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As Their Hardware Rivals Laptops, Mobile Operating Systems Must Grow Up

The iPad has long promised desktop-quality apps. But both iOS and Android have to catch up to their hardware to match desktop productivity.

As Their Hardware Rivals Laptops, Mobile Operating Systems Must Grow Up
Apple iPad Pro [Photo: courtesy of Apple]

Apple’s last financial quarter was yet another record-breaker. Its success was largely built on the the iPhone, but it also saw an increased role of the company’s first wearable, the Apple Watch. However, among the darker clouds in the company’s generally sunny picture was the iPad. The once red-hot device has seen its momentum fold like the laptop clamshells it once seemed poised to wipe out, with sales dropping 20% year over year.

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The iPad was introduced with a display close to the size of a laptop, but with the brains of an iPhone. In fact, many referred to it as a jumbo-sized iPod Touch. But unlike the iPod Touch, which has since been almost completely cannibalized by the iPhone, the iPad has the potential to be a much more capable device. Its touch interface offers an experience that the MacBook doesn’t, with some creative new apps and many high-quality games. But when it comes to certain mundane tasks that computer users do every day, working with an iPad can be a chore.

For example, while there are several fine file management apps for iOS, the iPad has no central file system available to all apps, so shuttling files can require repeated use of the “Open In” button until you get the results you need.

And that’s assuming apps support that function well. Many don’t, such as Google’s Chrome and Gmail. Chrome, for instance, doesn’t support opening documents in nearly as many apps as Apple’s Safari. Because iOS supports only this mode of pushing documents into other apps rather than pulling them, a common task such as creating a Gmail email attachment can be particularly cumbersome.

Google Pixel CPhoto: courtesy of Google

Multiple Hoops

After many years, the arrival of AirDrop for the Mac makes shuttling data among Apple devices easier, and cloud services such as iCloud and Dropbox are always an option. But getting a file from a Windows or Android device can require jumping through third-party apps and ad hoc Wi-Fi network hoops. And because there’s no user-accessible hierarchical file system on the iPad, all images must be accessed through the Photos app. That’s fine for a phone, but not ideal for keeping, say, artwork from different clients organized.

The increased size and new input options of the iPad Pro offers Apple tablets what looks to be their most productive experience yet. Apple has been clear that it doesn’t intend to merge the Mac and iPad. But there are certainly a few more aspects that the iPad could borrow from the Mac to smooth the experience even more. Indeed, Microsoft’s Windows does a serviceable job of bridging tablet and laptop work styles, showing that Apple could add smoother interface adaptability without grafting a desktop interface onto the iPad.

Unlike the iPad, Android tablets have universally accessible file systems that allow for easy drag and drop and support for mice and trackpads (although Google’s new Pixel C lacks one). Companies such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Samsung have all experimented with Android tablets above 10 inches (some way above) or ones that offer keyboard bases or covers.

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But they demonstrate that Android has its own longstanding issues on a notebook, even ones with a touch screen. These include no standard way of supporting apps in windows or even going split-screen (although Samsung and LG have long devised their own options). Quite a few Android apps (or certain screens within apps) refuse to run in landscape mode. The makers of the Surface-inspired Remix Ultratablet, which includes a Windows-like skin atop Android, have developed a workaround by letting apps run as if they were on a phone, but you give up much screen real estate.

The Microsoft Surface-like Jide Remix UltratabletPhoto: courtesy of Jide

Even Google’s Android apps, clinging to a small-screen mentality, lack conveniences of its web apps when on a larger canvas. These include exposed bars for bookmarks and tabs in Chrome and the lack of a word count in Google Docs. If Google is to find a way to make a future Android a more suitable rival to Windows on laptops even as Chrome OS isn’t going away, it will have to embrace and evangelize more flexible interfaces and more powerful apps.

With the productivity-oriented Mac’s sales still growing, Apple has less incentive than Google to scale up its mobile operating system. That said, with larger screens and keyboards, both the iPad and Android tablets are making a stronger play for productivity. In both cases, constraints and concessions that their creators made in earlier days are coming back to haunt them as they try to beef them up to handle more demanding tasks.

About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research and founder and editor of Backerjack, a site that tracks crowdfunded products. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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