Jack of all trades: iPadOS 16

The iPad is Apple’s most versatile device. There’s no other instrument in Apple’s lineup that can do more items in many ways.

Still, Apple has expanded the last couple of years, counting so many features, input methods, and UI systems to its tablet that it’s starting to feel a bit… crufty.

Even for an early beta, iPadOS 16 feels relatively polished and functional, but the apps running on it don’t. However, as the iPad becomes more flexible, developers have a surprising amount of work for their apps to work seamlessly everywhere.

iPadOS 16 is a big step in user choice and flexibility and comes with many features. But the overall feeling after a few weeks is that the iPad is a stupendously powerful device… Of course, Apple would answer that it doesn’t matter. It all functions well, so you can use it however you like! That’s often true, but you can’t support but wish Apple had more opinions on the subject.

If you’re the sort of person who operates on an iPad as your main workhorse, iPadOS 16 is for you. The ability to plug in an external monitor and use it as a second screen is a game-changer for anyone who spends hours a day doing work on their iPad. The process is pretty seamless: you can buy a specific USB-C to HDMI cable, but my USB-C hub worked well, too, and as soon as you plugged it in, it popped up a second screen with its dock ready to go.

The iPad assumes the second screen is above it by default, so you drag windows up from your iPad onto your second screen. Most apps treat the monitor as a massive iPad with no touchscreen, which works well enough. Still, a few get crazy with it: Netflix played everything turned 90 degrees to the right, for instance, and YouTube expanded into some deeply broken layout I’ve never seen before.

Managing monitors is easy in iPadOS 16, though not every app works well on the bigger screen. Stage Manager is the other thing that’s going to cause developers headaches. It’s also likely to be the most controversial thing about iPadOS 16: a new tool for multitasking designed to make it easier to switch between many apps quickly.

The piles take up too much room on the screen, and it takes way too much work to place the app windows just so. (One funny beta moment: when you turn on Stage Manager, it instantly forces the Settings app to render at a size it doesn’t support and breaks. Lots of other apps do, too.) When you open a full-screen app, you’re out of Stage Manager, and it’s not apparent how to get back or put things into the piles.

It might be better, oddly enough, if Stage Manager completely took over the device when you turned it on. But you can still Command-Tab your way through apps, use Mission Control, and open two apps side by side with a third slid over. It’s just too many ways to mess with your apps.

Collaboration is the other prominent power-user feature in iPadOS 16. Apple’s building real-time collaboration tools into Pages, Keynote, and Numbers and a way to share tab groups in Safari. The system for sharing and collaborating works well. You send a link to someone, and as long as they’re using the latest software, they immediately have access to your documents. But “real-time collaboration” is a bit of a stretch here.

The most collaboration-friendly Apple app doesn’t exist yet: it’s called Freeform, and it’s Apple’s infinite whiteboard answer to the Figmas and Miros of the world. The app is scheduled for release later this year.

For now, think of document collaboration more like shared photo albums; you’re making sure you’ll always have the most updated thing, and you can look at them together, but it’s not great for multiple people mucking around in the file.

Apple’s treating the tech as a sort of Collaboration as a Service tool, offering some of the front-end features — inviting someone to collaborate in Messages, bringing a FaceTime call into the app while you’re working together — to third-party developers. But the actual collaborative work will be handled by the app itself, so they could conceivably do it better than Apple.

Keep an eye on how many apps you use ship updates that take advantage of Apple’s “size classes,” which is how Apple describes an app’s ability to shift to different sizes on the iPad’s screen. Size class support is how apps fit in slide over, side by side, and now, in the iPad’s other display modes. Unfortunately, Gmail and many others have been firmly full-screen-only for years, and for iPadOS 16 to work, those apps will need to be much more resizable.

Apple has been touting the idea that the iPad is getting “desktop-class apps,” but there’s not much of that to see in the App Store. That seems to mean that Apple is bringing a more consistent menu bar to the iPad to make settings and tools more accessible across apps. It’s also getting undo and redo to more apps and making search a more universally accessible tool. Apple’s even rethinking how printing works from the iPad tells you precisely who these features are for. The menu bar is an excellent idea, given how many apps tend to bury their settings behind inscrutable icons, but we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.

Most of what’s coming to iPadOS 16 matches what’s coming to iOS 16 on the iPhone. You’ll get the new Messages features that let you mark a message as unread or edit it after you send it. The new Passkeys aims to replace your insecure passwords; and a bunch of handy new accessibility features that improve everything from making calls to on-device captions for videos and FaceTime calls.

Most of Apple’s built-in apps are also getting some love in iPadOS 16. For example, the Home app’s redesign looks nice and puts more controls front and center on the page — but the fundamental shift will be when Apple moves to a “new architecture” for HomeKit that seems like it will not support the iPad as a Home hub anymore.

More lock screen controls. The iPhone’s lock screen is getting a total overhaul, but the iPad’s still just a clock and a bunch of notifications. iPhone is a much more glanceable device, and you’re rarely going to turn on your iPad unless you plan to do something with it.

The cynical way to read iPadOS 16 would be to think of the iPad as a device caught between two worlds, unsure whether it’s a big iPhone or a touchscreen MacBook, and suffering as a result. The more optimistic view is that the iPad could actually be all things to all people, the best of all worlds, a power-user device that’s also incredibly approachable, and it’s just going to be a long journey to get there.

More so than usual, the next few months will be crucial for iPadOS 16. As Apple makes its operating system more flexible, developers need to do the same with their apps. Otherwise, it risks having users constantly caught between past and future strategies. Apple’s better at cajoling developers into keeping up with the times, but nearly everything fantastic about the new software — from the Collaboration and the multiscreen support to even maybe making Stage Manager useful — will require developers to think broadly about the iPad’s possibilities as Apple does.

And eventually, Apple’s going to need to have fewer and better ideas about multitasking.