Don't Underestimate the iPad Pro

NEWS ANALYSIS: Here's why a touch tablet running a mobile operating system with an optional keyboard is the future of desktop computing.

iPad Pro

It's easy for critics to mock Apple for the iPad Pro tablet.

After all, Apple's tablet business is on the ropes—one of the embarrassing problems the company has to admit on each quarterly earnings call. And the most visible attributes of the product are optional accessories—a keyboard cover that looks like a copy of Microsoft's Surface Pro accessory and a pen of the kind that Steve Jobs mocked when introducing the iPhone in 2007 (he said, referring to other smartphone companies, "If you see a stylus, they blew it").

The iPad Pro also invites ridicule in some circles because of its size. The screen is 12.9 inches diagonally, which current tablet users are having a hard time picturing. Until Apple finally got on board with the big-smartphone movement, iPad buyers were tending toward the iPad mini, not even the full-size iPads.

Even the most avid Apple fans and iPad users seem to be reflexively appreciating the iPad Pro in advance (it ships in November), without really understanding why. (The thinking seems to be that it's an Apple product and therefore will be awesome, or they like the technology in the Apple pen, called the Apple Pencil—that sort of thing.)

As far as I can tell, neither the haters nor the fans of the iPad Pro understand its significance as a leading indicator of the big shift that's coming to the world of what you might call, for lack of a better term, personal computing.

The Car-and-Truck Analogy Works Better Than Ever

Five years ago, Jobs, the late founder and CEO of Apple, said that tablets were like cars and PCs were like trucks. He said:

"When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that's what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn't care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They're still going to be around, they're still going to have a lot of value, but they're going to be used by one out of X people. ... I think that we're embarked on that. Is the next step the iPad? Who knows?"

There's an outdated notion still assumed to be true that tablets are weak, puny computers while PCs are big, strong and powerful devices.

But now that notion is being challenged.

For example, John Gruber from Daring Fireball used a standard computer performance benchmark (Geekbench 3) to compare Apple's iPhone 6s with Apple's own line of laptops. He goes into some detail about what the results were and what they mean, but the take-away is that that iPhone's main processor, the A9 chip, is at least as fast as the processor in Apple's newest 1.1GHz MacBook.

But the bigger take-away is that the iPad Pro is likely to contain a faster processor than all MacBook Pro models. (If you recall, Apple showed the iPad Pro simultaneously editing three 4K videos.)

In other words, the iPad Pro will be Apple's most powerful mobile computer. For the first time ever, the car is faster and more powerful than the truck.

The Keyboard Is Key

It's fun to mock the Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro. It's conceptually identical to Microsoft's Surface Pro keyboard cover. And it's the first keyboard Apple's ever designed and marketed expressly for mobile devices.

Personally, I'm a big fan of using a keyboard with a tablet. In fact, I've been using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad since the first day the iPad shipped in 2010. (After destroying two Apple Wireless Keyboards in my backpack, I recently bought a Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard, and it works great.)