With the introduction of iPadOS, the iPad is now a viable productivity machine. But, its approach to multitasking and gesture controls are starkly different from the Mac. ‘The gestures are confusing and complicated’ or ‘it’s not suitable for multitasking’ are the most common responses from individuals regarding the tablet’s viability as a productivity device.
I’ve written about the tablet’s evolution before, and you can find many articles from 2010 onward discussing the merits of the iPad as a productivity and content-creation device. I wanted to look at two things. iPadOS has been characterized as considerably more complicated than previous iPad versions of iOS. I compared iOS 12 and iPadOS (version 1) to see how much gesture complexity has been added to the iPad platform. I also broadly compare the iPad and Mac’s multitasking gestures, number of keyboard shortcuts, and overall approach to app windowing to answer the following question. Is the iPad (and iPadOS) a capable productivity platform when compared to traditional desktop operating systems (OS), or is it simply a different take on how work should be done?
I will elaborate on my arguments, but ultimately these are my broad strokes conclusions.
- iPad gestures have become significantly more complicated throughout its evolution (obviously)
- There are more iPad gestures to memorize than macOS trackpad/mouse gestures, though the difference isn’t as drastic as I originally expected.
- The Mac has considerably more ‘core’ keyboard shortcuts to memorize when compared to the iPad, as well as greater shortcut customization. However, there are iPad apps with custom shortcuts so the learning curve changes based on your particular use.
- The iPad and Mac are both excellent multitasking devices, but they operate in philosophically different ways - with the iPad’s system being more conducive to focused work in one or two apps.
Comparing gestures users have to memorize
A common criticism of Apple’s new iPadOS (and the previous two version of iOS for iPad) is the complexity of the gestures users need to memorize to get real work done. But how many total gestures does a user have to memorize for each platform? Counting finger gestures can be challenging because there are often multiple ways to accomplish a task, especially on the iPad. See the total number of gestures for each OS below.
Total number of gestures
|- 33 (including duplicates)||- 21 (15 trackpad + 6 Magic Mouse)|
iPadOS has eleven more finger gestures to memorize than the macOS. That’s not an insignificant number, but less than I originally expected. Before the launch of iPadOS, iOS 12 had twenty gestures total. That means thirteen of the gestures on the iPad came with the release of iPadOS (which is still in beta). While this is certainly the largest single jump in complexity for the platform, there’s a lot of crossover between iPadOS and macOS - including pinch to zoom, swiping, and accessing the app launcher. (I didn’t list all of the macOS gestures, but you can check them out on Apple’s support page).
Let's take a look at how iPadOS has increased the platform's complexity. I've divided the iPad gestures into several categories including basic navigation, search and notifications, keyboard and text, and general multitasking.
|Old (iOS 12)||New (iPadOS)|
|- Natural scrolling (with elastic banding)||- Grab the scroll to quickly navigate web pages and documents|
|- Swiping left or right through images|
|- Pinch to zoom|
|- Double tap to zoom (mostly on web pages)|
|- Swipe back from edge in Safari (or other browser) for previous webpage|
The basic navigation of the iPad is almost unchanged. The only addition in iPadOS is the ability to grab the scrollbar to quickly scan through webpages and documents. Any Mac, Windows, or Linux user would be familiar with a scrollbar, so there’s no real increased complexity in this category.
Search and notifications
|Old (iOS 12)||New (iPadOS)|
|- Swipe down from home screen for spotlight search|| |
|- Swipe down from top left or centre for notifications|
|- Swipe down from top right for control centre|
There are no new additions regarding Spotlight search and accessing notifications moving from iOS 12 to iPadOS.
