The Apple “pyramid of needs”

Apple this week announced that they are bringing Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro to the iPad Pro. That was a mouthful. But in case you don’t know: they are two of the industry standards for video and audio editing, respectively. They come with a steep learning curve, complex UI, powerful capabilities, and a target audience that runs the world’s film and music industry.

People have wished for them on the iPad for a long time, but my inner skeptic has always wondered what the point was. We already have touch-friendly iMovie and GarageBand for hobbyists, do we really have enough of a prosumer segment to build a sophisticated editing suite on a 12” touchscreen? Maybe it’s to provide professionals an on-the-go way to churn out some work. But why wouldn’t they just bring their MacBook Air, especially when it’s lighter than an iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard?

One detailed look at the impressive amount of UI innovation they poured into them tells you that this was no haphazard strategy. It’s evident that they have a reason for this. What might they be? Is this a glimpse into a future where Apple finally gave in to the toaster-fridge merger and replaces Macs with iPads?

I recalled this idea that Phil Schiller amusingly dubbed as the “Grand unified theory of Apple products” (formatting mine):

Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal.

  • The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often.
  • The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that.
  • The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things!
  • The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade.
  • So that leaves the poor desktop at the end of the line, What’s its job? Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities.

Phil Schiller

In short, “you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line,” quoting Backchannel.

Sometimes I wonder if I got this whole notebook vs. tablet debate all wrong. For Apple, they have three decades of Mac veterans on one side of the market, and a rising crowd of iPad revolutionaries on the other. Rather than rushing the toaster-fridge merger, the best thing might just be to continue serving both markets, allowing them to learn from each other, and ensuring both feel valued and, most importantly, continue to pay.

It reminds me of what Adobe ended up doing with its popular Lightroom software. On one hand, they didn’t want to lose a generation of photographers who preferred simpler UI, cloud storage, and mobile editing. On the other hand, they got a 17-year-old codebase built on top of local file storage that started when film negatives were still mainstream.

Now we have Lightroom Classic, and Lightroom CC. They’ve been updating both with new features, leaving no one feeling left out. The two can sync just enough information for a Classic user to take advantage of CC on mobile. But if you’re a CC-first user, you won’t miss Classic at all.

Sounds awfully a lot like the Mac and the iPad Pro, doesn’t it. Those who can do all their work on an iPad won’t need a Mac. But those who rely on a Mac can also take advantage of an iPad.

In other words, Phil’s casual comment in a rather unpublicized interview might be more important than I thought. If we look back at the last 8 years of OS development at Apple, it’s remarkable how consistent they’ve been. The Apple Watch has gotten so much more usable that I really am picking up my iPhone less. iPhones are getting larger with every new generation (to my dismay). The iPad gains more Mac-like things every year. If you’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you might find this analogy to Apple’s lineup as entertaining as I do.

But sales numbers don’t lie, the hardware story is here. For the Mac vs. iPad debate, though, there’s a lot more to the practical execution than meets the eye. The consensus seems to be that the greatest obstacle is software, rather than ergonomics.

If Apple could unify and abstract the OS quirks between the two, applications would only need to account for the interaction modality. We would have the ideal operating system where applications adapt seamlessly to a variety of hardware form factors. Of course, this is precisely what SwiftUI was supposed to do, but is far from fulfilling this lofty mission. Part of it is just a matter of evolution. But the bigger problem is Macs themselves.

To date, only macOS does not have an iOS-like architecture. Though Apple has been slowly modernizing this twenty-year-old codebase, it’s exceedingly difficult and dangerous to rebuild an airplane mid-flight. The last mistake that Apple should repeat is that of their initial release of Final Cut Pro X: replacement without parity.

To go full circle: why did Apple invest so much in bringing Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro to the iPad? Because they can. If the iPad is capable of providing a good video editing UX, then it should strive to do that so fewer people have a reason to buy a Mac. It’s not so much about luring pros off Mac, but providing a step-up option for iPad users. Of course, moving more consumers down the pyramid—the more closed side of things—is also more profitable.

Not far in the future, choosing between a Mac (clamshell) and an iPad (tablet) may just be a form factor choice. Do you want a larger screen? Do you prefer to touch? Do you have ergonomic needs? The software should mostly be identical for most users, with only real pros absolutely needing Macs.

There’s still a considerable chasm, full of small details, that stands in the way of that future. Rather than some fundamental philosophical block, as Steve Jobs might have originally thought, it really comes down to design and execution.

As Macs continue to evolve into the pickup trucks of computers, the future of the iPad is more promising than ever.

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