macOS on iPad: After iPadOS 16, is it only a matter of time?

macOS on iPad: After iPadOS 16, is it only a matter of time?

macOS on iPad: After iPadOS 16, is it only a matter of time?

Speculation around a potential merging of the iPad and Mac operating systems is nothing new. Even back when iPads ran plain old iOS, some enthusiasts argued that a full-blown desktop OS would make for a better tablet experience than a scaled-up mobile interface. More recently, the use of common Apple silicon in both iPad and Mac has signaled that Apple could run macOS on an iPad if it wanted to. Unlike the old days when iPads ran A-series chips and Macs ran Intel, there’s no hard technical barrier anymore.

Instead, the challenge is now one of software — how to bring the macOS features people care about to an iPad in a way that doesn’t disrupt the iPad experience that hundreds of millions of users already love.

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iPadOS 16 shows us how Apple intends to do that. And it points to the lines between Mac and iPad becoming seriously blurred in years to come. For reasons I’ll get into shortly, however, I doubt they’ll ever truly become one and the same.

The latest iPadOS release adds a couple of key features that make the iPad act a whole lot more like a full-fat desktop platform. First, Virtual Memory Swap — new to iPadOS but absolutely ancient in the broader world of computers — lets the iPad siphon off internal storage to use like additional RAM. This is important because, before this, the iPad would have to gradually close apps in the background as its RAM filled up, just like a smartphone. Adding virtual RAM makes it behave more like macOS or Windows, with a large pool of additional memory from which to draw — up to an extra 16GB in iPadOS 16.

Virtual memory, combined with fast flash storage, is the main reason Apple can get away with shipping MacBooks with 8GB of RAM that still perform well even in demanding activities like video editing and heavy multitasking. Swapping between real RAM and virtual memory on a lightning-quick SSD is so fast that it’s effectively invisible to the average user — you don’t experience any slowdown when the system has to dip into that extra virtual RAM.

That means more stuff can run in the foreground, which is important for the other major feature set added in iPadOS 16: the new window system, led by Stage Manager, along with full external monitor support. Up to eight apps can appear on-screen at a time, with a multitasking paradigm lifted straight from the new macOS Ventura. Grab a keyboard case with a trackpad, plug in an external monitor, and you can probably do 99% of what you’d be doing every day on a Mac.

While the latest iPadOS experience is undeniably more Mac-like than ever before, there are important distinctions between the two. Although its multitasking capabilities have opened up significantly, the iPad remains infinitely more locked down than your average Mac, particularly in terms of extensions and access to the file system. There’s no such thing as root access on an iPad. And at the risk of stating the obvious, an iPad app is still technically a very different beast compared to a Mac app, though both might ultimately run on the same silicon.

iPadOS 16 Stage Manager

Apple wields much, much more control over the iPad, and it’s difficult to see the company giving that up anytime soon. Merging iPadOS into macOS would inevitably mean allowing things like sideloading — running apps downloaded from sources besides the App Store. From Apple’s perspective, that’s quite a Pandora’s Box, and opening it would see it losing a significant amount of control over the iPad as a platform.

Apple has pushed back hard against sideloading on the iPhone, citing security and privacy concerns. But there’s also a very obvious, very powerful economic incentive for Apple to keep the iPad as locked down as it currently is, with the App Store — and its requisite 30% cut of all app revenue — as the one and only source for apps. Meanwhile, keeping the iPad as a not-quite-macOS product prevents the tablet from cannibalizing too much of its entry-level Macbook sales too.

I can see iPadOS developing in a direction that, for the most part, makes the experience for most users more or less indistinguishable from macOS — and in turn, makes using the two side by side more seamless than ever. But this absolutely doesn’t mean iPadOS will behave like macOS under the hood. Instead, iPadOS seems to be turning into what macOS would be if Apple could build it today from the ground up — something with powerful multitasking features and peripheral support, but where Apple calls the shots in terms of the software you’re allowed to use.

Could Apple surprise me and fully merge iPadOS into macOS in a couple of generations? Sure — in fact, in a bunker somewhere under Apple Park, there are probably iPads running macOS today. But when it comes to big product decisions like this, technology is only a small part of the equation.


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