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The overwhelming majority of Apple’s earnings, product sales, and new customers are now based on the iOS platform, which consists of:

  1. A 3.5”-display pocket computer/phone
  2. A 3.5”-display pocket computer
  3. A 9.7”-display computer

These are excellent and wildly successful products. They cover a wide range of use cases, including many we never even predicted. These devices can replace traditional, “desktop” computers for many people and many uses. But, there are also many uses for which they can’t replace them: “professional” tasks such as programming, precise graphics work, and video and audio production. This is mostly due to three problems:

1. Not enough processing power. Rendering complex, layered graphics or video would currently take a long while on an iPad 2. Building Xcode projects? Ouch.
2. Hardware controls are too simple.
Physical keyboards are still much better for people who need to type a lot. Fingers are convenient styluses, but also imprecise and achy ones.
3. The screens are too small. Even the 11” MacBook Air in Lion’s new fullscreen mode, is a rather cramped environment for many professional/creative tasks, let alone a 9.7” iPad.

(For the purposes of this thought exercise, I’m going to ironically include laptops in the “desktop” category. They are large enough and capable enough that the above disconnect between them and iOS devices still stands. And I didn’t forget the Apple TV in the iOS device list; fine, 4. A media-center device that might as well run iPod OS.)

Apple will address these issues. Processing power will grow, soon and impressively. It’s possible that Apple will consider non-touch-based input methods for creative work as well, though this is a riskier bet. Larger screens on iOS devices? This is the trickiest question, and the one that interests me the most.

Solve it in software?

Though an iPad 2 is in some technical sense “slower” than a newish MacBook Air, it’s also much faster at many things: booting up, launching and quitting apps, web browsing (usually). This is because Apple’s engineers and the third-party developers that followed had to make serious compromises. You could argue that one has to code “better” for the iPad in order to get halfway decent performance, but I’m happy with the less controversial position that iOS software simply does less, and does it more economically.

Perhaps this is the solution to the problem of accomplishing complex, demanding, multi-faceted tasks on iOS devices: make the tasks less complex, less demanding, with fewer facets. That’s a noble goal, but also a bit highfalutin. Designing a pixel-perfect, custom app-UI isn’t something easily simplified down to finger-sketches and files shared by emailing. Similarly, it’s true that most apps could stand to lose some chrome-weight and reduce their appearance to the essentials (with a focus on user content) but tell that to someone who already finds Xcode cramped on a 13”, high-resolution screen.

In the case of screen size, I can’t imagine that Apple sees a future where 9.7” ought to be enough for anybody.

Stick with the Mac instead?

Apple could choose to never bring iOS to large, desktop-style devices. Macs are the finest desktop computers today by far. The Mac is growing as well, and in a very healthy way. But iOS is growing much, much faster, and we have no reason to suppose that at some point, Mac sales will grow faster than iOS. (I believe we’re decades away from either platform shrinking.) So, projecting a few years forward, iOS will only become more dominant.

Apple already devotes far more resources to iOS development. Features we enjoy on iOS - the App Store, notifications, AirPlay, iCloud document sync - show up in Mac OS with a significant delay. This is a problem.

Additionally, for the Mac to remain the Mac, it will have to carry a lot of baggage that iOS profits by shedding. Until there’s literally no way to clutter up your desktop with old, meaningless files, people will do it. This is also a problem.

Supporting two rather different platforms is tricky. These issues aren’t toxic, but they might give Apple and their users slight indigestion at least. Consider that to those who choose an iPad over a Mac today, the Mac may look like a distinctly worse option. The kids under six years of age who today eagerly tap the screens of their parents’ MacBooks aren’t “wrong”; they’re just ahead of the curve by a few years.

The Pessimistic Perspective:

Apple is becoming a more consumer-oriented company by the day. This is a good thing for most users. Consequently, Apple may decide that “professional users” (those who’d benefit from, say, 20” iOS devices) can just keep using the Mac, feature-delays and lack of attention be damned. We’re on the back burner, and that’s just the way it is.

The Realistic Perspective:

Mac development will probably attempt to keep pace with iOS. Baggage will be shed slowly, the way the App Store on the Mac is starting to require iOS-like restrictions such as sandboxing. It’s possible that nothing terribly surprising will happen for a few years.

The Optimistic Perspective:

I hope Apple has serious plans to introduce something like a “desktop-sized” (15-24”?) iOS device. I have absolutely no idea what this device might look or function like. What angle do you use it at - flat on the table, completely vertical, or tilted, like a writing desk? Does it use an external keyboard? Again, I don’t know - there are brilliant people at Apple with the passion and the paycheck to think through these problems. And they will do so, assuming iOS is to become Apple’s new platform in a complete, decisive, and final way.

P.S. “It’s just a big iPad.”

A year later, I wrote More on iOS on the desktop.