Read next: The iPad Pro review.
If you want to get work done, you buy a laptop. If you want to watch movies and play games, you buy a tablet. That's been the conventional wisdom for years now, except it's not really true. Especially not today.
The MacBook and iPad Pro look pretty similar on paper
The line between laptops and tablets has been blurred in the PC world for a while now — that's one thing to thank Windows 8 for — but today Apple blurred that line within its own ecosystem. On the low end of things, it has the iPad mini and Air; on the high end, it has the MacBook Pro. Then there's the middle, where Apple has two slim and portable devices without a lot of traditional power: the MacBook and the newly announced iPad Pro.
More than any other iPad, the iPad Pro is being positioned as a creation device. A device for getting stuff done, for making music, for editing a spreadsheet. That's why during its presentation today, Apple didn't spend time highlighting the amazing games that could fill up its huge, high-res screen — it focused on the productivity apps you'll be using, like Office and Photoshop.
The question isn't so much "what are they for?" as it is "who are they for?"
That is, essentially, the description of what you'd do with the MacBook. It's a device for browsing the web, getting work done, and bringing wherever you go. It's not a great choice for opening three dozen Chrome tabs at once or editing video in Premiere — that’s where the MacBook Pro, iMac, or Mac Pro come into play — but you can write a Word document or tweak a photo in Lightroom.
When you look at both devices’ specs, the difference blurs even more: they use low-power processors, they offer about 10 hours of battery life, and they have 12(ish)-inch displays. The only differences? The iPad has a touchscreen, and you need to buy a keyboard separately. If you do that, their prices end up pretty comparable, too: buy the 128GB iPad and keyboard case, and you pay $1,248 — buy a 256GB MacBook and you pay $1,299. On paper, they’re in many ways the same product, just built very differently.
Rather than the iPad Pro and the MacBook being meant for different tasks, it's worth considering that they may just be meant for different people. The touchscreen is taking over, and for a lot of people it's a simpler and more intuitive way of using a computer. iOS is designed from the ground up for use with a touchscreen — even if OS X grafts on touch controls, it'll never be an operating system meant for people who grew up on touch screens or have grown to prefer them. Just look at Windows 10, which has had to pull back from Windows 8’s all-in approach on touch. It's managed to improve touch control of Windows in a big way, but there’s no hiding that it’s a desktop operating system, designed from day one (nearly 30 years ago) for use with a mouse.
In that sense, the iPad Pro may not be a play for today's productivity market, but the productivity market that develops in the years to come. It's very possible that hybrid devices like the iPad Pro could come to replace the typical laptop. Already, some businesses seem to be adopting them on the grounds of portability and ease of use — Apple is even working with IBM to develop specialized software and services for professionals to work with. And if younger generations prefer the touchscreen to the trackpad, the iPad Pro could eventually become their main computer.
There's still a big gap between idea and reality
For now, you can't ignore the realities that separate iPad Pro and MacBook. Most people using a computer today are going to get more done with a traditional keyboard and trackpad. Most people are going to have an easier time when they can command+tab between half a dozen apps, see as many programs on screen as they want, and have the ability to customize how their computer works, even with something as simple as setting a default email app. It's obviously too soon to make a judgement on the iPad Pro — I've never even touched one! — but it's not going to be as capable as a traditional laptop. At least, not yet.
We already have a basic sense of this thanks to the iPad Air. Many a thought piece has been written on its capabilities as a creation tool and ability to replace the laptop, but it's pretty obvious that hasn't happened for most people. The Air runs these same apps and can be paired with a keyboard case. The big difference here? The iPad Pro is bigger. It’s more powerful. It has a better keyboard. And iOS 9 is going to make it capable of true multitasking. You can write it off as just being a bigger iPad, but the iPad suddenly looks a whole lot more like a laptop.
Microsoft has been playing with this space for years now
It’s worth looking to Microsoft’s Surface line, where this question has already been in play for three years. The Surface Pro is the same kind of hybrid device, partway between laptop and tablet, and it’s been finding success. Microsoft doesn’t provide hard numbers, but its Surface business is growing quarter after quarter, with it bringing in $888 million last quarter. There are some big differences — the Surface Pro is much closer to a laptop in power, and it runs desktop Windows — but it’s still evidence that people are finding a role for hybrid computers.
So who is the iPad Pro for? It's for you, the person who really wants one, the person who doesn't want to use a laptop anymore or finds a touchscreen way easier. Right now, it'll probably take someone who's a bit more committed to going all in — iOS has its limitations, and you'll want to know how to get around them — but Apple seems to be setting the iPad Pro up as a tablet that could one day replace your laptop (yes, that's the Surface's slogan). My guess is that day isn't here yet for most people, but Apple just took its first real step toward it.