iOS 8 split-screen hints at iPad's enterprise ambition

Chatter about multi-app display might be Apple figuring out how to boost tablet sales to businesses

Apple will debut a split-screen feature for the iPad in this year's iOS 8, tilting its tablet toward PC-like functionality and mimicking a core feature of Microsoft's Windows 8 on tablets, according to a report Tuesday.

If the claim by 9to5Mac turns out accurate, the move would be as logical as they come, said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"It's sort of a no-brainer," said Gottheil. "Two apps [on the screen at the same time] do not really complicate the simplicity of the iPad, and people have grown up with the idea of multiple windows. And this is a direction Apple has been going for a while. First they didn't have multi-tasking, then they had a limited form of multi-tasking."

Apple introduced that limited multi-tasking in 2010 with iOS 4, and subsequently expanded the eligible apps (iOS 5; 2011) before opening up the functionality to all apps (iOS 7; 2013).

But iOS has never allowed two apps to simultaneously display on the screen, or beyond simple copy/paste, allowed multiple apps to interact with each other. Instead, each app appears in a full-screen mode, and interaction is clumsy and limited.

9to5Mac, which cited "sources with knowledge of the enhancement in development," said that iOS 8 will offer a split-screen mode when the tablet is held in landscape orientation, and provide developers with tools so that they can design apps able to interact with other apps.

"With split-screen, Apple would have a more viable student device," said Gottheil, thinking about the approaching back-to-school sales season. "You really can't live on an iPad as it is now."

Apple will unveil iOS 8, trumpet a handful of its new features, and give registered developers preview code on June 2, the opening day of the company's Worldwide Developers Conference. By past practice, it should launch in September, maybe even late August.

A split-screen on the iPad also fits with other moves Apple is likely to make in the near future, said analysts.

"The consumer market for tablets is peaking and growth is going to be in business," said Bob O'Donnell, principal analyst at Technalysis Research. "Demand for multi-tasking and multi-apps is significantly higher for business than for consumers. So I wouldn't be surprised if Apple does this, because it would partly be a reflection of where tablet growth will be."

Analysts, both from the technology industry and Wall Street, have pointed out a recent slowing of iPad sales, and to varying degrees, concluded that Apple's run may be over as cheaper Android-powered tablets begin to dominate the volume lists.

Apple's CEO, naturally, does not agree. But during last month's earnings call, Tim Cook did spend time talking up the iPad's opportunities in two non-consumer markets, education and the enterprise.

"What we have to do in enterprise is focus on penetration," said Cook of the iPad last month. "It has to be deeper and broader." In other words, sell more iPads.

Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, heard Cook's comments, too, and wondered how much significance to give them. Her conclusion: Apple will expand the iPad line, probably with a model sporting a larger 12-in. display. And that size says "business" or, at least, "productivity."

"They can't do a 12-in. iPad as just a piece of glass," she said, referring to consumption tasks like watching video or reading books, e-magazines and websites. "So what are they going to give it?"

Her immediate thought was a tablet able to handle more of the tasks traditionally associated with personal computers, the kind of content creation exemplified by Microsoft Office, which hit the iPad at the end of March.

Her thinking wasn't from left field, as Cook spoke kindly about Office last month, perhaps giving Apple-ologists another clue of its iPad intentions. "I do see that Office is still a very key franchise in the enterprise, in particular," Cook said. "And I think having it on iPad is good, and I wholeheartedly welcome Microsoft to the App Store to sell Office. Our customers are clearly responding in a good way that it's available. So, I do think it helps us, particularly in the enterprise area."

An iPad designed with Office's kind of productivity in mind would benefit enormously from split-screen -- Word open on one side, Excel on the other -- probably also a detachable keyboard, making it the kind of hybrid 2-in-1 modeled by Microsoft's Surface and similar devices from other Windows OEMs.

"Split-screen gives you something to do with all that space of a larger iPad," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analysts at Moor Insights & Strategy. "So it fits in with the rumored larger commercial device."

Like O'Donnell, Moorhead saw an Apple push, whether explicit or through the backdoor of BYOD (bring your own device), as a way to grow sales. "It's really about what they have left to conquer, isn't it?" said Moorhead. "The last bastion [of the PC] is the commercial market. And although the iPad has been pretty successful in the vertical [business] markets, with a side-by-side [multi-app view] it would give the iPad more of a horizontal commercial application."

But some remain skeptical of the split-screen rumor.

"iOS gaining access to multiple screens would chip away at another advantage the Mac has versus the iPad," noted Ross Rubin of Reticle Research on his Techpressive blog.

Apple has become famous for its stance on cannibalization -- it's always better to cannibalize oneself rather than let someone else do it, and rake in the dollars you're losing -- so perhaps that wouldn't stop Apple. Except Cook has slammed 2-in-1s, devices that try to be a part-time tablet, a part-time PC, once deriding them as akin to creating a combination toaster-refrigerator, then again as "a fairly compromised and confusing product" analogous to "a car that flies and floats."

That doesn't mean Apple wouldn't add split-screen to iOS, nor that it would never build a bigger iPad. There's plenty of time for Apple to change its mind, as it has notably in the past on big decisions like the iPad Mini or selling e-books. Notably, Cook hasn't mocked hybrids since 2012.

"Businesses move much, much more slowly than the world actually thinks," said O'Donnell, implying that Apple doesn't have to shove its way into the enterprise overnight. "Businesses are notoriously conservative."

"Apple may want to keep the MacBook and iMac as their PCs," said Milanesi, "but they have to be wondering about the next step for the iPad, too, because as time goes by, the line between the two is going to get very, very blurred."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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