This isn't a love letter to Apple. It's not a leak - it's a bold prediction about the touch friendly future of macOS, and I think you're gonna love it...
I don't have mysterious contacts like Jon Prosser, or access to Tim Cook's calendar like l0vetodeam, but I'm betting on a touchscreen macOS release for 2021.
There's a good chance I'm putting two and two together and making five, but for me the signals currently point to a release of macOS on a 12.9" iPad Pro.
Some background to my thought process: Apple tends to behave in unpredictable ways, even internally. Its engineers attest to the fact that they work on projects knowing only what they need to know - the result could be for R&D, a far-off release or a major feature in the next iPhone that debuts at WWDC.
From the outside - albeit more subtly - we experience a similar phenomenon with Apple products. It regularly releases features piecemeal, deploying and refining the technologies that it intends to use later, in a completely different way.
A recent example might be the LIDAR scanner, which launched with the 2020 iPad Pro. It didn't address a specific need for the average user - architects exempted - but the same technology has now appeared in the iPhone 12 Pro, which uses it as a tool to improve taking photos in portrait and night modes.
In two years time, that same LIDAR scanner could be a slimmed-down component in something like Apple Glass, or another 3D scanning wearable that needs a true-depth view of the world in order to create a seamless AR experience.
Until then, we're happy to simply celebrate improved camera technology, and Apple as a consequence don't have to ignore journalists' questions about why they're developing and ordering parts for a miniaturised LIDAR scanner.
As a curious onlooker I look for these signs all the time. I rarely make a connection that most other people haven't seen coming, but right now I feel confident; the iPad Pro will transition from an iOS-only product into a hybrid offering, which will put Apple's first touch-enabled macOS device on the map.
Putting down the reasons for my theory, it turns out, is tough. But here's my best shot...
Rumours of a 2021 refresh on the 12.9" iPad Pro (sans 11")
Reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo went on record in September 2020 to say that Apple plans to release a new iPad Pro. There were two reasons this is interesting:
- Apple only refreshed the iPad Pro lineup in March 2020, which would indicate an unusually short refresh window. But more interestingly...
- He mentions only a refresh of the 12.9" device. That's unusual because up until now, Apple always updated the 12.9" and 11" models in unison.
If Apple does intend to bring macOS to the iPad line-up, there's a strong argument that macOS would be perfectly usable on the 12.9" model, but probably wouldn't be feasible on the its smaller kin.
It's also highly unlikely that Apple is willing to sacrifice iPadOS on the entire iPad Pro lineup, given the strong user base. On the other hand, introducing an option to buy the iPad Pro with macOS would surely make the iPad Pro more "pro" for some people, who find iPadOS too limiting to use as their daily driver.
Big Sur - Big buttons. Oh so finger friendly...
Apple's latest macOS release - Big Sur - launched last week. It has a refreshed UI, many under-the-hood improvements and it supports all devices back to the 2013 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.
At face value, it's a nice refresh. There's some welcome feature unification to harmonize experiences across macOS and iOS, but notably, mouse centric applications like Finder have been upgraded to include bigger, more generously spaced buttons, reducing reliance on mouse and menu bar options.
The new buttons and their popup menus are visually pleasing, but they're also much more finger friendly than those in macOS Catalina. When you see the two side-by-side like this, it seems obvious that Apple is preparing macOS for touch.
There are other buttons too, like those that adorn the top of the UI in Apple's own applications. It's easy to explain away the change as nothing more than unification, but macOS apps like Mail and Safari now have the same generously spaced button design as the equivalent apps on their iOS counterparts.
Ironically, the button bar - which adorns most of Apple's iPadOS apps - was last updated when Apple enabled mouse support on the iPad. The change made apps easier to use whether using a finger or mouse, and again, it seems obvious to me that the same design coming to macOS can only mean one thing.
Icon (almost) unification
For a long time, icon designs on iOS and macOS were a widely debated annoyance for people who used both platforms. Apps like Messages, Music, Pages, Numbers and Keynote all used to sport a different look depending on OS. Messages were green on iOS, and blue on macOS. Music was white on macOS, and red on iOS.
