Last week was Apple’s (AAPL) annual fall press event, typically notable for where new iPhones are introduced to adoring Apple fans and the general public alike. This year, though, the big news was a little different, given it’s an “S” year, when the handsets get small upgrades. Instead, Apple rolled out the iPad Pro, a tablet with an enormous 12.9-inch display.
If you think this is simply a somewhat bigger iPad, think again.
The iPad Pro represents Apple’s attempt to create a crossover device: A tablet that can do the work of a laptop and potentially even serve as a laptop replacement. And it’s priced like a laptop. iPad Pros start at $800 (for the 32GB version), but to get one with a practical mount of memory, you’ll need to spend about $1,000.
That’s quite similar to Microsoft’s (MSFT) flagship device, the Surface Pro 3 (or the forthcoming Surface Pro 4). The iPad Pro is also quite large: Its 12.9-inch display is noticeably bigger than the Surface Pro.
Indeed, it’s all too easy to compare the iPad Pro to the Surface Pro. They’re surprisingly similar even though they’re radically different devices. After all, both are tablets that work with an optional keyboard and stylus. Both are relatively thin and light. And both seem like they could do double duty as mobile gadgets or desktop replacements.
Ironically, for computers with such desktop aspirations, their respective keyboards are optional, adding to the base cost.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the iPad is running iOS, an operating system designed for a phone, while the Surface Pro is powered by Windows 10, a complete desktop operating system. Apple critics can easily point out that it’s hard for the iPad Pro to compete with laptops — or even the Surface — when it’s hobbled by an OS optimized to display Facebook (FB) updates and King Digital’s (KING) Candy Crush on a smartphone.
But the distinction isn’t as simple as it might once have been. Windows 10 is an unambiguously excellent OS, and it can run both full applications and more compact mobile apps side by side. iOS 9 runs only apps, but some of them have gotten quite sophisticated. You won’t mistake Microsoft Office for iOS with the desktop version, but lightweight Office users might not really care about the advanced features that are missing.
Even now, you can open Outlook for iOS on an iPad Air, tap a Word attachment and edit it in place, then return to the email and send a version with your edits back to the sender. Microsoft has made using Office apps on the iPad an elegant and seamless experience, and it’ll be even better on the larger iPad Pro.
Another sign iOS is growing up just in time for the iPad Pro: Keyboard shortcuts let you launch apps and control various functions in ways that in many cases mimic shortcuts you already know from the desktop.
Then there’s multitasking. When Windows 8 was released in 2012, Microsoft dumbed down its desktop with a modern interface that limited apps to running full-screen or two side-by-side on a split screen. It was a huge stumble backwards for Windows, and it was universally derided.
Fast-forward to 2015, though, and iOS 9 allows you to run two apps side by side on the iPad Pro (and select other models). Basically the same experience, but now it’s a huge leap forward for Apple, and it means you can finally see two apps on screen at the same time. That’s handy for people who need to do research, compare like documents or keep a view on one app while working in another.
But no matter how good the iOS app experience is, the fact remains that you still can’t run highly customized line of business applications on an iPad, info-tech departments will balk at their manageability and any number of show stoppers will hit business users who try to leave their laptop behind and just carry an iPad.
Apple clearly owes a lot to Microsoft this time around, both for design elements in its new tablet and for lending credibility to the iPad with its excellent version of Office for iOS. But it remains to be seen if the iPad Pro — a tablet that can’t quite replace a laptop — is worth the cost of an entire laptop.