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Apple’s move to make the iPad more laptop-like

The new iPad operating system interface allows multi-tasking.

Apple’s popular iPad tablet line is set to get its own dedicated operating system, iPadOS, and other features which make its appeal as a laptop replacement much stronger.

Debuting in 2010, the iPad was initially a fabulous success, revolutionising the format in the way it had done with the smartphone three years earlier. In one quarter of 2014 alone, Apple sold 26 million iPads.

While it has never regained those heights, the iPad in its various formats – the early-level iPad ($539), iPad Air ($849), iPad Mini ($679) and iPad Pro ($1,399), remain respectable sellers for Apple, thanks in part to its focus on making the higher-end iPad Pro a powerhouse tool for creative types.

The iPad Pro’s A12X Bionic chip gave it better performance than many similarly priced laptops, and is powerful enough to comfortably handle video editing, illustration and augmented reality applications. The Apple Pencil has also appealed to software developers who have designed apps around its natural-feeling digital writing and doodling features.

Files and mice

But a few weaknesses have held back the iPad, which runs on the iOS software powering the iPhone, from being considered a true productivity device that can replace a Windows or Apple laptop, rather than serve as an alternative device for lighter tasks.

The move yesterday to fork off an operating system specifically for the iPad will close the gap to some extent and allow the iPad’s screen real estate to be properly taken advantage of.

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One of the more significant changes includes an update to the Files app which will allow folders to be shared among users in the iCloud drive and files to be accessed from a USB-C flash drive. A new column view of files will make navigation easier and provide more detail about them.

These are standard features of Windows and macOS, which runs Apple’s laptops and desktops. But limited file accessing and browsing has held back the iPad as an option for office workers and mobile warriors, a gap in the market Microsoft has been only too happy to fill with its Surface tablets.

A revamped home screen in iPadOS will offer more information, including the sort of widgets you can expect to customise on a Windows 10 machine: headlines, weather, calendar and events among them. There’ll also be more room for app icons on the iPad’s screen.

A further barrier to iPad uptake is removed with better multi-tasking capability.

Better multitasking

On iPadOS, you’ll be able to bring up multiple windows of the same app, which wasn’t previously possible and there are a lot of small interface changes that make it easier to multi-task with your larger screen real estate.

In Split View, you’ll be able to work with multiple files and documents simultaneously, switching easily between apps with the Slide Over tool. You could for instance, compose an email in one window, with another email open beside it for reference. The same goes for commonly used apps like Messages and Calendar.

Previously, multitasking on the iPad was clunky, usually on a one file and one app at a time basis.

Improvements in the responsiveness of the Apple Pencil reduces its latency from 20 milliseconds to 9 milliseconds, so digital pen strokes appear much more quickly and accurately.

There’ll finally be support for USB and Bluetooth mice. The cursor will operate as a finger tap, bringing a new way of interacting with the iPad that PC and Mac users have long enjoyed.

In the Safari browser, where many iPad users spend much of their time accessing websites and cloud-based services, websites and apps such as Google Docs, Wordpress and SquareSpace will now display as they do in the desktop version, rather than as a mobile web version. Safari will add a download manager and new keyboard shortcuts too.

Simple tasks like text editing will become easier, with new gestures for Windows standards like deleting and rearranging paragraphs of text.

Expensive add-ons

More fundamentally, iPadOS, which will debut in late September or early October as a free update for later model iPads, gives developers a chance to develop applications specifically for the format, rather than having to fit the limitations of the iOS operating system.

The catch with the iPad is the accessories you need to get the most out of it – a keyboard will set you back $259-$$349 depending on its size and the Apple Pencil, which comes in two formats, costs $159-$219.

It is yet to be seen how the developer community will take to iPadOS, but it was developers who pushed Apple to expand its portfolio of operating systems, which now also include tvOS, iOS, MacOS and WatchOS, so there should be plenty of activity aimed at making the most of the iPad’s screen, touch interface and processing power.

Peter Griffin attended the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose as a guest of Apple.

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