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CMV: Macs and iPads will remain separate product lines for many years yet

Speculation about the convergence of Macs and iPads has been around for a great many years, and got a new lease of life when we first heard reports of Apple working on some kind of cross-platform initiative.

When Apple this week confirmed plans to bring iOS apps to the Mac, it answered the question about whether it would merge iOS and macOS with a huge ‘No’ on the screen. Some have responded by suggesting that may be true now, but this is just the first step.

There may be some truth to that – but I do think Macs and iPads will remain separate product lines for many years to come …

I wrote an op-ed way back in 2013 asking the question whether Apple was headed toward eventual convergence of the two platforms, and concluding that it wasn’t going to happen for a very long time.

My conclusion hasn’t changed since then. Indeed, moves in that direction have been even slower than I suspected – I expected much more visual similarity between the two operating systems by now.

More recently, I wondered whether Apple’s plans for cross-platform apps might result in the dumbing down of Mac apps. I’ve taken much reassurance from what Apple has since said about UIKit. The bottom-line message is that the two platforms will remain separate, and that only those iOS apps which make sense on Mac would be ported.

Why the laptop form-factor is safe for a very long time

The first laptop I ever used was the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100, in 1983. There were a few others with the same form-factor – a flat unit with a small grey-scale LCD screen above a full-size keyboard – but by the following year it had been superseded by the Model 200.

That clamshell design was established by 1984. And, in essence, it has remained unchanged since then. Sure, today’s laptops are far slimmer and massively more capable, but that ‘screen hinging back over keyboard’ form factor has remained in use for 34 years and counting.

That’s not coincidence. There are thousands of industrial designers who would love nothing more than to create a new, better form-factor. The reason that none of them have is because that now-elderly design still works today.

Even Apple has only tweaked things. The first Macintosh Portable had a trackball to the right of the keyboard. The Powerbook models moved it below the keyboard before later replacing it with a trackpad. Since then, it’s really been a process of refinement.

Even the current-gen MacBook Pro uses exactly the same form-factor as those early PowerBooks. It’s way slimmer and lighter, of course. The trackpad has got much bigger and smarter. The keyboard has become (controversially!) sleeker. And we got the Touch Bar, which, in all honesty, you could take away from me tomorrow and I wouldn’t really miss it. But, in essence, it’s the same core design.

So the MacBook form factor isn’t going anywhere because the laptop design Just Works.

But what about the Surface?

I said no-one has reinvented the laptop form factor, but what about the Surface? Doesn’t that prove me wrong?

When I first saw a photo of the Microsoft Surface, I absolutely loved the concept. There are times when I want a laptop, and there are other times when I want a tablet, and the idea of having both devices in one is extremely appealing.

In theory. The problem with the Surface is that it’s a somewhat compromised laptop, and an absolutely terrible tablet.

The screen unit is massively too heavy for comfortable use as a tablet. My partner has one as her work laptop. As a laptop, she loves it. By laptop standards, it’s lightweight, and it’s quick to wake and boot. In theory, she likes that it can be a tablet too. In practice, she has a separate one of those: an iPad Pro.

And different form factors mean different interfaces – as Microsoft learned the hard way. A UI designed for use with a trackpad is horrible to use with a finger, and one designed for use with a touchscreen is annoyingly basic when you have the precision of a trackpad available to you.

If the Surface were a better laptop, then all laptops would look and work like that by now. In reality, hardly any do.

That isn’t going to change anytime soon

For a laptop, I want a minimum of a 15-inch screen. (Really, I want a bigger one, but I’ve given up all hope of that for now.)

But a 15-inch tablet – even one as sleek and light as an iPad – is no replacement for 9.7-inch or 10.5-inch iPad.

You may remember that I tried out the 12.9-inch iPad. I loved it. The screen was fantastically immersive.

Anything involving photo or video is fantastic. Netflix addicts will love it. The screen a great size for personal viewing – and for two at a push […]

I absolutely love how good photos look on this screen. The size means that showing someone a photo on this is exactly like handing them a 10×8 print in the old days – you feel like they’re seeing it properly […]

A4/US letter documents may not have the wow factor of photos, but it’s terrific to be able to view them at almost full size. No scrolling, no zooming, just comfortably read an entire page at a time.

But, in the end, I sent it back – because it couldn’t replace my existing iPad. It was too big to carry around casually, and it was too heavy for use as an ebook in bed (a core use for my iPad). And that was a 12.9-inch iPad – a 15-inch version would be out of the question.

Technology is advancing – but not at that rate

One counter-argument is that, over time, technology gets slimmer and lighter. A 15-inch iPad may be too heavy to contemplate today, but one day it will be as light as today’s 10.5-inch one, right?

Well, eventually, sure. But if you look at the trend-line, that isn’t going to happen anytime within the next few years.

You also need to consider things like thermal throttling. One of the laws of physics is that the larger the surface area, the more heat you can disperse, and the longer you can go before you need to start throttling back the performance of the device. A clamshell design gives you a large surface from which to radiate heat; a tablet design, a far smaller one.

Again, that will improve over time, but again the pace of development there is not dramatic.

So yep, I’m not going to say never because, as the old saying has it, never is a pretty long time. But I will predict that there’s zero chance of it happening within five years, and personally I doubt it will happen within ten. Even with the very modest first step Apple is taking in this direction won’t be available to developers until next year. These are baby steps.

Change My View

So that’s my view. The laptop form factor hasn’t been replaced in more than three decades, despite attempts by Microsoft and others.

Laptop and tablet designs have very different pros & cons, and that isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future. I could see a touchscreen on a MacBook being useful some of the time, and I’m not philosophically opposed to adding one, so long as the UI is primarily designed for trackpad use.

Twenty years out, all bets are off – a lot of things could happen between then and now. But 5-10 years from now, I think Macs and iPads will still be separate product categories. Yes, macOS and iOS will continue to borrow from each other, and tighter integration of apps between platforms will be a huge benefit. Maybe MacBooks will get a touchscreen at some point, as a secondary form of input. But the devices will keep their form factors, and their operating systems will remain distinct.

Am I right? Or do you think they will converge further and faster than I imagine? Either way, please make your case in the comments – and please check our Change My View guidelines if you’re not already familiar with them. Executive summary: debate the topic, not the person, and be curious about opposing viewpoints. Over to you!

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Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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