As expected, Apple’s new software update for the iPhone and iPad is full of deceptively minor changes that make a powerful collective difference. Some of iOS 11’s new features are immediately noticeable, such as a brand new app for managing files, while others won’t be apparent unless you look for them, like the new document scanner that lets you quickly import documents to the Notes app.
But if there’s one takeaway, it’s that Apple is finally acknowledging a point that Microsoft has been making for years: that tablets can be useful as office productivity tools. I had a chance to test the beta version of iOS 11, and can say that if it's any indication of what the final iteration is going to look like when it launches this fall, it's going to transform Apple’s tablets into much more capable work computers.
A few examples: iPad owners will be able to pin more of their favorite apps at the bottom of the screen and access them with a quick swipe from anywhere in the operating system. When viewing two apps in split-screen mode, those apps will remain pinned beside each other, even after exiting and viewing them in the recent apps screen. The Control Center and app switcher have been given a fresh design that merges the two into one, making it possible to view settings shortcuts and recently used apps at the same time. And Apple is adding the ability to edit and customize these Control Center shortcuts, a useful feature Android has offered for years.
That's just a glimpse of what's in store for the iPad with iOS 11. Taken together, they signal that Apple believes the future of tablets is in laptop-like productivity, even if the company seems dead set against the idea of merging its desktop and mobile operating systems as Microsoft has. Thus many of the updates in iOS 11 are designed to give your iPad a speed boost – not in the literal sense, but rather in ways that make your workflow easier and quicker.
Some of these features are better executed than others, like the increasingly MacOS-like dock (of icon shortcuts along the iPad screen's bottom), which rates high among the standouts. Having access to my most frequently used apps just by swiping up from the bottom of the display saves time as well as needless trips back to the home screen. The number of apps you can stick to the dock has also more than doubled: 13 compared to the six that were previously allowed, which seems almost superfluous. Alongside those apps you'll find three additional ones (for a total of 16) that iOS 11 suggests based on your recent activity. This only differs on the 12.9-inch iPad, which is capacious enough to accommodate 15 apps plus 3 suggested for a total of 18.
Another critical time-saver is the new app switcher, which preserves your preferences when you pair one app with another in split-screen mode. Doing so lets you open two apps with a single tap, streamlining app launching in a way that highlights how stodgy and spatially unoptimized the old way feels on the iPad's larger screen. The existing app switcher simply displays apps in paginated cards that you can flip through, whereas iOS 11's new method lays them out in a thumbnail view alongside the Control Center. This lets you easily view currently open apps at a glance instead of having to flip through them. That said, I do miss having the option to quickly toggle settings like screen brightness or Wi-Fi functionality without being distracted from my current task. Since the new Control Center is interlocked with the app switcher, it hijacks the entire display, temporarily pulling you out of whatever you were doing.
The grandest new addition though is the Files app, which as its name implies, acts as a hub for the documents on your iPad, whether they're in the cloud or on the device. The app is split between two main tabs: "Recents" and "Browse." The former shows the files you've opened most recently, while the latter lets you peruse files kept in apps like Google Drive, Box and Dropbox, as well as those stored on the iPad. Apple's goal with Files is to make it easier to jump into projects you've been working on without having to juggle multiple apps. Third party service integration wasn't functional in the beta version of Files, so I can't say how efficient Apple's new file explorer actually is. But it feels like an overdue productivity-angled addition that should help bring the iPad up to speed with Windows 10-based tablets like the Surface Pro.
A few other trivial-seeming yet helpful iOS 11 enhancements include the Slide Over sidebar, which can now be moved to the left or right on the iPad's display instead of being locked to one side. It's not as adaptable as the floating apps companies like LG have offered on their smartphones for years, whereby users can move apps in separate windows anywhere on the screen as well as resize them, but the extra flexibility should be welcome. And as noted above, adding document scanning capabilities to iOS 11 feels like a vital productivity-focused move. The scanner was a bit laggy during my experience, perhaps owing to its beta status, but the resulting images were crisp and easy to read.
Apple is also adding a new copy and paste feature sure to come in handy the next time you're emailing a batch of vacation photos to friends or snaps of the kids to grandma. Instead of opening a blank email, searching for the photos you want to send, then selecting them, you simply hold one finger on a photo, tap the others you're after to add them to the pile, then drag the bundle over the Mail app icon, and presto, a blank email opens with the bundle attached.
One of my complaints about the Apple Pencil thus far has been that iOS isn't optimized to make better use of it. Outside of drawing, there's little else you can do. By contrast, companies like Microsoft and Samsung have empowered their styluses to trigger shortcuts or other helpful operating maneuvers. With iOS 11, Apple is attempting to bridge this functionality gap. Tapping the Pencil to the lock screen will automatically launch a note, for instance, making it easier to jot down quick thoughts without fully unlocking the tablet and opening an app.
Between iOS 11 and the recently refreshed iPad Pro models, Apple's message seems clear: the iPad is a vital part of its ecosystem, slumping sales or no. The latest iteration of iOS feels like one of Apple's boldest, and does much to make the iPad a competitive multitasking machine. It doesn't fundamentally change what the iPad is — a mobile device powered by a mobile operating system that's not meant to be an all-encompassing laptop replacement. But it brings the iPad closer to a plausible desktop experience than ever before.