iPadOS 16 Will Not Include Arbitrary Windowing

A discovery in some public WebKit code referencing MULTITASKING_MODE has some people breathlessly anticipating what they consider the obvious and long-overdue solution to multitasking on the iPad: arbitrary windowing:

And as it stands, the Magic Keyboard is more of a convenient desktop accessory than a productivity tool, but giving it a new interface would make it far more useful. A desktop or pro mode would instantly change that.

Google does something similar with its Chrome tablets, but Apple could do it better with a hybrid macOS-iPadOS environment that seamlessly switches between tablet and desktop mode while unlocking the benefits of a touchpad with an intuitive, powerful interface.

Macworld

We’ve all been burned many times by hoping a new iPadOS update will bring significant improvements for power users, but this does seem to be pretty solid evidence suggesting iPadOS 16 could be the year this finally changes.

9to5Mac

More recently, Mark Gurman wrote for Bloomberg:

The iPad’s next major software update, iPadOS 16, will have a redesigned multitasking interface that makes it easier to see what apps are open and switch between tasks, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the changes aren’t yet public. It also will let users resize app windows and offer new ways for users to handle multiple apps at once.

Admittedly, multitasking on the iPad has always been far from perfect. iOS 15 went a long way, I think, to solving some of its issues, but it’s still clunky and confusing.

But the solution is not and will not be “arbitrary windowing”: the ability to resize apps to any size and layer them on top of each other indefinitely.

Incremental change

Changes to the iOS and iPadOS UI have always been slow and incremental, for better and worse. Copy and paste didn’t come to iOS until Apple were sure they had gotten it just right. They’re not going to diverge too drastically from the existing windowing paradigms. Whatever they introduce will be familiar but augmented.

“Pro mode” is clunky

Some have suggested that Apple can or will just add a “pro mode” toggle to iPadOS, whether performed manually or when connected to an iPad Magic Keyboard; when activated, the iPad display will resemble a traditional desktop. Rather than slowly increasing the flexibility of the current windowing UI, they can just throw their hands up and give us a Mac on the iPad. 

This would be a clunky, ham-fisted solution contrary to Apple’s design tendencies, reminiscent of Windows 8’s tablet versus desktop modes. I wager it’s advocated more by Android and Windows users who want to use an Apple product or two but think they’re too dumbed-down for them.

Users are wrong about what they think they want

The consumer rabble is notoriously bad at knowing what they want, while thinking that they’re product designers anyway. I often think about this Blogger blog that collected fan-designed iPhone concepts in the lead-up to the iPhone announcement. These became hilariously outdated the moment we saw the iPhone for the first time, but were (almost) all produced in complete earnest.

You are not a product designer and have not thought through all the implications that “just turning on pro mode” would entail. (I won’t even go into the self-congratulatory “power user” label.)

What we’ll get instead

Of course I’m not special and I don’t know the future either, but what I expect is some kind of hybrid between Slide Over and Quick Notes windowing.

Apps will continue to launch in full screen by default, and Split View isn’t going anywhere, but Quick Notes was Apple’s testing ground for more granular window control.

Right now there are five “layers” on the z-axis of iPadOS. From back to front:

  1. “Mission control”: They don’t give it this name on iPadOS, but this is the background you see when in app-switching view
  2. Home Screen
  3. Full screen and Split View apps
  4. Slide Over apps
  5. Quick Notes

(Technically Notification Center and Spotlight are on a 6th layer, but as they’re not apps or windows, I’m ignoring them for now.)

Quick Notes lives in front of Slide Over apps, so there are already two layers in front of “normal” apps, but I think exacerbating this already perilous situation by allowing users to layer an indefinite number of apps on top of each other is unlikely.

One way Apple could address this is to turn Slide Over and “Quick Notes” (giving this a new, non-Notes-centric name) into a single windowing behavior, with at most four windows open within the above mentioned “layer 4”, one for each corner of the display. Anything more complex than this could get really hairy really quickly.

One problem with this is that Slide Over is something we’ve been living with for just about five years already, so jettisoning this interaction would sabotage many people’s existing workflows.

Another problem is the question of how one would dismiss these extra windows, and where they would go. Slide Over and Quick Notes both have spatiality to them — Slide Over disappears into the edge you shoved it off into, and Quick Notes is always tucked away into the lower-right corner of the display, which works because it’s the only window on this “layer.”

But if I had a Twitter window open in the upper-right quarter of the display, and wanted to get rid of it, where would I “put” it, and how?

Picture in Picture layers can be slid off the edge of the screen, leaving a small tab with a chevron to bring them back. Could something like this be extended to other apps?

We’ll find out today

Anyway, we’ll all know the answers to these questions in a few hours, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on some kind of “fine, we’ll just give you a desktop” solution here.

Whatever Apple introduces, I think, will be something subtle enough not to confuse or scare off current users, while not going far enough to appease self-proclaimed “power users.”

As has often been the refrain, if the iPad doesn’t do what you need, just get a MacBook — it’s not for you.

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