet that it’ll be better on the iPad Pro, too.
This isn’t some niche issue for Apple. “Proper” laptops have gotten expensive, and while there will always be people paying $1,800 for a new MacBook Pro, students and high-schoolers are increasingly turning to cheaper options. Chromebook sales now outpace MacBook sales, and the gap is only going to increase as usable computers get cheaper and cheaper.
At $649 for the entry-level model, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro isn’t what you’d call cheap. But it’s a lot cheaper than Apple’s new “real” computers, and only a tiny bit more than a flashy Chromebook. For people whose lives revolve more around emails, reading documents and maybe editing photos, it’s a much smaller and more potent machine than a Chromebook for just a little more money, and that might be what Apple’s banking on here.
For years, we made fun of Apple for putting the iPad in the same category as lightweight laptops. That’s because for years, the iPad was little more than a big iPhone. But for the first time this year, iOS for the iPad has a whole bunch more features than iOS for the iPhone. Sure, they look the same and run similar apps. But the experience is moving apart, and for Apple’s flagging iPad sales, that can only be a good thing.