Final Cut Pro changes everything and nothing about the iPad
Perhaps the iPad's future lies in being more like a Mac.
By Dan Moren, Contributor, MacworldMAY 17, 2023 3:30 am PDT
More than a decade ago, on the heels of the iPad’s announcement, I took to the pages of Macworld–then still available as a physical object shipped to your home–to describe it as not just a third device, but a third revolution.
And at the time it was: Apple’s attempt to once again remake the idea of personal computing, a thesis it would return to several times in the subsequent years, perhaps most cogently expressed in the What’s a computer? ad from 2017.
But in recent years, that future has seemed in jeopardy, as the iPad has entered a kind of holding pattern, like the understudy waiting in the wings that is never asked to step into the main role. The Mac, which seemed poised on the brink of retirement, not only kept trucking along but even garnered a late-career resurgence with the transition to Apple silicon. The iPad’s big break suddenly evaporated.
This past week, Apple once again took a step towards the idea of the iPad as the modern-day computer replacement with its long-awaited announcement of Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro for the platform–but is it too little, too late?
Over the 13 years of its existence, the iPad has morphed from a bold statement on reinventing the personal computer to a device that excels at some, but not all tasks. There remain places where it’s superior to the Mac–I much prefer it for watching streaming video, playing games, and reading social media. But the Mac’s role as a machine for doing nuts-and-bolts work has largely remained unchallenged. You absolutely can “do work” on an iPad, but it’s depended a lot on what exactly that work entails.
In many ways, Apple seems to have backed off the idea of the iPad as the future of computing. The addition of the Magic Keyboard in 2020 was a significant improvement for the device, but it also represented a concession by Apple that the multitouch interface and onscreen keyboard weren’t always sufficient for the things that people wanted to do. After ten years of trying to move on from the previous decades of point-and-click, the company essentially seemed to throw up its hands and say that it couldn’t do any better.
The last several years of the iPad have overwhelmingly been an era of compromise, of slowly adding in legacy features that Apple had tried to excise in the original iPad: external displays, file management, and windowing. What started as looking toward the future has instead become a remix of the past, and sometimes the remix doesn’t hold up to the original.
The upcoming releases of Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro for iPadOS, however, might actually stir the iPad from this slump. Not simply because the addition of pro apps represents Apple’s commitment to the platform–though that’s definitely a plus–but also because it has the company taking on new challenges.
In particular, one thing that jumped out at me from the announcement was the description of the apps’ “all-new touch interfaces”. In and of itself, that’s no surprise as neither app had anything resembling a touch interface previously. But taking two apps that are heavy on the use of keyboard shortcuts and cursor usage and translating those interactions into touch (while, potentially, maintaining support for the interactions that their users are accustomed to) is a hard problem and one that Apple wouldn’t undertake lightly. It’s a tacit reversal of the dependence on the old keyboard and trackpad, indicating that perhaps the company does indeed believe that touch is a valid option for even the most complex of tasks.
The real question hanging over these announcements is whether the company’s other major pro app, Xcode, will make the jump as well. To date, writing iPad apps on the iPad has been limited to Swift Playgrounds, which lacks the power and full capabilities of Xcode. But giving iPad users the same tools as Mac users–and, more to the point, letting iPadOS become self-sufficient–would be a big step in the platform’s evolution.
All of this leaves me wondering where exactly the iPad goes from here. The idea of a lightweight, touch-first tablet remains a good one and fundamentally, the iPad’s challenges have never been about hardware. The consensus in the community is that it’s the software that’s letting down the side.
The thrust of Apple’s argument for the iPad seems to have more recently shifted to the idea of versatility. It can work with a keyboard and a trackpad in a laptop configuration, or just sit alone as a screen. Its apps can operate in fullscreen mode or multitask with windowing. In short, it conforms to what users want from it.
But the changes that Apple is making, including the touch interface version of its pro apps, don’t have to be purely about the iPad as a future. Maybe the iPad wasn’t a third revolution, but a stepping stone to a world where Apple’s main computing platform can do what an iPad can do and what a Mac can do. Many have decried the idea of the two platforms merging, but perhaps there is an idea there that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The idea of a device that works as a Mac while connected to a keyboard and an iPad while detached might seem like an unholy Frankstein’s toaster fridge to some, but after 13 years of the iPad, I’d argue that people are pretty comfortable with going back and forth between two (or more) separate devices with different interfaces. Why not find a way to consolidate them? In a world where we’ve started to talk about smartphones that fold out into tablets, a tablet that can turn into a laptop hardly sounds farfetched. What we’re all looking for, ultimately, is the right tool for the job. Sometimes it’s a screwdriver, sometimes it’s a wrench, and sometimes it’s an all-in-one multitool that fits in your pocket.
Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident.