​The iPad's evolution is underway, starting with iOS 9

Commentary: The iPad is transforming. Soon, it might be a better work machine than ever...and iOS 9 hints at what iPad changes might still be coming.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
Watch this: How iOS 9 could save the iPad

It's been three years at least since I first wanted the iPad to turn into something closer to a full computer. Third-party accessory manufacturers did a good job delivering keyboard alternatives, but what I really wanted -- for starters, anyway -- was trackpad support.

In light of the announcements at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, it looks like Apple listened to my wish list: suddenly, the iPad seems like a major focus in iOS 9 . And that's a really good thing, because the iPad needs a big boost now more than ever: five years into the product's lifecycle, sales are down for a variety of reasons.

In previous years, the iPad was nearly ignored when iOS -- the operating system it shares with the iPhone -- was discussed. Few distinct tablet-specific features arrived. But now it seems like Apple is finally ready to sharpen its focus with the iPad. And these changes also hint at a new generation of iPads that could end up being a lot more like "real" computers than ever before.

iOS 9: Here's what Apple's new mobile OS looks like (pictures)

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Split-screen apps and picture-in-picture: Approaching a desktop

When iOS 9 arrives later this year, it will finally bring the long-rumored split-screen multitasking to the some iPad models, allowing you to view two apps on the same screen. It will also get picture-in-picture video, so you can keep a movie or show running in the corner while you work on something else. (While the full "Split View" feature is reserved only for the iPad Air 2, the original Air, the Mini 2 and Mini 3 will be getting picture-in-picture and the less robust "Slide Over" split-screen app function. All other iOS 9 features will make it to every iPad but the 2010 original.)

While some may accuse Apple of staggering the features to juice iPad sales, they are no doubt best experienced on the iPad Air 2, which has arguably been working with one hand tied behind its proverbial back. It sports double the RAM of the (still on sale) original Air , and an extra core in the A8X multi-core processor. Both of these give on-paper benchmark results that are significantly better for multitasking. iOS 9 looks like it'll take advantage.

There could, and should, be an even larger iPad around the corner. A rumored iPad Pro with a 12-inch display could sport a higher resolution and more screen real estate allowing you to fit more apps, or more of those apps, side by side. Just like a 15-inch laptop versus a 13-inch, you could theoretically be more productive with more apps open at once.

If you're saying "those features are already available on Android," you're right -- especially on Samsung's Galaxy tablet series. And the same goes for Windows tablets like the Surface . And picture-in-picture is even already available in YouTube's app. But they're big, welcome additions on the iPad nevertheless. I do so much TV viewing on my tablet, and I'm sure you do too. This finally allows the iPad to be what a PC can be, easily: a make-your-own-windows workspace.

Make it happen, Apple. (Surface Pro 3 keyboard) Sarah Tew/CNET

A software trackpad that could hint at a real keyboard-trackpad to come

I was stunned when news of an iPad software trackpad was casually folded into Apple's WWDC keynote like an aside. It's a major shift in how apps will work. That space on the iPad screen which is taken up by all the virtual keys of an on-screen keyboard, can turn into a trackpad of sorts for moving up into documents or around pictures.

Why is this big? Editing. The iPad works great for me when I'm casually writing, but it's very hard to jump around and make edits with the speed I can on a laptop. This software trackpad element should help.

And I hope there's more to come. Apple could make -- I'd argue it must make -- a keyboard accessory that includes a capacitive trackpad surface. Microsoft and BlackBerry have already worked this tech into Surface accessories and phones. A snap-on keyboard with trackpad -- just as Microsoft has for the Surface -- combined with split-screen apps, would add to the tablet most of what I miss from the laptop world.

Split-screen apps and a software trackpad: part of the iPad changes in iOS 9. Apple

The next iPads: Leaning closer to Macs

There's a solid chance we'll see a 12-inch (or so) iPad in the fall, and if we do, it'll live side by side with the new 12-inch MacBook . One's a laptop, one's a tablet. Apple doesn't completely connect the dots between the two like Microsoft does with Surface, or like what you can get on a ton of other hybrid Windows PCs. But iOS 9 and what it does for the iPad is another major step across the divide. We may not see Macs and iPads fuse this year, but we're getting closer to overlap than ever before.

And I'm very happy about what that bodes for the future.