OS Development Tradeoffs

Recently, I was listening to @macsparky, Federico Viticci, and @ismh discuss the future of the iPad Pro on the latest episode of Fusion (a special podcast for Relay FM members). They were lamenting the state of Apple’s iPad software and decrying the 24 month development cycle major iPad software features have been on of late.

I don’t mean to single them out too much; they’re far from the only ones in the Apple commentariat to feel this way. Indeed, I’d say that the latest iPad Pros are indisputedly held back more by their software than by any shortcomings or lack of power on the hardware side.


It was just a few short years ago when the topic du jour was the general bugginess and instability in Apple’s various OSs. Many placed the blame on the tyranny of Apple’s yearly release cycle and advocated for a longer interval between releases. Last year if Mark Gurman is to be believed, Apple dropped a bunch of features from iOS 12 to concentrate on speed and stability, effectively giving people what they were asking for (for one release cycle, at least).

There’s clearly a tradeoff between adding new features and bugfixes/performance improvements. It seems like whatever Apple does, people want them to do the opposite. The grass is always greener, I guess.

All this is not to say that folks shouldn’t advocate for new features, or for Apple to make different tradeoffs, but it would be nice if commentators at least acknowledged the existence of these tradeoffs and talk about what they’d be willing to give up in order to get what they’re asking for.


My daughter with curly hair wants straight hair. My daughter with straight hair wants curly hair.
Commenters are the same - features, reliability, release cycle, pick any two.


I think in this case we can have our cake and eat it to if Apple were to devote sufficient resources. A bigger, full-time, iPad team could improve the software while killing bugs. The impression I get is that the iPad doesn’t have that kind of support right now. That’s my gripe.

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I think it’s normal for commentators and anyone to be shifting slightly between the various contrasting options. However, there is an important distinction here.
I think Mac and iPhone are quite mature, but it is clear that iPad hardware is outpacing software. In fact, with the current models it’s so obvious that I think it’s fair to say Apple dropped the ball.

What is missing from the software?
I see people saying the hardware has outpaced the software, but don’t really know what the shortcomings are.

Lately on this forum we’ve heard a lot of examples of difficulties moving data between apps. I think that’s one obvious shortcoming.

  • Support for external storage
  • Better developed support for external displays
  • Better support for external keyboards (I want to be able to do anything at a system level without taking my hands off the keyboard)
  • Better app level keyboard shortcut support (obviously, Apple’s ability to affect third-party apps directly is limited, but they could at least set a better example in their own apps)
  • Better file management
  • Improvements to Safari to support more “desktop browser only” features and websites
  • Ability to run multiple instances of the same app side by side or paired with different apps in split view

I was going to just click on the :green_heart:. But I really, really want

As with all things to do with ingenuity “we’ll know it when we see it” applies…

… If Apple do it they’ll come out with a conceptual framework and implementation we haven’t thought of. They rarely pander explicitly to public requests.

Of course, none of us know if iOS 13 will be a damp squib or a firecracker.

But where would you have Apple pull the resources from to give the iPad a bigger development team? From the iPhone? (Apple’s biggest cash cow and one where they need splashy new features to reverse the recent decline in sales). From the Mac? (A much more mature platform than iPad, but one that badly needs to be brought up to date in some areas). From the Watch? (Arguably Apple’s least mature platform and one that still needs fundamental features to make it more developer friendly). From tvOS? (Probably fewer resources than the iPad team to start with, and critically important to Apple’s new video service). From iCloud, Apple Music, or the new video service? (Services revenue!)

I’d look at the $200B bank account and be willing to spend money to find a way. They have a significant hardware lead. If they can catch up with the software they can have a really good run with the iPad.


I really don’t see that the hardware has been a constraint for most of the features on people’s wish lists. I guess this is why the “now that we have the hardware, what about the software to match?” question has been lost on me. The majority of the functions people have listed were available 30 years ago on my Amiga 1000.

I’m sure there are many reasons for constraining software features. Some thoughts:

  • The touch-centric interface would make use of some of the features too complex.
    • Side-by-side/slide over, etc. are still janky and they aren’t too terribly complex (from a user’s perspective).
    • The developers can’t rely on people having anything more than the touch interface.
      • I read a review about the Blackberry Key 2, and while I don’t want one, it would be nice to have a function key and use shortcuts (forget their marketing wording of same). You can’t do that on iOS because the keyboard is optional, might be folded away, etc.
  • More functions require more support.
    • More complex functions more so.
  • More functions == more development costs == less profit
    • We are a self-selected group here in the forum. Why put money into functions that, say, only 1% of users will actually use?

