Apple’s big software special event, WWDC, is a busy time of year for Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering. In the two-hour keynote, he was rarely far from center stage, introducing new features for Apple Watch, iPhone, Mac and iPad. Even so, he found time to sit down with me and talk about why he thinks this is a key year for the iPad.
I began by asking him about how the software for the iPad and the Mac seem to be getting closer all the time. So, what makes the two platforms distinct?
“I love using them both and I reach for them at different moments. I think that the Mac, when it comes to connecting to massive external storage, many displays and so on shows that there’s just a lot of power there and a lot of hobbyist capabilities. It’s something that at its core is a development platform. But iPad just has tremendous versatility in how you can use it and how it connects with the world, You can take it with you, you can hold it in your hands and lean back, you can flip it into portrait orientation when you want to read. You can connect it to an external keyboard and trackpad when you want to work that way You can pull out a Pencil and doodle on it.
“It’s got fantastic cameras so you can capture the world and do AR captures and experiences with it. And now you can connect it to external displays. So, I feel like the iPad is this ultimate in take-it-anywhere, do-anything versatility which I think is fantastic.”
So, does adding a keyboard and mouse to an iPad turn it into a touchscreen MacBook, perhaps?
“I think the experience remains distinct. We’ve used car and truck analogies for many years and I think they are instructive. You can do a lot of the same things with a car and a truck and they’re both valid forms of transportation, but they remain different in their center and I think iPad at its center is this touch-first, hold-it-in-your-hands system that is also designed around simplicity and focus at its core.”
Which brings us to the latest productivity option, Stage Manager, which is a neat way of managing multiple windows on the iPad screen. A version will also be available in the next software for the Mac.
With Stage Manager you can only have four apps live at once (plus another four if you have an external monitor attached). Why this limitation?
“On iPad we have this inviolate bar for fluidity and responsiveness in the experience. If it’s a touch experience, you expect the moment you put down your finger and begin moving that you get a response: anything less than that breaks the feeling of your connection with the device. And so, we have a tremendously high bar we need to meet around responsiveness and that means we must make sure that we balance the amount of compute power and the graphics capability on the device, with how many apps could be conceivably doing live responsive things and still be completely responsive to the user.
“Also, we wanted from a user experience point of view, in keeping with. I think the Gestalt of the iPad, to make sure you weren’t hunting and managing hidden windows. Anyone who on the Mac opens a ton of windows knows that what happens eventually is you’ve got a lot of windows that are covered or nearly covered and you’re constantly kind of moving things around and selectively hiding stuff. And we wanted that on iPad to be a completely automatic experience that we could keep all of your windows that you had on the stage accessible to you at the same time. And so, with four windows we can automatically nudge them in ways that make sure that they all stay accessible to you. This came out to be a really balanced solution.”
Which brings us to the fact that this blazing new feature is only available on the latest iPad Pro and iPad Air models. To be fair, Apple was very upfront about this at the keynote, opening the section with the note that the next features were for iPads with the M1 processor only. I asked Federighi why only M1 can play with Stage Manager. The first factor was “to maintain the responsiveness of the experience”—that thing mentioned above about not breaking the metaphor—and the need for the fast virtual memory swap which Apple uses on the M1 iPads to keep things moving apace. Did Apple even try to make Stage Manager work with the other iPads in the range?
“We began some of our prototyping involving those systems and it became apparent early on that we couldn’t deliver the experience that that we were designing toward with them. Certainly, we would love to bring any new experience to every device we can, but we also don’t want to hold back the definition of a new experience and not create the best foundation for the future in that experience. And we really could only do that by building on the M1.”
This year seems like a bigger year than last year for iPad—though that brought some significant updates, too. “Sometimes there are features that are several years in the making. Every year is a big year for what we’re working hard on. Sometimes things pop up and show their head in a big way at a certain moment: features like Stage Manager, take a lot of groundwork over a long time. And so it has been delightful to be able to surface all the capability we’ve been engineering toward over a long time. But yes, I think this is a big year for iPad.”