Big Sur unifies those designs, but they're still not exactly the same. The icons are very similar, but macOS variants have been tweaked to include shadowing on key elements, setting them subtly but noticeably apart from their iOS counterparts.
This is my most far fetched theory, but if Apple do have iPad Pro variants running macOS in the wild, what better way to subtly remind an engineer that they're using the highly-secret macOS driven iPad, than shading the icons a little bit differently?
The macOS menu bar
Nothing in macOS is quite as iconic as the menu bar, which has occupied the top 25 pixels of every macOS device I've ever used. Until now.
Incorporating the Apple logo, the emboldened name of the app you're using and an array of controls, the menu bar served us for many years. But it's not very touch friendly - which could be the reason Apple has decided to introduce the option to hide it in Big Sur, the same way you can hide the dock when not in use.
Hiding the menu bar is aesthetically pleasing. But Apple has never given the option before, because the menu bar is the go-to place for so many things when you're using a mouse. But supposing Apple introduces touch to macOS, the menu bar would probably be hidden by default, and only re-appear if the mouse ventures towards the top of the screen (or if the iPad's Magic Keyboard is connected).
People were crying out for mouse support on iOS long before Apple finally decided to enable it with iPadOS. When it did arrive, people were elated, but there's still a widely-held view that iPadOS isn't a suitable replacement for macOS and the free-form computing experience that it provides.
It's been the norm for some time now that Apple releases hardware long before it reveals its true intentions for that hardware, and the introduction of mouse support in the iPad Pro was a master stroke, because when it did, it introduced an iPad-specific mouse and keyboard (the Magic Keyboard) with no awkward questions.
If Apple does bring macOS to the iPad, it has the advantage of already having a thin, touch-enabled device with a detachable mouse and keyboard. It's shipping right now!
The only thing that Apple really needed to do to get macOS on the iPad line-up was transition macOS away from x86, which it has already done...
It could be just another case of unification - or - Apple has updated the design for information/warning notifications on Big Sur for a reason. They're not exactly the same as those on iPadOS, but they now heavily replicate them.
No touchscreen OS works well without easily dismissible notification messages. Low and behold; finger friendly, generously spaced warning messages on macOS...
That app store graphic...
I follow a lot of technology accounts on twitter. The day after the release of macOS Big Sur, one of them posted publicly to ponder why the macOS App Store had a widgets feature with an animation of a human hand touching macOS widgets. The tweet was picked up by all the big commentators, and soon went viral.
Sadly, the original tweet is gone because the author wasn't happy with the exposure and the thousands of notifications, so deleted it (or perhaps he was asked to by Tim Cook - who knows), but the animation appearing wasn't the most interesting revelation.
What really gives pause for thought is that soon after the tweet went viral and was retweeted by the likes of Bloomberg, the animation disappeared from the App Store and was be replaced by a static image of the same graphic, minus the hand suggestively interacting with macOS.
Whether it was an over-imaginative graphic designer at Apple Park, or someone on the App Store team choosing the wrong imagery remains unknown, but the fact that such imagery even exists and was stored alongside non-touch versions of the same graphic suggests to me that touch-enabled macOS is imminent.
The M1 Processor
You can't be reading this if you haven't seen the fanfare surrounding Apple's latest processor. It recently made its debut in the familiar designs of the 2020 MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini, and it's already caused a stir by leapfrogging Intel processors in terms of performance AND power efficiency.
The new models featuring an M1 processor are exciting, but that's because of their internals - the designs themselves are familiar and safe. They're the sort of products you launch to steer customers into concentrating on performance, to not distract us with a new device's form factor, or other new features like touch input.
But Apple seems to be in full throttle despite the challenges of 2020, and following the successful launch of M1 processors, it will want to make a splash with new hardware, sooner rather than later. What bigger, better and bolder announcement could there be than Apple's first real "Surface Killer"? An M1 iPad Pro with a detachable keyboard/touchpad combo running macOS.