The main reason is Apple’s choice of architecture for iOS: strict sandboxing.

For years, lots of folks have been saying that Apple should spend some of its cash hoard to significantly hire more programmers. Apple seems unwilling to do so. I don’t know if they just don’t want to spend the money, or if they’re afraid of cultural or communications issues that might arise with a bigger team.

Brooks’s Law comes into play here. There is a point of diminishing returns, and beyond that point negative productivity, when expanding a team. Apple may already be at that point. We don’t know what their internal staffing and development team structure looks like.


We do know that they can’t make killer software releases on more than one platform at a time.

Maybe they don’t make killer software releases on more than one platform at a time. This may be part of their marketing strategy. The shiny new thing is over there, so upgrade your device. Oh, 2019, now it’s over there, so upgrade that device. If they released great things in all product lines at once, they might become lost in the shuffle. People would buy one thing and wait several cycles to buy another.
I’m not a marketing person, but it sounds plausible.

I think Apple has deliberately, and brilliantly perhaps, created two tiers of iPad with different needs.
I happily use my 2018 9.7” for media consumption etc, and iOS is great for that as it is.
With 2018 iPad Pros being more powerful than many desktop machines though, the lack of decent file management becomes a problem. As an example, my wife draws in Procreate and has 100s, maybe 1000s of files, but backing them up/archiving/organising them is a pain; Affinity Designer is similar.

My wife wouldn’t actually want a more complex OS, to be honest, and it’s the iOS simplicity that lets her enjoy creating digitally; as her IT department, though, I do!

p.s. when I said they dropped the ball I wasn’t referring to any programmers as I think the OS is great, but as others have suggested I think that if the development focus was stronger on the iPad it could be a stronger product overall. Business-wise that might not make sense, but that’s a separate issue for me.

Apple is in this position because of their own marketing. Look at the iPad page on apple.com it says “Like a computer.” OK, if you are selling this piece of hardware as a computer, then I’m going to expect it to do all (or most) of the things my Mac (or PC) can do. But it just can’t at this point. To give one example, I’m a software developer and I use a Macbook to do my job. It is literally impossible to do my job on an iPad. I’m sure there are lots of other jobs where this is true.

For me the iPad isn’t something to replace my computer, because it can’t, but it is a great portable device. I use it to browse the web, read email, read books, watch videos, write in my journal, etc. If I’m going to a coffee shop to relax, I’ll take my iPad with me. But if I go there to get work done, I have to take the Macbook.

I think the dilemma for apple is that most people aren’t going to spend $1000 on a computer and then another $1000 on an iPad. They’re going to choose one or the other. I think that’s why they push so hard for people to think of the iPad as a computer. For my Dad this is true, he is retired and only uses the iPad to browse the web and send/read email. For this simple use case, it is a computer replacement. After owning a computer for 10 years, I pushed him to replace it with an iPad because it is easier for the things he uses it for. And I’m glad I did that, because the user support calls from my Dad are much less than when he had a Mac.

Now do I want Apple to expand iOS so I can develop software on it? I don’t know. Not if it makes using the iPad that much more complex. Maybe it’s an impossible task. If you make the iPad as capable as a Mac, then you ruin it for the simple tasks it is great for.

I’m not sure I agree. I think it is more of an evolution/support issue. I honestly think that Apple is intentionally unwilling to make changes that are too significant, too fast. First, that creates a support issue because, unlike a lot of people that might read this form, most people are not necessarily happy to figure out how to use and implement all of the changes that might be made. While that may be ameliorated by a support staff increase, you could still have a lot of unhappy people. Apple has shown time and again that while they are occasionally ready to conduct a revolution (see, introduction of Mac, introduction of iPhone, introduction of iPad, etc.) once they have had the revolution, and introduced a new product or new paradigm, they then graduate to a slower, more considered iteration.

All that said, I would like also like to see more resources devoted to the iPad. It is tantalizing we close to becoming a machine that I could use to do everything I need, and I think that is the source of most power users frustrations at this point.