The future of iOS is bright. While I love my Mac and expect to be using the Mac for a long time yet, iOS is the Apple operating system for the next 30 years. As I described last week, there are many different directions iOS can go in, taking the platform beyond the size and shape of today’s iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and Apple Watch.
I believe that iOS’s future is big – and I mean that literally. The 12.9in iPad Pro I’m using to write this article is currently the largest iOS device in existence, but it seems inevitable that Apple will want to size up iOS even more, whether it’s in a 15in or 17in mega-tablet, or an even larger desktop iOS device similar to the style of Microsoft’s Surface Studio.
The problem is that iOS was originally designed for small phone screens. Even now, seven years after the debut of the iPad, there are areas of the iPad interface that feel barren. (Spaced-out apps on the home screen, I’m looking at you.)
Recent versions of iOS have counteracted this feeling by allowing the iPad to run more than one app on screen simultaneously. It’s a good start, and while it’s a bit tight when you run two apps on the 9.7in iPad Pro, on the 12.9in model it seems perfectly natural.
So what else could be done to make the iOS interface scale better, if larger devices are on the horizon? Here are a few ideas:
Three apps at once. I don’t think I’d like to frequently work with three apps open at one time, but on the larger iPad Pro in landscape orientation, it would absolutely work. I’ve certainly found myself running two apps in Split View and wishing that I could use Slide Over for a third app. And the larger the screen, the less ridiculous a three-way split sounds.
Improved Split View. The Split View feature introduced in iOS 9 is great, but it’s really Apple’s first take on the feature – and there’s more that could be done. The multi-tasking app picker is terrible, and should be the first to go. I’d also like it if the interface could quickly switch apps on both sides of the split was parallel – right now you can multi-finger swipe on the left side as you can with regular apps, but on the right side you need to swipe from the top of the screen to get to the picker.
Drag and Drop. Do I even need to say it? It’s the missing piece of iPad multitasking, and that’s been clear since day one. Here’s hoping that Apple introduces Drag and Drop between apps in Split View and Slide Over in the next major update to iOS.
Mission Control for iPad. An easier way to think of improving multi-tasking on iOS is to consider Mission Control on the Mac. Yes, iPad users can four-finger swipe left and right to change apps, which is similar to how it works on the Mac. Rather than a stack of cards, I’d like the iOS app switcher to display a zoomed-out view, more like what happens when you pinch closed a Safari window. That view could also be used as an interface for doing other advanced multi-tasking things like collecting pairs of Split View apps together and letting you switch between them with just a few gestures.
Add a laptop keyboard. One shape I entirely failed to mention in my article about iOS’s future last week is the laptop itself. If Apple remains committed to keeping iOS and macOS apart, it would seem logical that at some point Apple will make an iOS device with a keyboard physically attached to a screen. (Though I’d also be intrigued by an iPad with a more rugged Apple-designed Smart Keyboard based on the keyboard found in the most recent MacBook Pro models.)
By itself, adding a keyboard doesn’t seem like it would be a major boost to iPad productivity, but have you seen how large the software keyboard is on the iPad Pro? Don’t get me wrong, I love it – it’s the best iOS software keyboard by far – but it takes up an enormous portion of the screen. Making it easier for iOS users to use keyboards is great for typing, but it’s also great for the device itself, because it gets to claw back millions of pixels for use by apps.
App tabs. This may not work on ultra-large screens, but I think it could work on devices like the iPad Pro. Sometimes you need to work with a bunch of apps at once, but you don’t need them all to be visible at the same time. So why not let multiple apps run simultaneously in a tabbed interface? It’s a metaphor that’s been with us for some time, and people seem to both like it and understand it. If your usual day of iPad use revolves around five different apps, why not put them all in tabs at the top of the screen and switch among them with ease?
Windowing. On a larger screen, beyond the size of the iPad Pro, it’s worth considering putting apps inside windows. I realise this sounds like heresy, but hear me out: picture a 27in iPad Studio. I know a lot of laptop people who love running apps full screen, but I can’t imagine running many full-screen apps on my 5K iMac screen – it’s just too big. Only Photoshop, Logic and Final Cut Pro manage to take up my entire iMac screen – the rest of the time, I’ve got many apps open at once.
So how do you run several apps at once on a very large screen? You could tile them, sure, but above a certain number that gets really complex, and tiles are not friendly to the squishy humans who tend to use computers. Placing windows in arbitrary locations on a computer screen allows us to get everything just how we want it, even if that opinion changes on a minute by minute basis.
Still, I’m not advocating for free-form windowing as we see it on the Mac. Instead, picture app windows that could be sized in a limited set of ways. You don’t even need to imagine this – just grab an iPad Pro and play with Split View. Apps can run in full screen, share the screen 50/50, or share with the left app open on two-thirds of the screen with the right app taking up the other third. (Slide Over is that same one-third size.) Apps get a little bigger on the iPhone 7 Plus and a little smaller on the iPhone SE, and likewise on the smaller and larger iPads. A free-floating app on a large iPad screen would have a huge number of possible sizes and shapes, even using only the sizes currently in use across iOS.
Will we see a 20in-plus iOS desktop with a windowed interface anytime soon? I doubt it, but I could imagine one existing in the next three or four years. And I have to be honest, I’d be intrigued by the idea of replacing my 5K iMac with one. It just needs to be able to run a bunch of apps at once, and let me arrange them in a way that works for me.