Keyboard and text
|Old (iOS 12)||New (iPadOS)|
|- Two fingers on keyboard for virtual trackpad (place cursor)||- Three finger pinch for copy text selection|
|- Click and hold on word to bring up text selector||- Three finger Drop to paste text selection|
|- Three finger swipe left to undo last text selection|
|- Pick and drag the cursor where you drop it|
|- Double tap on a word to select it|
|- Triple tap on a sentence to select it|
|- Quadruple tap on a paragraph to select it|
|- Pinch to shrink the quick type keyboard and move anywhere|
|- Swipe to write on quick type keyboard|
|- Drag the scroll bar to navigate large documents and web pages|
Ten of the thirteen new iPadOS gestures fall under the keyboard and text selection category, and it’s these gestures that will likely demand the most from users. The three finger pinch and drop to copy and paste text is awkward, and the double, triple, and quadruple taps for selecting words, sentences, and paragraphs is neither intuitive nor discoverable. I never found the iPad’s original magnifier for text selection that bad. Here, macOS has an advantage because the mouse is a more precise input method. However, if you’re using an iPad to write then it’s likely you’d want a keyboard, in which case you can select text using the arrow keys and keyboard shortcuts like the Mac.
Complexity aside, the introduction of the three finger gestures and taps doesn’t replace the old methods of selecting and manipulating text. It adds complexity but it doesn’t get in your way.
(For more details regarding iOS 13 and iPadOS' new cut, copy, and paste gestures, I'd suggesting reading MacWorld's in-depth summary)
|Old (iOS 12)||New (iPadOS)|
|- Swipe from right edge for slide-over apps||- Move between Slide Over apps by swiping right or left on bottom Home indicator|
|- Drag and drop app from dock for side-by-side multitasking||- View all Slide Over apps by swiping up on bottom Home indicator|
|- Four finger swipe between apps|
|- Four finger swipe up for App Switcher|
|- Slightly swipe up from bottom (while in an app) to reveal the dock|
|- Full swipe up and hold for App Switcher|
|- Double click home button for App Switcher|
|- Four finger pinch to return to home screen|
|- Click home button to return to home screen|
|- Hold home button or power (on Face ID model) for Siri|
Most of the iPad multitasking gestures were introduced in iOS 12, but there are a couple notable additions in iPadOS. You can now have multiple Slide Over apps open (that third narrow app ‘window’ that floats above your main app(s)). Users can switch between these apps or view all of them in their own app launcher menu.
(Note: If you want to see iPadOS' gestures in action, check out this overview video from Max Tech)
Additional non-gesture iPadOS features to learn
There are some additional features that make iPadOS act more like a Mac without necessarily adding complication. The Files app now has a column view and recognizes USB and networked storage. Mouse support can be found in accessibility, allowing for a more precise pointing experience. And there are new Apple Pencil edit tools for marking up photos and documents.
Comparing keyboard shortcuts
Both iPadOS and macOS support keyboards (duh). From what I can tell, macOS has many more ‘core’ keyboard shortcuts than the iPad, and macOS is far more customizable. Both platforms also support app-specific shortcuts. There’s too many permutations to compare succinctly, but Apple’s Mac and iPad support pages outline the core shortcuts.
In this respect, macOS is the more complicated platform to learn. This is expected given that the OS is centred around a keyboard input rather than touch. Perhaps as iPadOS continues to develop, it will adopt more of the keyboard shortcuts of macOS. This wouldn’t necessarily complicate the iPad for users if they are coming from a Mac environment.
Comparing approaches to multitasking
The Mac, Windows, and Linux all have a multitasking approach that’s based on a thirty-five year old computer - the original Macintosh of 1984. Overlapping windows, toolbars, and drop-down menus are ancient by technology standards. These innovations have served us well, but it’s clear that the iPad has a philosophically different approach to application multitasking.
We know from the science around human attention and productivity that people don’t really multitask, but rather switch between single focus tasks. Multitasking therefore can be detrimental to both learning and productivity.
Combine computer multitasking methods with all the network tools afforded by the internet - including email, mobile notifications, social media, etc. - and you have a recipe for distraction. Desktop computing is centred around windows and less around single applications.
As excellent as computing is, the demands for our attention have never been greater. In recent years there has been a backlash against multitasking, and this is best summarized by professor Cal Newport in his books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.
