Why I hate to love the iPad: workflow friction curves, a million-specific-things device, and a return to modal computing

To celebrate the repair of image hosting on the forum (thanks Rose and crew!), I finally put stylus to screen and sketched out some thinking I’ve been percolating about my iPad frustrations.

Basically, my “Mac-first workflow” usually looks like this:

Whereas my “iPad-first workflow” typically looks like this:

Note that the area under the curve effectively measures frustration.

Use of the Mac perfectly matches my expectations, and when I need to change something about how it works, or how the apps I’m using on macOS work, I can. There are no surprises or unexpected limits, because there basically are no limits, except that I can’t use it as a handheld device and I can’t draw on it or touch the screen.

In contrast, use of an iPad as a general-purpose computer is full of surprising challenges, like the loss of search context after switching apps I recently mentioned in a separate thread. Or, because of a lack of full-featured apps, system utilities, customizations, multiple windows, and other “pro”-ish aspects of computing, I’m self-conscious of how completing a given task on the iPad is just relatively more difficult than if I had my Mac, leading to additional friction. All of this adds up over the iPad-first workflow experience until I just give up and switch devices to do the thing I set out to do.

(I contend that experience and practice does not explain the difference between these curves. I am well-versed in both macOS and iPadOS.)


I think that this leads me to agree with the conclusion of David Peirce at 1:03 of this episode of the Vergecast. The whole segment is worth listening to if you’re interested in this at all; it’s a really well-considered take.

“So if I’m Apple, I’m saying right now that the versatility of the iPad is the point. And this is the thing that you hear from people at Apple. It’s a thing that I’ve heard from people at Apple.

The versatility is the point. They don’t want this thing to be a device for anything. They want it to be a device for everything, that everyone has a different subset of use cases for, and that that is what makes it special.”
From The Vergecast: The case for the iPad Pro, May 14, 2024

Apple wants the iPad to be the device for a million specific things. You buy the iPad because you have some workflows that it suits brilliantly. You use it for those exact things. E.g.,

  • making quirky drawings about your experience using iPads in Concepts
  • playing games on your couch on a Saturday
  • catching up on news at a cafe
  • using a big display to follow recipes while baking
  • etc.

You can spend $300 or $3000 on an iPad for those specific things, and the only difference it really makes is how “nice” your iPad is for those things.

And, crucially, you don’t try to use it for everything else.

I suppose the fundamental trouble with me is that I keep trying to use it for everything else.


All this leads me to wonder what Larry Tesler would have thought about the iPad and its current state. Tesler was an early Apple employee and eventual VP who famously advocated against “modes” in computing. He was devout. He apparently had a “NOMODES” license plate …

… and his website was (and still is) https://www.nomodes.com.

What are modes? From No Modes – Blog Pav Blog (emphasis added):

A mode is a context for getting work (or play) done. In the early days of computers, before graphical user interfaces, applications were broken into “operational modes” such as edit, navigate, and WYSIWYG. Key commands would perform different actions in different modes. To be a great computer user, you had to memorize all the modes and all the corresponding key sequences. Modality made software easier to write but made computers harder to learn and use.

Tesler’s “no modes” philosophy wound its way into Apple and was a key principle behind the design of some of the key differentiating approaches Apple took in early computing.

However, fast forward to the modern iPad: possibly the ultimate expression of modal computing. By design, it transforms completely into the apps you have open.

This modality has its benefits. It creates immersive experiences and tools. It encourages app developers to think deeply about the entire user experience. Perhaps the modal paradigm even makes users better at learning and using their apps.

Yet perhaps this modality makes the iPad more confusing and counterintuitive as a general computing paradigm, too. Riffing on the quote above, to be a great iPad user, you have to memorize all the modes of the iPad to get many things done.

I think that’s where this ends. iPadOS 18 sends a clear message that David Pierce was right. The iPad is the best and most delightful way to do many things. It’s just not likely the best and most delightful way to do everything, and we have to memorize what modes it is best at to make the most of all of our devices.

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Incidentally while researching the above post, I came across this page that I’ve never seen before:

If there was ever a post to bookmark, this is one. Captures masterfully the difference between an iPad and a Mac. Thank you.

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So does this mean if you love vim, you’ll love the iPad :joy:

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This is great! A few thoughts:

1.

That’s because, unlike macOS, it’s just a console for running apps. You’re not supposed to do things with the operating system itself, like customize it or modify it beyond a few preprogrammed settings.

As such, the iPad is part of what Cory Doctorow calls the war on general-purpose computation. That’s probably why you find it “more confusing and counterintuitive as a general computing paradigm.” It’s actually a specialized computing paradigm for running pre-approved apps. Beyond the standard settings, the only way to customize it and adapt it to your needs is through the apps you choose to hang on the rack of the operating system.

2.

It seems to me that much and perhaps most of what makes users like you dissatisfied with the iPad could be fixed with one change: a switch in the settings (with a requirement for the user to acknowledge they understand the warnings and want to proceed anyway) that allowed you to download and run non-sandboxed apps and utilities from outside the App Store, as you can on a Mac.

Then you could do everything from use alternative window managers to something like Hammerspoon to shape the OS and your workflow in it to your own preferences, as you can on a Mac.

To be clear, I doubt Apple is ever going to do that. But until they do, any new features and improvements they add are just going to make the iPad a better console for running apps, and as you say, doing a million specific things.

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If you look at the big picture, life is modal. Before computers what you wanted to do during the day required you to swap out the tools you were using. If you wanted to create an office memo, you sat down behind a typewriter and typed it up. When it was time to record some audio, you took out a tape recorder and a microphone. Now a Mac without any additional equipment can easily do both of those tasks.

Computers have replaced a lot of other diverse tasks over the years as they became more powerful and software more sophisticated. So now it seems like they are infinitely versatile, but in reality, different computers are better suited to some tasks than others. As an extreme example to prove my point, the computer in my Tesla is much better suited to drive me to the grocery store than my Mac. Could I load some specialized software on my Mac that could somehow be plugged into a car and do self driving? Probably, but I’ve never heard of such a thing. I think it is much better to have a specialized computer built into my car to do autonomous driving.

Back in the 1980s, if you wanted to play video games, you either went to an arcade or bought a console system like an Atari. Today, I think most gamers still prefer a PlayStation to a Mac, even though Apple is constantly showing off the great tech they have for game creation.

So I think the iPad is better suited to some computing tasks than others. For example, handwriting notes, drawing, sketching, etc. All possible on a Mac with a Wacom tablet, but not as good. Watching video in bed, I like not having a keyboard attached while I watch a show on Max. Cooking and displaying recipes, it’s easier to put my iPad in the kitchen than my MacBook.

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This could explain why I don’t like the iPad or vim and preferred (modeless) emacs. Also (modeless) Aperture over (modal) Lightroom.

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