- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference premiered a range of software upgrades coming to the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch this autumn.
Craig Federighi is Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, so responsible for all those new developments. Talking to The Independent following the keynote, he is supremely relaxed and energised. He is a natural explainer, his every answer spontaneous and genuine, it seems – a refreshing change from most media-coached execs.
Apple has a knack for saving the best for last and this year’s announcement, unusually, kept the new software for the iPad, called iPadOS, as the culmination of the event.
That was down to one feature in particular: Stage Manager. No, it’s not a theatre term, but a new way of displaying multiple apps on the iPad screen at the same time. This is very big news because, unlike PCs, the iPad has only had limited multi-tasking capabilities.
Stage Manager is a way to bring the Mac and iPad platforms into sync, and means that if you attach a keyboard and mouse to the iPad, it becomes more like a Mac than ever before. And, unlike any Apple MacBook or iMac, this is a device with a touchscreen.
The main app sits centre-stage, with recent apps floating in debonair fashion on the left, as though they’re standing in the wings, awaiting their entrance. So, maybe Stage Manager has a theatrical flair, after all.
Open another app and it occupies the centre, but the previous apps shuffle their positions to make sure you can see them, too (like actors finding their light, you see). It’s a very neat system.
It’s not the only update coming to the iPad, as Federighi is quick to say: “While we saved iPad for last because we felt so strongly about what we had to announce, a lot of what came earlier for iPhone and Mac were all features coming to iPad as well. When you add them all up, I think it’s just a tremendous year for iPad.”
Other items include an overhaul of the Mail app and new ways to collaborate across different Apple platforms. And Stage Manager, for instance, will be on the Mac as well.
“We see iPad as our most versatile device, one that spans from a very simple kind of use, that so many people find so delightful, to really very pro kind of scenarios. We’ve wanted to make sure that we stay true along the way to what makes iPad iPad.”
“A touch-first experience, with a tremendously fluid and responsive user interface. It’s intuitive for anyone to pick up and use in their hands and it’s got this great app ecosystem of apps tailored for its interface. And so, as we’ve looked to extend the iPad experience in new areas, it’s always been with a mind toward preserving those virtues while opening it up to new things.”
Stage Manager is the next step in a long journey. Apple added support for mice or trackpads so that a cursor can appear on screen. There were features like Split View – where two apps share the full-screen view – and Slide Over, a more complex mechanic which lets you plop smaller windows on to the side of the display. But Stage Manager takes it to a new level and it’s so big a change that it’s like, and (I promise to drop the theatre metaphor now) it is like moving from the Fringe to the West End.
You can have four live, and lively, apps on the iPad screen plus another four if your iPad is connected to an external display, making for eight open windows at once, with other recent apps ready-and-waiting at the side.
Creating Stage Manager took some time, Federighi confides. “In a lot of ways, it’s kind of an amazing story because the thinking goes back over a decade on the Mac. In fact, in the first betas of macOS X there was a feature called single app mode that was taking advantage of automatic minimisation on the Mac.
“Now, in the end, we didn’t feel like we had it right and we did not end up shipping that at that time. But over the years, we kept coming back to this idea. We felt like we wanted an environment where you could be focused and find simplicity and cleanliness by default, all to single app at a time, but still have the flexibility to work with multiple elements when it made sense. We wanted to always have the things you wanted to work with right within view and accessible.
“As we began thinking about what we would pursue this year, we started these independent exercises of exploring iPad and where we wanted to take iPad multitasking. At the same time, we were continuing this long thread that we’d had going on the Mac.
“And we had two separate groups, kind of brainstorming over the whole thing, and they started to converge on the same point. Not even realising it at first, and then we came together. We said, this is the one answer. It was really quite serendipitous and it came together in this really beautiful way, yet coming from two different places.
“We wanted to bring more flexibility and more fluid multitasking and we really converged on this one solution that we’re really happy with.”
It’s a smooth, fast system with intuitive actions and a clean, clear look. But all this elegance comes at a price: it only works on three different iPads. Specifically, it’s the three which come with one of the company’s most powerful processors, the Apple M1, found on the latest iPad Pro models, 12.9-inch and 11-inch, and the newest iPad Air.
That means the entry-level iPad and iPad mini are excluded, along with older iPad Pro and iPad Air models. This restriction has caused some disquiet, so I ask Federighi why this is.
“It comes down to a couple of factors. One is, well, paramount: to maintain the responsiveness of the experience. Of course, we’ve had systems with multiple windows going back to the first Macintosh, which clearly was not as capable as any of the iPads we’ve ever shipped. So, to maintain the kind of performance we need, the operating software really has always required that every app can always respond instantaneously.”
Part of this is down to something called virtual memory swap, where a computer’s RAM works in combination with using disk space as virtual memory. “We all remember the spinning beach ball, when you click and the app isn’t quite ready for you. Sometimes that’s because it’s going back out to external storage to try to get what it needs to respond to you.
“To avoid any of those delays, we need lots of main memory, lots of RAM and we also need, to the extent we use virtual memory swap, we need it to be incredibly fast virtual memory swap. And M1 combines both those factors: it has more main memory and the storage is fast enough that the virtual memory swap can meet our performance requirements.
“The other thing is that Stage Manager is an experience that extends to external displays and only our M1 systems have the full external display features and the kind of display scaling modes that people expect. Only M1 can meet that bar.”
Meeting the bar has taken years. “Some of the work was creating underlying features like Split View and Slide Over years ago. Those involved laying all kinds of groundwork for apps to be resizable, for instance, for them, so that they had to adjust to different size classes, for the system to be able to manage multiple things on screen. So, a lot of the underlying plumbing had to happen and that in turn, served as a foundation.
“There are parts of it that were multiple years, completely out of sight and there are parts of it where, as we’re laying that foundation, certain features manifested along the way.”
I suspect Stage Manager may be transformational for many iPad users, but Federighi stresses that this is just the beginning. “This is our first beta and a lot of developers are kicking the tyres on it. But, of course we have a bunch of tweaks and things that are part of our development plans that are going to be rolling out over the next several releases. There’ll be a little bit of evolution and fine tuning over the summer.”