Apple's upcoming iOS 9 has a bunch of under-the-hood performance improvements and new features, like a new, more intelligent personal assistant. While all iOS devices dating back to 2011's iPhone 4S will benefit from the new platform when it officially launches this fall, the iPad — and the most recent iPad in particular — is getting special treatment this time around. With iOS 9, Apple is taking the iPad seriously as a productivity device in a way that it never has before. The iPad is growing up, and Apple is setting the stage to make it an even more powerful device in the very near future.
Update: Read the iOS 9 review.
The iPad has always been more than just "a bigger iPhone," but for the most part, that has consisted of apps that have been designed for the iPad's larger display. An iPad version of an app, such as Outlook or Facebook, might have a two-pane display and show more information at a given time than its iPhone counterpart. Aside from a few (largely hidden) multi-touch gestures, the way iOS itself works on an iPad isn't much different than the way it works on an iPhone. Apps are modal experiences that happen one at a time, and you have to bounce back to the home screen to go into a different app or double-click on the home key to launch the same recent apps list available on the iPhone.
iOS 9 changes the iPad experience dramatically for power users
iOS 9 changes that experience dramatically. For the first time, you will be able to run more than one app at a time on the iPad's display, letting you keep an eye on Twitter while writing email or reading an article. Apps can be split across the screen equally or in a 70-30 split, depending on your preference. Both apps are fully interactive at the same time, and you can drag and drop images and other content from one side to the other. Apple says this feature will be supported on the iPad Air 2, and it will presumably be a highlight of whatever iPad Apple announces this fall.
Other iPads, such as the Air, mini 2, and mini 3, won’t be able to use the new split-screen mode, but will be able to take advantage of iOS 9’s other new multitasking features. Slide Over lets you quickly "slide" in an app on top of the one you're working in to reply to text messages or check a Twitter feed before sliding it back out of the way. A new picture-in-picture video player will let you watch a video clip without having to leave the app you're currently in. It will work with FaceTime calls or Apple's native video player. (It's not yet clear if it will work with a third-party video app, such as YouTube, but Apple does demo it with HBO Now, so there's hope.)
The iPad's on-screen keyboard is also getting upgraded with a toolbar for cut, copy, paste, and more; easier text selection; and keyboard shortcuts for switching between apps and other actions. Apple says that the keyboard shortcuts will also work with Bluetooth keyboards.
All of the new features have one thing in common: they make it easier to get work done
All of these new features have one thing in common: they make it easier to get work done on an iPad. I personally use an iPad to hammer through email, catch up on my reading list, and make snarky tweets during my commute to work. I actually wrote the first draft of this article on an iPad using a writing app and a Bluetooth keyboard while I commuted back home from the office last night. But I can't say multitasking on an iPad as it currently works is an easy endeavor: I'm constantly flipping over to Slack to see messages from my colleagues, or to Safari to confirm facts, or to Outlook to check out the email that just came in. Each one of those actions takes me out of my writing app, slows me down, and makes me wonder why I just didn't pull my laptop out of my bag instead.
But with iOS 9, I could have Safari open in a split screen next to my in-progress document, or I could slide Slack or Outlook over to see new messages without jumping out of my writing app. These are features Apple's competitors have championed for a long time: iOS 9's exact split-screen mode is a key component of Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface, and Samsung has long had split-screen multitasking on its Android phablets and tablets. It's a style of working (doing more than one thing at a time) that many of us associate with a desktop or laptop, but Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and others have brought it to more portable and lightweight devices with these features.
iOS 9's upgrades make a lot of sense in the context of Apple's enterprise push
iOS 9's upgrades make sense in the context of the various pushes into the enterprise Apple has recently made. A deal with IBM has iPads being distributed to thousands of enterprise users that tend to be a bit more demanding than the average consumer. They also set the path for the long-rumored iPad Pro, a larger device that Apple has yet to officially announce. Split-screen multitasking makes the most sense when you have a big screen to split up, and the larger iPad is rumored to have a screen in the range of 12 inches. (I'm sure that's part of the reason Apple is limiting it to the iPad Air 2; the other part being it likely requires a lot of processing power, which older and smaller iPads just don't have.)
Tablets, and the iPad in particular, have long been referred to as "Post PC" devices, products that don't require the cost, weight, power, and time commitments of laptop or desktop computers. But the new features in iOS 9 bring the iPad ever closer to its laptop cousins, and make it a more ideal device to get work done on than ever before. If anything, iOS 9 makes the iPad a nü PC — it's just a new spin on the thing you use to check email, browse the web, compose documents, and waste time on social networks.
That might be just what the iPad needs to find its niche. Phablets like the iPhone 6 Plus have rendered the iPad redundant for a lot of people, since the size difference between a smartphone and a tablet is ever shrinking. iOS 9's new productivity features widen that gap — figuratively at first, then physically if Apple does release a larger iPad — and could make the iPad a compelling alternative to a laptop for even more people.
It won't be a Post PC world then, it will be a world where an iPad is pretty much just a PC. And that might be exactly what it needs to be.
Verge Video: Apple's incremental improvements at WWDC 2015