Will iOS 4 Supercharge the iPad? Maybe.S

It's fall and thus a man's thoughts turn to operating system updates. I don't ache for as many changes to the iPad in iOS4 as one might think, but a few would make my laptop replacement even better.

Some of you intimated I might not follow through with my threat to sell my laptop after I wrote about how much I liked the iPad as a travel computer, but I did just that. Haven't looked back. I've got a trip to China coming up in a few weeks and instead of buying a new laptop I've decided to buy a few more SD cards for video and photo storage and soldier on. The only thing I can't do—edit video from my Canon T2i directly on the iPad—is because Canon's firmware doesn't let me shoot in 720p/30. If it did, I might be able to do everything I ever needed to do on the road with the iPad.

But I agree with Lam that the iPhone 4 has made the iPad feel a bit long in the tooth; that Retina Display is something else. But more than the display, it's the multitasking that iOS4 has brought to the iPhone that highlights how limited the iPad's operating system can be.

Widgets and Notifications

There was a time when I thought I would have preferred the iPad get a sort of widget system akin to OS X's Dashboard, but the longer I use the iPad the less I want an overlay system. What's necessary is the fast switching between apps at which iOS excels. That said, a better notification system would be welcome that doesn't disrupt my user experience. I don't mind switching to a fullscreen AIM client, for instance, as much as I mind having what I'm doing in another application interrupted with a pop-up every time someone instant messages me in the other application.

Unfortunately, there's no way we'll see a better interface for notifications until iOS5 at the soonest. (Or whatever version number the next major update will be.) I've said from Android's earliest, most awkward iterations that its best feature was its pull-down "window shade" status bar. Apple should steal it outright. There might have been an argument for more simple interface in the early, pre-App Store days, but as Apple design often works under the presumption of culture-wide learning curves these days, I think the argument for simplicity in the alerts system hasn't aged as well as others. (The icon-based Springboard menu interface still seems ample for both iPhones and iPad, especially when coupled with Spotlight system-wide indexing.)

Fast Multitasking

Until we get a better pop-up system, faster multitasking is key, and it's here that I am hoping against hope that Apple OS engineers will discover a way to support multitasking on the iPad at speeds on par with the iPhone 4, despite the lower amount of RAM. Benchmarking tends to suggest that the iPhone 4 has roughly the same processor as the iPad, clocked to slightly slower speeds; RAM, on the other hand, has doubled in the iPhone 4. When you factor in the larger swap sizes necessary for the relatively high-resolution iPad apps, things get trickier. I'm really nervous that we'll see an iPad on iOS4 with full support for multitasking that doesn't actually feel much faster as the operating system is forced to kill apps more readily than it must on iPhone 4. (This lack of RAM is the same reason you'll not see an iPad with a pixel density of the iPhone 4's Retina Display for some time—years. The amount of RAM it would take to handle applications that render their graphics and interfaces in resolutions thousands of pixels wide would be too much for the relatively dainty hardware of a consumer-focussed iPad.)

I'm curious how the multitasking will even look, as well. Will it be iPhone's push-down interface or will it take better advantage of the screen real estate? If anything, it will probably just show six app icons at once instead of four—if iPad can manage to keep that many alive at once.

Robust Keyboard Support

Other minor niggles remain. I use an external keyboard for typing anything over a sentence or two in length, such as heavy emailing or writing an article. More shortcuts, such as a hotkey to switch apps, would be completely welcome. I grant that adding keyboard-centric things like hot keys are very nerdy and almost antithetical to the touch-centric nature of iOS, but having gained the self-confidence (and sales) to admit that there are times when keyboards are still the preferred interface, it would be nice if iOS would embrace keyboards more fully and give them the sort of polish they deserve. Even just a little icon in text-entry fields to bring up the onscreen keyboard even when a Bluetooth keyboard is attached would be a great help. (For when you've set your keyboard down somewhere but are holding the iPad to do something else.)

I grant this is an issue for power users today—if one can be a power user of an iPad—but in the times that iOS is replacing and not just supplementing traditional computers, good keyboard support will help considerably. Now that even the iPhone supports external keyboards, it's time to make the keyboard experience as good as it can be.

Better iPhone + iPad Integration

And while you're at it, throw in better interfacing between the Mac, too.

I use my iPad in three fairly distinct scenarios:

• Alone with a keyboard, like a laptop replacement.

• Without a keyboard, but with the iPhone next to me or in the other hand.

• Without a keyboard or iPhone nearby, usually when simply browsing the web, watching a video, or reading a book—consuming.

Of course at times the usage will overlap. Sometimes I'll be reading a book on my iPad and pull out my iPhone to check Twitter. (Nothing yet compares to the official Twitter [nee Tweetie] client.) Other times I'll be reading an article on my iMac and then want to continue it on the iPad.

While there are plenty of syncing services like Instapaper, I want all my devices to be aware of each other, especially while on the same network. I'd like to be able to "fling" things from my Safari browser window into the browser on the iPad, where a web page waits for me, already scrolled to the place I stopped reading. And I don't really want to have to press a "I'm moving to my iPad now" button either. I want it to just know—or at least make its best guess.

I know that's a bit kooky to presume is coming any time soon, at least using things like face recognition and cameras and the like, so until then some sort of one-click syncing feature would be great.

By the same token, as iPhone and iPad capabilities have grown similar, it would be nice if the devices where aware of each other while in proximity. It would be nice if when asked by Mobile Safari if I want to open up a new window or not if it would also ask me if I want to open the link on its iOS cousin. Sending a map from the iPhone to your iPad, for instance, should be relatively simple. (All security concerns ignored for now.)

Better iPhone App Integration

At this point if it's an iPhone app and not a Universal app that has a proper iPad mode, I delete it. Doubled apps just don't look very good on the iPad and it's silly that it doesn't support the iPhone 4 resolution more gracefully. At this point I'd almost trade less resolution on the iPad for a 1:1 pixel match between all iOS devices just so I wouldn't have to deal with so many odd resolution matches, but of course just because something is the same resolution in pixels doesn't mean it's the same actual size relative to fingers.

But with the addition of a camera to the next iPad—at least front-facing, as FaceTime is pretty much a given for all Apple devices pretty soon—there will be little to differentiate the iPad from other iOS devices. It's not a huge deal, but as it feels like many developers are ignoring the iPad in favor of iPhone/iPod Touch apps it would be nice to see the market unify a bit more in both directions. (I'd like to use Flipboard on my iPhone 4, for instance.)

Yes, I'm arguing that the giant iPod Touch should be more exactly like a giant iPod Touch. I'm fine with that. It's the form factor that makes the iPad a different thing, not its processing power or specifications.

If you think about the platform unifying more while keeping in mind the idea that the devices could be more aware of each other, it's easy to imagine a future where your devices know what you're doing and save a unified, cross-device state—a bookmarked, mobile "me"—that was both aware of the last thing you did as well as the things you have yet to do across every bit of computing stuff that's in near-field proximity.

I'm Contendedly Discontented

One can either look at the iPad as a hobbled computer or a surprisingly capable gadget—both are true at the same time. But I get a kick out of the things this gadget can do that a laptop or netbook can't, especially when I know that many of my own personal bugbears—iffy video editing utility, a thirst for RAM, a "tighter" screen—will come in time. And while I'm sure there will come a time when this first generation hardware will be too slow for even operating system updates to keep it creeping toward the future, I remain happy at how much I like meeting this hobbled little computing thing in the middle.

Imagery by our contributing illustrator Sam Spratt based on the painting by CM Coolidge Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.