An iPad Pro running macOS would instantly become one of the thinnest, lightest and probably the most highly capable convertibles in the industry. With USB-C already present (now rumored to be thunderbolt), the iPad Pro would be compatible with most peripherals, and work properly with things like external monitors, webcams and external storage just as power users have been calling for.
It seems highly unlikely that Apple suddenly rest on its laurels with the M1 processor and reserve it exclusively for the Mac lineup - if I were an Apple engineer I'd be asking what revolutionary impact the M1 can have on other product lines, and right now my eye would be firmly fixed on the iPad Pro.
Leading up to the widely anticipated Apple Silicon announcement, there were rumors that macOS devices with Apple Silicon would gain LTE support, meaning a cellular connected MacBook. It didn't transpire - but what if that rumor was never the plan at all, and the rumors were referring a macOS iPad Pro?
It makes more sense, in a way. Apple solved the LTE antenna and battery-life issues in the iPad long ago. Why re-engineer the MacBook for cellular antennas (which are potentially problematic because of the aluminium unibody) when they can more simply transition macOS to the iPad and worry about touch and LTE issues on the MacBook later?
Thinner. Lighter. Connected. The reasons for not creating a macOS enabled variant of the iPad Pro are few and far between.
iOS App Support
One of the less talked about features in macOS Big Sur - iOS app support - lends itself in particular to the theory that macOS is coming to the iPad Pro.
Perhaps ironically, users of the iPad who switch to macOS would likely want to retain some iPadOS' original features and workflows.
In their current form, iOS apps running on the new crop of macOS devices are clunky. This is because first and foremost, iOS apps are not designed to be used with a mouse. They rely on touch navigation and gestures to preform as designed, which the new M1 macOS devices simply don't have the hardware for at present.
If Apple brings macOS to the iPad Pro, they'll instantly create a hardware solution that is able to bridge that gap, catering for both input methods in a single device.
Microsoft tried (unsuccessfully) to bring touch centric apps to Windows devices, melding its mouse and touchscreen workflows in a way that fails both, because using a mouse for touch enabled apps is clunky, and using touch to replace mouse driven workflows is even worse.
Apple has an advantage. It already has an OS specifically for the iPad. It's touch interface works perfectly. Apple knows how it works, and so do iPad users.
Rather than 'port' iOS apps into macOS the way it did with the new M1 devices, Apple might choose to include elements of iPadOS within macOS on the iPad Pro, running one or the other as an OS within an OS, reverting to the familar touch experience when say, the device is undocked from a mouse and keyboard, and reverting back to macOS when reconnected.
Either way, supporting native iOS apps on the current devices feels like the wrong solution, but it may well be a precursor, a feasibility exercise or a smokescreen that precedes the inclusion of a containerised version of iPadOS on the next iPad Pro.
The results we've seen so far from the M1 suggest this would have no significant impact on performance or battery life. At the moment, it feels like Apple has allowed iOS apps onto M1 devices just for the sake of it, but they wouldn't do that, would they? Something bigger is always on the roadmap, and that's the key here.
There are very few reasons for Apple not to bring macOS to the iPad Pro (or elements of macOS to iPadOS perhaps). I can't think of a better way for Apple to satisfy the calls for a touchscreen Mac than bringing parts of the Mac to its well established touchscreen devices. Tehnically, it also means Phil Schiller will be standing by his assertion that touchscreen isn't coming to the Mac.
The current iteration of the iPad Pro is ready for the M1. Bear in mind, the A12Z processor which powers the current iPad Pro was the processor that Apple sent out in the Developer Transition Kit, housed in a Mac mini before M1 even launched.
There is a strong contingent of iPad users who currently use the iPad because they love the form factor, the battery life, the always-on connectivity and the touch interface. But those same people often complain that iPadOS isn't ready to replace their Mac, and that's a great reason for Apple to bring macOS to the iPad, because more people being able to use the iPad as a daily driver is a good thing.
They don't need to create a 'touchscreen mac' - they already have one.