The iPad Air's missed opportunity

A next-generation keyboard accessory didn't emerge alongside the new iPad, which feels like a shame: it could have been the beginning of a magical fusion point for the iPad.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I flipped open the Microsoft Surface 2 tablet and gave it a go again recently, on the week before Apple's October 22 event. And I remembered once again: that keyboard cover is really nice.

To me, it's the nicest part of the whole Surface package. And that keyboard/trackpad cover- - and what it does for the Surface -- is exactly what I wanted in the larger iPad.

Apple used to have its own keyboard accessory when the iPad first debuted: it was a physical keyboard dock. So, obviously, Apple's not opposed to keyboards and iPads. I don't even necessarily need a trackpad on my keyboard. But I do want a smarter keyboard accessory that elevates the iPad to a new level. That's what I hoped Apple would do for the iPad Air . It didn't happen. But, hopefully, in the future, it will.

I love the name "iPad Air," but I want it to fulfill the dream you could sense in the auditorium the moment those words were uttered: Apple's answer to a tablet-laptop hybrid.

Logitech's keyboard case for iPad: a classic example. Nice keys, no trackpad. Sarah Tew/CNET

The problem with existing keyboard cases: no navigation
You can always slap a Bluetooth keyboard cover onto an iPad. What's the difference, really? It's subtle, but it amounts to freedom of navigation.

I've reviewed many keyboard cases and covers for the iPad already. Some of them are excellent. They're useful for typing up text in a hurry. But they lack something crucial, in my opinion: the trackpad.

I've said it before , and I still feel it: I'd love to have something even better: a full laptop-like keyboard/trackpad accessory for the iPad. I don't see why it can't exist, and work with whatever apps want to support it. iOS 7 doesn't, as far as we know, support trackpads. But why can't a device like this exist? If there are already keyboards and game controllers and even plug-in blood pressure monitors, why not a trackpad?

I admit: I usually use my iPad alone, without a keyboard. That's because, while keyboard cases can allow me to type fast, they don't let me do the rest of what I need to easily: multitask, or edit documents or files, or do more complicated laptop-like work. I find, do any of that on an iPad, I default back to my fingers on the screen. And then I just get lazy and type on the screen directly, and leave the keyboard cover at home.

I think that would change if the keyboard covers got smarter.

If game controllers, why not trackpads?
iOS-supported game controllers are on the verge of debuting, so it seems, and the analogy feels similar: you don't need a game controller for playing iOS games, but it could help some be a lot more fun. If you're using a keyboard with an iPad, having a trackpad to navigate just makes productivity apps more useful.

Unless, of course, someone can come up with a different solution that's even more efficient.

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I know a lot of people in the past year who have opted for iPads over new computers. The decision even shocked me: the iPad can do a lot of things, but it's not the same as a full PC. But that didn't seem to stop relatives and friends from making this decision.

People may not want a funky Windows 8 flippable hybrid, but they do want an iPad that does as much as a full computer. The iPad is close, but it's not fully there yet.

The iPad isn't the future threat to computers: to many, it already is a computer. And it's becoming the default computer, at that. Keyboards and trackpads aren't hindrances to the central design aesthetic of iOS: they're alternative input methods. Why not include them for those who need or want them? And why not take that Smart Cover, an already very clever accessory, and push it to the next level with deeper interactivity?

James Martin/CNET

A way to differentiate iPad Air from Mini
The iPad doesn't need all that much changed. It's approaching perfection. After all, what's left on most people's iPad wishlists? For the larger iPad, the answer is: not all that much. The iPad Air's upgrades are refinements more than revolutionary steps.

Even more curiously, the iPad Air and Retina Mini have nearly identical specs: the same-resolution display, A7 processor, cameras, and upgraded Wi-Fi and LTE antennas. One is 7.9 inches, the other is 9.7 inches.

A new keyboard accessory could do more than be useful: it could be that extra "something new" that would set the larger model apart from the smaller... a "Pro" part compared to the "Mini."

I'm still holding out hope
The iPad Air may not need any help in terms of sales, but I know a lot of people would welcome an additional, truly useful accessory like a super-smart keyboard. And I still wouldn't be surprised to see this move down the road, maybe next year.

But it won't be something that happens in 2013, which is a shame. Accessories are an ever-more exciting part of the iPad's future. I like the name iPad Air...I just want it to live up to the loaded expectations of that name.

 

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