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I'm starting to think the ultimate iPad may be a Mac

WWDC raised questions for the future of the Mac. But it also made me wonder about the iPad, too.

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The latest iPad gets close to the future. The future of Macs may get even closer.

Scott Stein/CNET

What's Apple's computer of the future? I've wondered about this for a while. MacBooks have bored me, and I use them less and less. I mean, I'm writing this article on a MacBook. I'll publish it on a MacBook. But I'd rather use an iPad. iPads are comfy. They use modern apps. They're flexible and they're coming close to replacing my MacBook. But after years of speculation, perhaps the future of the iPad I've been waiting for is arriving in a package with a different name. 

The most recent iPad Pro had a few small updates, including a depth-sensing Lidar on the back camera that helps with more advanced AR apps, and a fancier trackpad-enabled keyboard case. But beyond that it's similar to the previous iPad Pro, which arrived a year and a half earlier. The feeling that the iPad Pro was really just receiving some subtle changes made me feel like, in a lot of ways, nothing had changed. Maybe new software could evolve the iPad, I thought. WWDC could bring those changes.

Sure enough, during this year's WWDC keynote, Apple announced many more iPad updates for iPadOS 14. And yes, there are some useful features. Adding handwriting recognition for the Pencil stylus means that the Pencil can finally be a writing tool, instead of just an art tool (although I'll probably still use a keyboard). New widget-like icons that float on the iPad homescreen should make the iPad feel more, well, computer-like. Last year, the iPad already could show widgets in a bar on the home screen, too. This is a small advance, but a welcome one.

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What about better multitasking? There are new Mac-like sidebars coming to a lot of iPad apps, promising drag-and-drop file access. Siri promises to be more contextual. Phone calls won't block out the whole iPad screen when they happen. None of it was radical, but a lot of it starts to feel even more Mac-like. 

Meanwhile, Apple made some big announcements on the Mac side. A shift to new Apple-made processors, much like the chips Apple already makes for its iPhones, iPads, and everything else, could catapult the Mac into new territory. Apple's Tim Cook considered it a major moment (as he would).

Apple's Arm-based Macs will be able to run software for iPads and iPhones, including the game Monument Valley.

Apple's Arm-based Macs will be able to run software for iPads and iPhones, including the game Monument Valley.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple's next line of Macs, and all they promise, will run on chips not too different in spirit from the most advanced iPad processors. Apple's even been testing MacOS on the latest iPad Pro's A12Z chip. The Arm processor-based Macs will run iOS and iPadOS apps, too. 

Meanwhile, the latest MacOS is gaining even more iOS-like features. Control Center. Design philosophy. I'm starting to see apps and forget whether they're on Mac or iPad.

I've said for years that iPads and Macs were bound to merge. Many people have tried to talk me out of it, but it's still what I ended up believing. I think I was right all along, though: Everything I took in at this year's WWDC underlines that, absolutely, Macs and iPads are converging. It's only a question of how long it'll take, and what that convergence will look like.

I'd like an iPad with multiple windows; one that allows more flexible compatibility with Mac apps. I want iPad hardware that can also run MacOS. An iPad with a laptop base. Or just the current iPad Pro and its keyboard, finessed a few more iterations. Something more capable of handling all my work needs and connecting to a few more peripherals. Something that handles files better.

I've thought, all this time, that the iPad was the computer of the future, while the Mac was the aging device. Every year I've measured the iPad up against my computing needs, and it's crept closer. Now I'm wondering if Apple will reboot the idea of the Mac, with the iPad's chipset. Maybe it'll be able to  do all the things I wished the iPad could do... with the iPad's added features. A touchscreen Mac, that supports the Pencil, that's small and can be used as a tablet?

I have no idea. But it's not at all insane to think a future Mac will fuse with the iPad. And that device will be the true iPad Pro successor -- the one I thought would be here now, but might still be cooking somewhere out of sight. At any rate, that's the one I'm waiting for.