Unless you’re one of the DJs, filmmakers, or other wildly creative folks from Apple’s iPad commercials, you probably can’t imagine doing real work without a real keyboard.
Mundane as it may be, the act of entering words on a screen is often synonymous with productivity, and that may explain why reports of a larger “iPad Pro” often mention a physical keyboard as a potential feature. No serious typist wants to spend hours tapping on nonresponsive glass, so it’s tempting to think that Apple’s work-oriented tablet might integrate a keyboard in the manner of Microsoft’s Surface.
But over the last few months, a pile of evidence has suggested otherwise. Where I was once certain that an iPad Pro would include a physical keyboard, I’m starting to think the lack thereof will be its defining feature. Instead of making users tack on another piece of hardware, the iPad Pro could make touch-screen typing feel like less of a compromise.
The biggest issue with typing on a touch screen is that you can’t rest your fingers on it like a real keyboard. But if recent rumors are accurate, Apple could solve this problem with Force Touch, the pressure-sensing technology that debuted in the Apple Watch, 12-inch Macbook, and 2015 MacBook Pro earlier this year.
Unlike a standard touch surface, Force Touch can translate varying amounts of pressure into different actions. For instance, MacBook users can apply more trackpad pressure to accelerate a movie’s fast forward or rewind speed, and Apple Watch users can clear their notifications with a firm press.
The same technology is reportedly coming to the iPad Pro, and while the applications are unclear, typing seems like a natural fit. In theory, you could rest your fingers on the screen and apply pressure when you want to type, and a bit of haptic feedback under each finger could tell you when you’ve pressed hard enough. Even if it’s not as satisfying as a proper mechanical keyboard, it could allow users to type naturally without looking at every key press.
Hardware is only part of the problem. The current iPad keyboard hides numbers and other important characters behind a separate screen, constantly forcing users to toggle away from the main keyboard.
But last week, developer Steve Troughton-Smith discovered a possible solution in Apple’s iOS 9 simulator, which helps app makers test their code ahead of the next software update: Expanding the simulator’s screen size beyond the current iPad brings up a new and improved keyboard. (Troughton-Smith provided the above image for this story.)
The expanded keyboard includes a dedicated row of numbers on the main screen, with corresponding symbols such as exclamation mark and dollar sign when you hit the shift key. The main screen also includes keys for colon, tab, caps lock, pipe, brackets, and braces. In other words, the layout is identical to a real keyboard.
Even with a pressure-sensitive surface and a familiar keyboard layout, typing on an iPad would still feel cramped without a large enough screen. Perhaps that’s why most rumors have settled on a screen size of 12.93 inches for the iPad Pro.
At that size, with the same 4:3 aspect ratio as other iPads–again, as rumored–the screen would have a width of 10.34 inches. That’s not much smaller than Apple’s MacBook keyboards–all of which run about 10.75 inches across–but a little larger than the 10.19-inch keyboard on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 Type Cover, which is advertised as “full-sized.”
Admittedly, I’d feel a little better about this prediction if the iPad’s keyboard size was identical to that of a MacBook, but that can’t happen unless Apple pushes the screen size above 13 inches, or uses a wider aspect ratio such as 16:10. But even with a slightly smaller surface, along with pressure-sensitive keys and an expanded keyboard layout, Apple could argue that the iPad Pro is made for typing.
Of course, nothing will stop third parties from making their own iPad Pro keyboards, and Apple could still offer its own Bluetooth keyboard accessory, as it has since the iPad’s 2010 debut. I’m just skeptical that Apple will directly integrate a physical keyboard with the iPad hardware and make it into a big selling point. Doing so would effectively turn the iPad Pro into a lightweight laptop, and Apple already has one of those in the new 12-inch MacBook.
Whereas the main advantage of a tablet is that it’s lightweight and simple to use, attaching a keyboard adds bulk and complexity. Now, you have a second piece of hardware to keep track of, and one that physically gets in the way whenever you want to interact with the touch screen. I’m saying this as someone who’s owned a Surface Pro 3 since last summer: This dual usage mode ever feels completely natural, even if it’s useful on occasion. Most of the time, I use the Surface like a laptop–trackpad and all.
Speaking of trackpads, iOS 9 will include one of sorts at the software level, letting users drag two fingers over the software keyboard to select and highlight text. This seems to be at odds with the notion of a physical keyboard, because how would you manipulate the cursor when there’s no software keyboard on the screen? Apple could have a physical keyboard with a trackpad on it, of course, but that just creates more laptop-like expectations instead of playing to the iPad’s strengths.
Keep in mind that this is all speculation. I have no idea what Apple will actually do, or whether the iPad Pro is even a real thing. But if the rumors of a larger, work-oriented tablet are true, it puts Apple at a critical juncture: It can try to make the iPad more of a direct answer to laptops, or it can double down on turning the iPad into a much better tablet.