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During its March 21 press event, Apple was keen to market the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro as a Windows PC replacement, pointing out that most 12.9-inch Pro buyers are switchers. But does the smaller Pro stand a chance of luring more converts?
First, let's look at the factors in Apple's favor. The iPad is, for one, far and away the best-selling tablet on the market, even if its marketshare has eroded. Its popularity has led businesses, developers, and accessory makers to support it en masse, giving the platform the apps and other kinds of support it needs to be a plausible alternative to a laptop or a desktop. Many tasks that were once the province of Mac and Windows PCs, like video editing, can now be performed on an iPad. Microsoft even has an iPad Office suite, something Apple is happy to promote.
With support for the Apple Pencil, and more convenient keyboards thanks to the Smart Connector, the iPad Pro does begin to feel like a more flexible device on which you can get "real" work done.
The simplicity of an iOS device likely has an inherent appeal. There are no video card drivers to worry about, no complex filesystems, and far fewer malware threats. An iPad, particularly the 9.7-inch Pro, is light and compact enough to fit into a satchel or purse. It seems like the sort of no-nonsense science-fiction technology we've been promised since tablets popped up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Apple has also integrated cloud services more thoroughly into iOS than Microsoft has into Windows. With everything configured properly, books, music, photos, documents, and even video can be readily accessible.
Microsoft's efforts at evolving Windows for tablets have had mixed results, to put it mildly. The touch interfaces in Windows 8 and 10 are functional, but divisive, and clearly weren't designed with mobile in mind — unlike iOS. Microsoft's first-party Surface tablets have their fans, but haven't exactly set the world on fire.
One of Apple's fundamental problems is that there's still a lot the iPad can't do, or at least can't do well. There are games it can't play, productivity apps it can't run. You can't run Xcode to make and publish an iOS app on an iPad, ironically, and while you can load Office on iOS, the suite's much more powerful on Windows — including Surface. Many Windows apps are by necessity scaled back for iOS.
Often these limits are attributable to the walls built into the operating system. There's no open filesystem, which restricts how you and/or apps can move files around. Apps in fact have to communicate with each other through very specific channels, and options for customizing the look and feel of the OS are likewise narrow. This is all in the name of security, which might seem essential if Apple didn't have the Mac for comparison.
In other cases, the very nature of the hardware is restrictive. A 9.7-inch screen doesn't present much room for an interface, for example, and even on 12.9-inch models, developers have been slow to exploit the extra space. Because Apple insists on using proprietary connectors, and serves as the gatekeeper for accessory support, there are only so many peripherals you can connect. Forget about mice entirely.
Apple might be loathe to admit it, but storage is a huge problem as well. A $599 Pro comes with just 32 gigabytes — how is that supposed to replace a Windows PC, when many cheaper laptops come with terabyte hard disks, or 128-gigabyte SSDs? The company would like you to store as much as you can in the cloud, but for many people that's impractical or undesirable.
Apple will no doubt pick up some new iPad-only converts with the 9.7-inch Pro, but probably only people for whom their demands aren't heavy and portability is crucial. An iPad can be a traveler's best friend.
Even people willing to make an iPad their main computing device will probably gravitate towards the 12.9-inch Pro, however. Not only is there more room for apps to breathe, especially when multitasking, but it's slightly faster and has 4 gigabytes of RAM to work with, not just 2 gigabytes.
More probable is what a lot of people already do: keep an iPad as a secondary device. Tablets, from Apple or otherwise, still have some work to do before they can be considered true laptop and desktop replacements.