Why the iPad May Never Run macOS

Your fingers will never be as good as a mouse

Key Takeaways

  • The Mac requires the pinpoint accuracy of a mouse pointer.
  • The M1 now powers desktop, laptop, and tablet computers.
  • iOS 15 could bring the iPad closer to the Mac.
black iPad on white table with ruler, keyboard, and camera

Jeremy Zero / Unsplash

Now that the iPad uses the same M1 chip as the Mac, isn’t it time Apple put macOS on its tablet computer? Maybe, but we might end up with the worst of both worlds.

Both of Apple’s computer platforms—iOS and macOS—now run on the same Apple Silicon chips. M1 Macs can run iPhone and iPad apps, right there next to Mac apps, so shouldn’t the reverse also be true? In theory, you should be able to install macOS onto the new M1 iPads and boot it as a Mac tablet. But, in reality, it would be a terrible experience.

"The [Mac] UI is not legacy-built for touch screens," technology journalist Andrea Nepori told Lifewire via Twitter. "You can easily add a well-designed pointing interaction to a touch screen UI, but the opposite is a disaster, as many Windows hybrid devices clearly show."

Finger vs Mouse

Apple designed the Mac around the mouse. That was its gimmick when the first Mac launched back in 1984, and the mouse pointer is still central to how it works today. The iPad, though, was designed for touch.

Last year, Apple added mouse and trackpad support to the iPad, and even sells a trackpad/keyboard accessory that turns the tablet into a capable laptop. Couldn’t it do the same, but in the other direction?

"You can easily add a well-designed pointing interaction to a touch screen UI, but the opposite is a disaster."

A mouse pointer is far more accurate than the tip of a finger, so it’s easy to use the iPad with a mouse. Even before Apple added proper support for the trackpad to iPadOS, there was a half-baked accessibility setting that let you connect a mouse to use it, essentially, as a finger replacement.

But adding touch support to the Mac is a whole different problem. Just navigating a menu would be super frustrating. The menu items are too close together. And how about closing or minimizing a window using those tiny mouse-sized "traffic light" buttons?

"It wouldn’t work with touch," iOS developer and graphic designer Graham Bower told Lifewire via Twitter. "The click areas are too small to be tap areas."

If you need more convincing, try something like Edovia's Screens app, which lets you control your Mac from an iPad. The iPad app displays your Mac’s desktop, and you can interact with it all via touch. The experience is terrible (although the Screens app is fantastic, and works well when you connect a mouse and keyboard to the iPad).

Even Sidecar—Apple’s own method for running Mac apps on an iPad screen—only lets you use an Apple Pencil. The Pencil has an accurate pointer, akin to a mouse, yet even then, it’s a poor experience.

UI

The size of the touch-targets isn’t the only argument against macOS on iPad. A mouse pointer can do one thing that a finger cannot: It can hover.

If you mouse over a link, then you see a preview of that link’s URL, and so on. Mouseover accommodations on the Mac are legion, and essential to its operation. But on the iPad, it’s impossible for the screen to know where your finger is until you touch it.

Also impossible are Mac staples like the right-click, the shift-click, ⌘-Click (for opening tabs in the background, etc.), and more. These all require a mouse or trackpad, and a keyboard.

person sitting in the dark using MacBook, iPad, and desktop computer

Om Kamath / Unsplash

There’s one easy way around this: Apple could make the macOS on iPad require a keyboard and mouse to work. But that creates other problems. For example, if you launch a Mac app without a keyboard and mouse attached, what happens? Does it refuse to launch? Does it launch, but sit there doing nothing? iPhone apps running on the Mac aren’t great in terms of feel, but at least they’re usable.

"Apple wouldn’t do this unless they’d reworked macOS for touch," says Bower. "And I don’t see them doing a touch version of macOS because that’s what iPadOS is for. Even if they did make a touch version of macOS, third-party software wouldn’t support it."

Apple has put the M1 chip inside two MacBooks, a Mac mini, an iMac, and now the iPad. The story seems to be that the chip is the same across the line, and you pick the size, shape, and now the OS, that you need to do the job.

iOS 15 Can’t Come Soon Enough

When people say they want to run Mac apps on an iPad, what do they mean, exactly? Do they want the iPad to boot up as if it were a Mac? Or do they just want the conveniences of the Mac?

At its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Apple usually details the next version of iOS. This year, iOS 15 might see some radical changes, aimed at making the iPad more like the Mac, and less like the iPhone. And as long as it doesn’t take away from the iPad’s excellent tablet-computer experience, this will be quite welcome.

Right now, we have no clue what these changes might be. But given that the current iPadOS couldn't get much worse in terms of organizing files and using more than one app at the same time, things can only get better.

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