How is this relevant to the iPadOS-macOS comparison? The iPad takes a very different approach to multitasking by severely limiting how many apps you can have side-by-side. You get two, plus a third small ‘Slide Over’ app which can be easily hidden.
Depending on your line of work, the iPad might actually be a more productive machine from a distraction perspective, assuming you don’t have notifications turned on for all your various social media accounts. For my blogs I typically require my writing app of choice (iA Writer) and a web browser (Firefox or Safari) for background research. I typically try to minimize the number of apps I have open at any given time. In this scenario, the iPad is just as capable as a Mac, and the former arguably provides a less distracting environment simply because there’s less going on. Sometimes I wish I had the iPad when I was an undergraduate student in university, as it might have forced me to focus on writing papers rather than check social media and text messages.
However, if you’re a web developer or system administrator who requires a dashboard-like interface to monitor several things at once, macOS is better suited for work because switching between tasks trumps single focus.
There’s a lot of ways to compare iPadOS and macOS. I’m sure another individual could counter all the points I’ve noted. One thing is clear. Apple isn’t afraid to increase the complexity of the iPad to make it more productivity focused. As a result, the iPad is considerably more complex (perhaps more convoluted) with the introduction of its many text manipulation gestures. Yet, its basic navigation structure hasn’t changed that much. By comparison, macOS’ customizability (keyboard shortcuts included) make it equally complex, but in a different way.
Where the iPad may start to lose users is its hybrid input approach. Desktop OS’ are centred around a mouse and keyboard. Windows has now integrated touch into the its core, but the small touch targets necessitate the need for a pointing device in many situations. The Mac is also keyboard and mouse centric. In contrast, the iPad is a touch-first device that’s now beginning to incorporate desktop-like features. If the iPad continues to incorporate keyboard shortcuts, pointing device support, and increased multitasking features it might be harder to learn. Incorporating two very different approaches (or paradigms) of computing might provide too many ways to accomplish the same task.
Is the iPad a capable productivity device when compared to desktop computing? Yes, but it’s very different. Tablets are often compared to desktop computers for the simple reason that many users are coming from such legacy platforms. This comparison was made before when computers transitioned from character mode interfaces to graphical user interfaces. To someone born and raised on a mouse and keyboard, iPadOS’ gestures probably come across as a finger-focused mess and difficult to learn. Going from a mouse and keyboard to a touch-based OS is like going from English to Spanish. There are common words but the structure is foreign. Conversely, if touch-based OS’ was how one was introduced to computing, a laptop or desktop would feel equally foreign.
While comparing operating system complexity may seem like a straightforward endeavour, it’s not. I take for granted the incremental improvements throughout my experience with desktop computing. Bill Gates cautioned against the over generalized argument that desktop computing hasn’t changed much over its lifetime, citing small improvements in its evolution as evidence. I recently booted up my old Atari 1040ST. While the window-icon system shares common characteristics with my modern Mac, it’s a pretty brutal experience by comparison.
There’s inherent trade offs for each computing platform. Simplistic platforms (such as Android phones or the iPhone) are capable enough, but sacrifice power-user features for simplicity since their core functions are centred around content consumption and communication. Desktop computing is the inverse, intended for content creation and work. As the iPad, and tablets generally, shift toward a productivity focus (what used to be referred to as ‘general computing’) they will necessarily require more advanced features which means increased complexity and a steeper user learning curve.
The standout difference between today’s tablets and desktop computing is really the philosophical approach to multitasking and app interaction. It’s possible tablets will eventually adopt all the core features of its desktop cousins such as overlapping windows, menu bars, widgets, etc. I think a smarter move would be to treat the tablet as an opportunity to rethink how multitasking should be done. Specifically, how we can increase user productivity and reduce distraction, while acknowledging that sometimes we need to use multiple tools at once? Desktops/laptops and tablets can live together. Both can be general computing devices, but distinguish themselves by their unique approaches to multitasking and portability.